Fail Gladly to Succeed

Just found this wonderful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on the writing process, in which he says: “I always consider the entire process about failure …”

Like with any skill, I also believe this to be true about meditation.

The process of apparently failing is also, paradoxically, the process of succeeding. For this reason, accept the difficulties as the path you walk in meditation, and they cease to be difficulties. We fail and we keep on failing, right to the point when we succeed, which always comes as a surprise. And then we fail again.

In this way failing disappears, and there is only the path to success.

Making Friends with the Bird

Serenity-001Hi Roger,
I have gotten a lot out of your audio course, especially the exercises which I use most days, and I’ve had many peaceful moments meditating. And this is what provokes my question.

I’ve noticed in your blog posts you are more like to talk about the bad stuff that happens in meditation than the good stuff. I know sometimes meditation can be difficult but surely if you want to encourage people to meditate, wouldn’t you want to emphasis how nice it can be to sit peacefully and feel refreshed afterwards? After all, isn’t that why people meditate in the first place?
I’m sure you have your reasons. I’m just curious to know.
Thanks, Virginia.

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Hi Virginia,
I’m sure you’re right – I could, in my posts, speak more eloquently about the ‘good stuff’, as you call it – the wonderful experiences that can happen in meditation. And believe me, there are a lot of wonderful things that happen, some of them so incredible that one can scarcely believe it’s happening. I could write a whole post describing them – but I’m not going to.

Why?

Well, because if I describe all the wonderful things I’ve experienced – if I use these things as a kind of lure to encourage people to meditate, what would it do? It would immediately pique people’s curiosity and get them thinking,’I want some of that’.

And let’s say what I have described is so attractive it does indeed encourage them to try meditation – here’s what will happen:

With everything I’ve described in their head, people will try to meditate, while at the same time looking for the good stuff I have described to happen. But the good stuff won’t happen because their expectations will be continually distracting them from the method they’re using to progress.

And when the things they expect to happen don’t, they get disappointed. At which point most people try harder – either that or they start imagining it’s happening. And the harder they try to make the ‘good stuff’ happen, or imagine it’s happening, the more anxious and tense they become.

And the ‘good stuff’ never happens.

It never happens because they are spending all their energy looking, or imagining and trying too hard to get what they want, which creates a very anxious, self-conscious state which totally blocks the moment by moment flow of meditation process.

As a result, two things happen. They either go unconscious whenever they meditate because, caught between what they want and what is actually happening, their mind gets confused and simply shuts down. (Often when this has happened, these people wake up imagining they’ve been in ‘a very deep state’ – but they haven’t – they’ve simply been unconscious.

Or they get so anxious looking for what is NOT happening, their mind never settles, so meditation turns into an excruciating process of waiting for something that never comes, with the end result that they feel like they’ve failed.

But they haven’t failed. It’s simply that their expectations have interfered with the meditation. Rather than using the methods to surf each moment as it is and learning to flow with whatever happens, they’ve been peering into their eyelids searching for some imagined bliss they expect to happen, but which never does. And it totally messes them up.

So this is why I never give details about ‘the good stuff’. I try to avoid describing or discussing meditation experiences with anyone.

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As I’ve said many times, the experience you have in each meditation is worth absolutely nothing, nada, zilch … zero!

No matter whether you have a meditation session that is transcendentally tranquil or hideously painful and emotional, it doesn’t matter.The meditation process however it comes, so long as you use the methods, will naturally defragment the mind and relax the body regardless of the experience you have – the result being that when you stand up and walk back into your life, you will be in much better condition than before you meditated.

That’s why we do it.

The other thing is, meditating once or twice a day in the storm of distractions that the typical life is, in this situation the meditation experience (good or bad) will always be very subtle.

If you want to speed up the meditation process and experience meditation more intensely, you have to leave your life for a few months and go into silent retreat to meditate more intensively. Because the rule is, the more intensely you meditate, the more intense will be the meditation experience.

So it is that when I go into silent retreat at a temple for a few months and lock myself in a small hut and meditate ten hours a day, the experiences, both of pleasure and pain are very, very intense. And so are the lessons learnt. Meditating this intensively, the progress is extremely fast, and the benefits far greater.

That’s why I do it.

Which is why I strongly recommend you at least try one meditation retreat in your life, at a Buddhist temple, whether local or in Thailand or Sri Lanka.

Or, more conveniently, you can try a 10 day retreat with The Vipassana Foundation at a location nearby, wherever you are in the world. For ten days they will feed you, house you and take care of you while you meditate in silence, with Goenka guiding you – payment is by donation. These wonderful retreats are taught by SN Goenka, a Burmese teacher who I consider one of the most lucid teachers of Vipassana in the world. Though they teach a different method to the one I teach it is extremely effective.
They have centers all over the world, so there will almost definitely be one close by. Just have a look on their web-site HERE, where you can also make a booking. If you’re interested in either of these options or have questions, email me or leave a comment.

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Now my last comment on this question will take the form of a parable. I like to think of the things that happen in meditation – the ‘good things’, as being like a bird landing on my shoulder:

Once there was a man who was in love with a small bird that used to visit his garden. He desperately wanted it as a pet. He used to imagine this bird and he living in friendship, looking out for one another each day and playing together.

So he decided to catch this bird. He got a net and next day he waited, and when the bird appeared he chased it all over the garden – but it avoided his efforts and flew away.

Next he built a trap in the garden, a box balanced on a stick with a pile of breadcrumbs as bait. With a string attached to the stick he waited and waited, but the bird never came. And when it did it wasn’t interested in the breadcrumbs – it liked the berries on a nearby bush

This gave him an idea – next day he sat on a bench with his hand held out with a small pile of the berries in his palm. The bird came and, settling on a branch, contemplated the berries, but flew back to the bush and at those ones instead. Exhausted by his efforts and totally demoralized, the man threw the berries away.

He decided to give up trying to catch the bird.

The next day the garden was bright with sun – the man no longer cared about the bird. He just sat in the shade and enjoyed the day. For a long time he sat, absorbed with little things – the breeze on his face, the patterns of sunlight on the wall of his house, the bees buzzing around flowers, his thoughts and memories as they came and went in his mind. For hours he sat, absorbed in the coming and going of little things around him – his body still, his mind in flow with everything happening in him, and around him.

And suddenly the bird landed on his shoulder.

Filled with joy, the man reached up to grab it – but it flew away and once again the man was filled with frustration.

So, once again he decided to stop – to give up trying to capture the bird.

The next day he came into the garden and, like the day before, he sat in the shade to enjoy his day – watching a trail of ants busily bustling over the grass, bright colored flowers bobbing in the breeze, the sensations of air on his skin.

And once more he was surprised when the bird landed on his shoulder.

This time the man didn’t try to grab the bird. He stayed still. Without the man grasping at it, the bird sat down and made itself comfortable.

The man felt great joy. And from then on, he did not wait for the bird, or try to capture it – he simply allowed it to come when it came, and then to go when it chose.

In this way the man and the bird became friends.

Best wishes
Roger

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Riding the Storm During Meditation

IMG_7793In the early ‘80’s a friend of mine began practicing a popular form of meditation being propagated by a famous Indian guru and his followers. This group had centers all over the world and my friend had been paying a lot of money to be taught a method which entailed focusing one’s attention on a mantra (a circular sequence of words or sound repeated in the mind) in order to coax his mind into ‘the alpha wave of peace’.

He was always talking about how wonderful the alpha state was and how blissful he felt when he meditated. At the time I didn’t meditate, but it sounded pretty good.

And it seemed to work. My friend was always smiling a lot, hugging people and encouraging everyone to try meditation.

‘It’s great,’ he said. ‘I don’t get angry anymore. It’s amazing! I just feel really calm and …and almost sorry for people who get angry.’

Two weeks later, my friend attacked his girlfriend in the kitchen of their home – she was hospitalized and so traumatized by the suddenness of her boyfriend’s violence she took out a restraining order on him. When next I spoke to him he’d given up meditating and was taking prescribed anti-depressants.

I asked him what happened.

‘I just exploded,’ he said. ‘She was teasing me about an ex-boyfriend and right out of nowhere this incredible rage picked me up and next thing I knew I’d lashed out and she was on the floor screaming.’

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Like my friend, a lot of people choose to meditate for the same reason a lot of people take anti-depressants. They don’t want to feel anymore – well, not the bad stuff anyway – the anger, sadness and despair that nags at so many of us. They just want to be free of it all, while at the same time they want the ‘calm’ that is so reverently spoken of when we hear about meditation – the ‘bliss’ that is meditation’s holy grail.

So they use meditation methods the wrong way. They use the methods to hypnotize themselves into a comfortable oblivion, thinking it’s an elevated state, when it fact it’s not – it’s simply a temporary and dangerous oblivion.

This kind of oblivion is dangerous because they’re practicing not feeling.  And if they do this enough, they lose touch with what they feel. And they think that because they don’t feel the sadness or rage, it’s not there.

But it is.

And one day something provokes that hidden rage/sadness/despair and they explode – often with unsettling consequences for everybody.

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Ever since meditation came to the west from Asia to be transformed from a spiritual practice into a commodity, it’s been polluted by misconceived notions and images – partly from ignorance, but more usually to sell badly taught meditation as an easy panacea for our Western psychological problems.

To this end various shyster meditation teachers and new age gurus have exploited our misconceived ideas of meditation, using key words to sell it to desperate people – words like ‘calm’, ‘peace’, ‘enlightenment’ and ‘oneness’ – preying on pervasive feelings of anxiety and loneliness in the community. You’ve probably seen the images of blonde women dressed in white sitting full lotus in front of a setting sun with their faces blissfully turned up to the sky. All designed to sell the impossible dream of meditation as an instant panacea for life’s problems.

And for sure, an consistent and efficient practice of meditation will alleviate anxiety and open up the mind to more intuitive aspects of intelligence – but the key word here is ‘practice’. So the dream is real, but you have to work for it, like anything else. And the benefits that arise are not necessarily inherent to the meditation experience, so much as they gradually appear in life as a result of meditation practice.

But the way meditation is commonly sold, it’s as if calm and enlightenment are inherent aspects of meditation itself – that all one has to do is sit and channel your mind into a single point and voila, your life is changed. The dream appears!
So people buy the product, and they try it out – and fail, because no-one has told them that it takes consistent practice and many stages of development for the dream to appear.

So, in their keenness to have the instant dream they were sold, people compensate by imagining it’s ‘working’. They imagine they’re ‘cured’ of the despair and anger they might have felt. And they try to make the dream come true by unconsciously acting it out. Perhaps you’ve met them – meditators mimicking the ‘look’ of enlightenment – the smug knowing smile and self-consciously loving demeanor, the loose-fitting pastel colored clothes, quiet voice and enthusiastic agreeing with everything while subtly adjusting it to their own view at the same time.

In this, they’re projecting a carefully constructed and very self-conscious characterization of how they think they should be, rather than what they are, perhaps in the unconscious hope that if everyone else believes they’re calm and enlightened, somehow it will become real.

Please forgive my cynicism, but I’ve met a lot of these people and they usually turn out to be either of two kinds – either passive aggressive fakers who, like my friend, eventually reveal themselves by exploding into sudden and mysterious rages. Or worse, they are so hopelessly hijacked by the voodoo of whatever guru they’re so desperately following they’ve become ghosts in their own lives.

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Thing is, it’s understandable, this eagerness to make the dream come true because, especially with meditation – because it’s so easy to be convinced by the misinformation. The bastardized mythology of meditation permeates so much of our commercial media – the Lifestyle pages and New Age magazines it’s hard to not be affected by the beautiful dream it sells.

Because we want to believe it. We want to believe that unearthly calm and tranquility is possible from as little as 20 minutes sitting. We want to believe that the profound happiness described in the brochures and Lifestyle columns is attainable if we just pay our money and follow the guru.

And we bring this yearning to meditation and try so hard to make it happen. We try to feel the calm and peace we think we’re supposed to feel. And we act out the happiness we’ve been assured is there for us.

And most dangerously, we try not to feel the anger, sadness and despair that modern life arouses in us.

Because after all, we meditate. The very declaration ‘I meditate’ almost forbids us to feel anger and sadness and darkness. We have to be happy – because otherwise it’s as if we’ve failed in some way. What did we pay all that money for? The meditation ‘isn’t working’. In some strange way, we feel we no longer have the right to feel the darkness of our self.

And what makes it worse is, if we do express anger or despair, our non-meditating friends might smirk and point the finger, saying: ‘Hang on, I thought you meditated …’ and we have no recourse.

We fear the feeling of failure that arises when we’re not getting all the stuff we’ve read about, that should happen – the relaxation, bliss and enlightenment. So we look out for these things, and we avoid the feelings of anger and sadness and despair, thinking that if we avoid them enough they’ll disappear.

And we might join a meditation group and meet other meditators, all of whom seem so nice, so calm and happy – which creates even more pressure as we listen to them describing the sublime states of tranquility they reach, some seeing colors and lights, others assuring us they can levitate and reach a ‘higher state’, or feel the ‘energies’ shifting as they move through their kundalini.

So much bullshit – half-baked notions borrowed from books and imaginings, that to the beginner can be so misleading and intimidating.

I call it ‘the theatre of meditation’ – where meditation has become more about the look than the substance. To me, as common as it is (particularly in meditation groups) this kind of ‘meditation theatre’ is a huge hindrance to efficient meditation practice because it absolutely reeks of non-acceptance of what is actually happening, and denial of what we actually are – both core requirements of efficient meditation.

And that’s what it’s all about – efficient meditation – not necessarily pleasant meditation, or calm meditation – but a meditation practice that creates the insights we need to change.

And the first and most important insight most people get if they are meditating efficiently, is not tranquility and calm – but the opposite. Most people’s first insight is about how un-calm, angry and anxious they actually feel.

And after all, why would we expect it to be any other way? In a world as brutal and fiercely competitive as the one we live in, it makes sense that we feel periods of anger and sadness and despair. I’ve been meditating for twenty five years and I still feel the entire gamut of these things and sometimes, in extreme circumstances, I feel quite depressed by the things that happen.

But meditation has taught me to accept the reality of my humanity – because that’s what it is. We are not monks, or nuns, or angels or saints – we’re human beings in a very flawed and often inhuman world. So we should accept that our reactions to this environment are entirely logical.

As R.D. Laing once said: “Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”

So, while for sure, sometimes as you meditate, you will experience periods of extraordinary tranquility and calm and many other interesting phenomena, that doesn’t mean you are now magically transformed. You’re just as likely to experience pain and anxiety next time. Or anger, or sadness.

Meditation is like the ocean, always changing according to its own natural processes – sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. And the meditation methods are the boat which you use to float and flow and navigate the currents and moods of this ocean as they arise.

When it’s sunny, you raise the sail and lay back and relax. And when it’s stormy, you pull out the oars and work to ride the waves until they calm. In meditation there are methods for everything you might experience – and that’s why you practice. You practice to learn the methods. To learn how to ride the storms, and flow with the calm, both in meditation and by extension, in life.

So please don’t cling to transitory feelings of calm or tranquility when you meditate. Use the meditation methods to let them go, just the same as you do with everything else, no matter how magical they might be. They’re not the purpose or goal of efficient meditation.

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One of the hardest things to accept in a meditation practice, particularly in the beginning, is how it reveals the truth of what we have become. It’s a preeminent characteristic of meditation that when practiced well, it will open up an awareness of all the things we’ve been hiding from or suppressing in ourselves. In the space that’s created when we sit still and close our eyes, everything we are will naturally arise.

As one of my teachers, Phra Manfred said:

“Meditating is like stripping a banana tree of its leaves – first you cut through the outside leaves and they are coarse and hard and it takes time to strip them away. But you keep meditating and the layers beneath get softer and softer until you reach the vulnerable inner layers which are very soft and delicate. 

“So you keep meditating, stripping the leaves until you find you have stripped the last leaves away. And what do you find? The banana tree has disappeared. There is no banana tree. The tree was only the sum of its leaves. In the same way, what you think is you, is only the sum of the self-created layers you have accumulated over time.”  

I’ve been meditating for a long time and these layers make themselves known every time I meditate. I know them now and it’s always interesting to see what new events will arise, and take up the challenge of using the methods to flow with them.

Sometimes the intensity of these feelings and tensions will take me by surprise, and what’s notable is how I can never predict their coming or their intensity. When I sit down to meditate, I might feel perfectly fine – not a glimmer of what’s to follow. And then they arise, usually as a characterless anxiety in a part of my body, which might gather pitch and even become quite painful. Sometimes even tears will come as I meditate. Nothing dramatic – simply a spontaneous body reaction to some transitory emotion.

Or I might feel a powerful tension appear deep inside my core, like a tightly wound spring. As I observe, it might resemble anger. Then it might change to sadness. And as I observe it more, it might change to some nameless excitement, or fear or whatever. I’m not concerned with what it is, but simply the way it changes. Because this ever-morphing anxiety has no story. It’s just a mind and body processing residual tension from a life, that’s all.

Of course, if I wanted to I could ascribe a lot of stories to these passing emotions. I could ascribe the sadness to my childhood, or anything currently floating in my head. Same with anger. One can always find a reason for why one feels something – but it doesn’t necessarily mean the reason is right. It’s just a story we create for it, that’s all. The real truth of any emotion or feeling is the pattern of tensions and bare sensations as they are felt in the body, that’s all.

So when I meditate I don’t allow what I feel to take on a story. That’s what the meditation methods are for – to peel away the commentary and mess of thinking we imbue everything with, and know it as it is. Because only the feelings matter. And accepting a feeling as it is, is the first step to it resolving itself.

The strange thing is, as intense and uncomfortable as an emotion might have been as I meditated, the moment I finish, it’s gone. Instantly gone, like the illusion of sensations it always was.

I have learnt to love this process – I love watching the flux and flow of my inner ecology and knowing that each mess of orphaned tension and anxiety, if I just accept and observe it, will eventually resolve itself and disappear, and I will be free of one more layer of accumulated life-crud. As Acharn Thawee said:

“All suffering that arises in meditation is just old karma (effects of old causes) passing away. So don’t struggle with the suffering. Know it when it arises and be glad, because once it’s gone you’re free of one more layer.”

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Free: A Most Inspiring Book

downloadWhen I went to Thailand in 2000 to do the first of many silent retreats to train in Vipassana meditation methods, I was awash with information – things I’d read, accounts of other people’s experiences, different methods and views. And all of it made a mess in my head, such that I had a lot of trouble committing to any particular way or path into Vipassana. And in this initial venture into Vipassana, drifting from method to method as I was, and mixing and matching methods, I was not making progress at all.

I should have been committing to one method and advancing that skillset, and then, from a position of relative skill, experimenting if I needed to.

But I was impatient and my mind was very un-trained by my previous life as a musician – so, for the first month of my retreat I kept making a mess of things and getting very despondent about it.

In this, I think I was a very exasperating student for the monk who was teaching me, Phra Manfred – a wonderful German monk whose patience and strict guidance was so valuable to me at the time.

So one morning during the interview on the verandah of his kute, after so many fruitless arguments with me as he tried to get me to focus, he slid a small booklet across to me, saying: ‘Read this, it might help’

It was only a small booklet, the pages burred and creased with use. I read it in an afternoon, and it changed everything.

I had never heard such clarity spoken about the Theravada Buddhist way, and the place of meditation in it, and indeed, in life itself. The book is not about meditation per se, so much as the attitude behind it, and it gave me what I needed, and inspired me to give myself to the skill I was being taught. From that point, this book formed a core to my practice, and indeed, my life.

It’s not about religion – if anything, unlike many Buddhist monks, he was extremely unreligious in his view of Buddhism. It’s simply common sense and I strongly recommend it to anyone – not just meditators – it is a message of incredible wisdom and inspiration from a man who inspired Thailand itself for almost a century.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE BOOK

ABOUT BUDDHADASA BHIKKU (from Wikipedia)

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (Thai: พุทธทาสภิกขุ, May 27, 1906 – May 25, 1993) was a famous and influential ascetic-philosopher of the 20th century. Known as an innovative reinterpreter of Buddhist doctrine and Thai folk beliefs, Buddhadasa fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in his home country, Thailand, as well as abroad. Although he was a formally ordained ascetic, or “monk,” having at the age of twenty years submitted to mandatory government religious controls, Buddhadasa developed a personal view that rejected specific religious identification and considered all faiths as principally one. His ground-breaking thought inspired such persons as French schooled Pridi Phanomyong, leader of Siam’s 1932 revolution, and a group of Thai social activists and artists of the 1960s and 70s.

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 (thank you to Bhuddanet (http://www.buddhanet.net) for making this copy of the book available.

Stillness is Not Stopping

IMG_7791A lot of people have a mistaken view that when they meditate, in being still, everything should stop – thinking, sensations – everything. They have the impression that stillness is a state in which life seems to stop.

And indeed, perhaps that is their unconscious wish.

They misinterpret the words ‘emptiness’ and ‘void’, which they have heard used to describe the stillness that arises from effective meditation as meaning ‘nothing’. As if in some way, meditation is supposed to create some kind of nihilistic state of being in which all things disappear, including consciousness – a divine kind of suicide.

But this is very wrong.

And to use the meditation methods to try to create this ‘stopping of life’ will only end in failure.

So here’s the thing … In effective meditation it is only our attention that goes still. Everything else – awareness, thoughts, sensations, sounds – life itself, all keeps going. And it always will, until you eventually die. So to expect thinking, sensations and so on to stop when you meditate, is wrong. Very wrong.

For sure, your perception of the stuff of life might change – for example, in meditation the quality of thoughts might change, particularly if you’re meditating a lot, like in silent retreat. Thoughts lose their languaged form and become like characterless energy arising in the mind. Pain loses its hurt and becomes intense sensation, as does pleasure – in fact, they can even resemble each other.

But nothing ever stops.

Because I’ll say it again, in effective meditation, only the attention is trained to go still.

When the attention goes still, even though everything else continues, a sense of stillness appears.

Why?

Because it is our meddlesome, hyperactive, thinking, worrying attention that creates all the ‘un-stillness’ in our lives. The other qualities of life are simply what they are – awareness, pain, pleasure, thinking – they are all real time occurrences that come and go as they will. But it is our attention that holds them in place, ether as memory or reaction, and makes them into anxiety.

  • Awareness is not the problem – it just is. We’re either aware or we are not. But it is the attention that names what we are aware of, then judges it and reacts to it, prodding the body into hormonal responses of desire or aversion.
  • Sensations on their own are not the problem – it’s our attention which judges them as pain or pleasure then pushes us to react.
  • Our environment is not the problem – it is our attention that either likes our environment or dislikes it and makes us react.

And so on.  You get the idea.

So, in meditation all we are dealing with – the only part of mind we are training – is the attention.

We use the meditation methods to train it to let go.

Let go of what?

Let go of everything. Not stop, or escape, or hide, or suppress – just let go of whatever it notices – to accept it as it is and immediately disengage. To leave it be.

This is the skill you are teaching the mind when you use meditation methods.This is the ability you are creating in yourself – to be able to make your attention still in the storm on life.

Because life and all its parts have their own momentum, their own dynamic character. Life moves from one extreme to the other, from stormy to calm and back – from pleasure to pain, from happiness to despair. And our problems with these extremes and everything in between, has never been the things themselves – but always our reaction to it – the reaction our attention creates, when it gets stuck in some life state, and can’t stop worrying at it, hating it, or clinging to it.

It is our attention that creates suffering.

So, in using meditation methods to train the attention to be still, we create stillness within the storm. We allow the natural vicissitudes of life – of comfort and discomfort, pain and pleasure, happiness and despair, to pass through without our meddlesome attention making things worse by getting obsessed with hating what’s happening, or clinging to it.

Like an oak tree, our attention remains steady and calm, no matter how furious is the wind that whips at its leaves.

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Stillness Heals Everything

Two BirdsAs I’ve said before, meditation can be summed up in one sentence:

‘Meditation is the skill of being still.’

The stillness I’m speaking of is not the comatose stillness we are in watching TV, nor is it sleep. In this stillness we are wide awake, but the activities of the restless attention are suspended, and the body is allowed to relax.

In this state all the innate self adjusting, self healing, self cleansing mechanisms that nature gave us are allowed to take over, and when we rise up from this stillness, we are fresh and ready for anything.

Stillness is something all things in nature take for granted – dogs, cats, birds, insects, fish, everything in the universe – when nothing is happening, they go still. They go still and enjoy it.

We on the other hand, have no such skill.

Our western culture doesn’t acknowledge the worth of stillness – only action, however mindless, is valued. As such, from the day we’re born to the day we die, we try to constantly be on the move doing things.  And in those rare times when we do nothing, our cultural guilt is heavy – words like laziness, bludger, waste of time – they all rattle about in the back of the mind making it such that we cannot relax into doing nothing, as we should.

So this is why we have meditation methods – to help us train the mind to let go and stop when we want it to.

And why? Because stillness heals.  It heals everything.

 

So let’s look at stillness for a bit, then I’ll talk about how it heals.

When we sit with our attention trained on sensations instead of thoughts – gradually the mind and body go still in a reciprocal dance between the two.

As the mind goes still, so too does the body.

And as the body goes still, so too does the mind.

When we first begin meditation, it takes a bit of practice to get used to this dance and let it happen. Old physical tensions take a while to unravel in the body as aches and pains. And in the mind, long forgotten emotional anxiety takes a while to arise and pass away.

Not only this, but it takes a while for the mind and body to adapt to the unique environment of meditation – to learn how to accept the process of meditation and surrender. Powerful habits of thinking and reacting keep interfering with the natural process of meditation.

But, if we keep practicing, like any skill, at some point our mind and body work it out and we don’t have to work so hard to meditate anymore.

At that point, whenever we sit, we settle quite quickly into an acceptance of things as they are in each moment, surrendering to ‘real time’ flow – where time-consciousness fades away and everything we sense becomes simply a succession of momentary events appearing and disappearing in a sublime stillness.

And the more we practice, the faster this appearing and disappearing gets – until eventually, things are disappearing almost at the same time as they appear, and profound stillness is all there is.

This is mind and body in balance – integrated and aware, and completely whole.

And in that stillness we find natural forces taking over, reclaiming us, rebalancing and healing whatever is out of balance.

Because in that stillness, whatever is out of balance shows itself – as pain or aching; as bristling loops of worrying spinning in the wide open space of the mind; as patterns of powerful emotion we cannot find reasons for.

Anything out of balance, whoever small, becomes obvious in the stillness and that is enough for it to be healed.  We don’t have to rub at it, or react or stretch or bustle off to the doctor or therapist.  All we have to do is feel it, and natural forces will heal it.

So … what do I mean by ‘nature forces’?

 

Beyond all the folklore and myths about ‘mother nature’, one thing is clear.  Depending on your position and how you perceive it, all physical manifestation develops in patterns.

Why nature does this is still a matter of conjecture, but the consensus is still the same: neither chaos or order is exclusive to itself.  Each has qualities of the other. Chaos and order are in an eternal dance with one another, each leading the other.  What seems chaotic when focused on from one perspective, becomes orderly when focused on from another and vice versa.

For example, the formation of clouds and the timing of weather patterns over a particular place seem to have no order when viewed in the context of a couple of years, or even ten years – but if seen over a thousand years a definite and very orderly pattern, a design would emerge.

Alternatively, if you stand in the outback desert and see the terrain, you would be tempted to call it a mess of rocks and scrub – but if you fly over it in a jet and look down from thousands of feet, you see there is a pattern.

Nature has formed itself into a particular design.

James Gleik, in his book ‘Chaos’ wrote:  ‘Nature forms patterns.  Some are orderly in space, but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.’  And nature always adjusts itself to these patterns.  Pattern-forming is the invisible line it is always correcting to, like a ship navigating at sea.

So we see that nature, no matter how smashed and ruined, if let to its own devices, will reorganize itself into a coherent pattern – it will heal itself.

At a dinner party one night, I heard someone tell a story that illustrated very well the relationship between the presence of stillness and the healing power of nature. It was about two biologists who were hired by the Brazilian government in the late ‘70s to try to regenerate a large section of rainforest that had been ruined by a decommissioned mine.  The project was an experiment to see if it could be done.

Full of optimism, the biologists set out for this place, and when they got there a depressing sight greeted them.  The forest was so cut up it wasn’t a forest any more – just ruined trees and eroded dirt. The streams were polluted by chemicals, the wildlife had disappeared, and the slag heaps from the mine had washed down in the rains and covered everything, even right down the valleys, dust in summer and mud in winter.

The biologists told the government that it would cost a lot of money, and when they presented the government with the estimate the project was called off.  It was too expensive.  So the biologists returned to America and everyone assumed the forest was lost.

About ten years later one of the biologists happened to be doing some more work in the same area, so he decided to go to the mine site and see how things had developed. He drove up the road, but at first he couldn’t find the track into the mine site. So he stopped the car and walked into the forest.

It took him a long time to find the site, but when he found it what he saw was barely recognizable from the rest of what was now a vibrant forest.

Because coherent life had returned in that ten years.  All the wildlife, all the trees, all the plants had quietly adapted and re-established themselves.  The forest had been left alone and in the stillness that is its nature, it healed itself and equilibrium had returned according to its own ancient design.

This sense of design and ‘rightness’ is the preeminent quality of nature – an equilibrium between chaos and order that is always perfectly in balance.

“The universe confronts us with this obvious, but far-reaching fact.  It is not mere confusion, but it is arranged in units which attract our attention, larger and smaller units in a series of discrete ‘levels’, which for precision we call a hierarchy of wholes and parts.  The first fact about the natural universe is its organization as a system of systems from larger to smaller.”  [1]

This movement of nature towards equilibrium is a dynamic, a force of existence itself.  As such, if left to itself it will recreate itself according to the patterns it knows, the patterns it has been forming itself into for millions of years.  And those patterns are always the physical expressions of equilibrium, of balance, of harmony.

This movement towards harmony is the bottom line of nature.

 

So, you may well be asking how this applies to meditation.

Well, I’ll start my answer with another question.

What does an animal do when it is sick?

It stops.  It lies down, and withdraws its body from action.  Its eyes may be closed but it is not unconscious.  It has shut down all its volitional motors, and leaves its body for nature to heal, while it remains passively aware, waiting.

What do we humans do when we’re tired or sick?

We might take a pill, drink more coffee, curse our luck, or watch television to try to forget everything – but rarely do we stop.  Though we might manage to shrug our illness off in the short term, as we get older it becomes more and more difficult to do this:  our hangovers get worse, our colds last longer and our bodies don’t respond the way they used to.  We might say, ‘oh, I’m getting old’ as if that is supposed to be the reason for all our afflictions and physical tension.  But that is only a very small part of the reason.  The other part is that we have never given our bodies or minds the stillness in which to rejuvenate.

Unlike the animal, we rarely switch off and leave the mind/body for nature to work on, to find balance in its own way.  We don’t have enough time or enough money, or this or that.  There is always a reason, and it is at the heart of our declining quality of life, and when I say quality, I don’t mean affluence.  In fact, we are living much longer, spending more money, enjoying more comforts, but spending more time sick or unconscious, or distracting ourselves – trying to forget – dancing to forget, television or a film, or to a bar, anywhere to just forget.

Forget what?  Everything – our lives, our problems, our mysterious tension, our loneliness, ourselves.  We want to forget because we don’t know what else to do in the face of everything.  And all these things that we use to forget, the television, the films, the drinking and drugs, they exhaust us.  Yet we keep doing these things because of their powerful capacity for helping us to forget.  Most of our entertainments are directed to this addiction we have to forgetting, when all we really need is a little aware stillness to reconnect with nature and let things sort themselves out within us.

So let’s think now about the qualities of this stillness.

Have you ever watched a cat?  Stillness is what a cat does when it is sitting.  Watch it as it sits in a doorway, or on the grass, or on a windowsill.  Both paws primly placed together at the front, body in a symmetrical crouch.  It is tasting time as it passes, the sensual textures of the moments and seconds.  No thinking or worrying or anticipation, only stillness.  A sound comes?  The ear swivels to pick it up.  The sound goes, it’s gone.  Relaxed emptiness until the next sense contact.

No wonder cats look so good and exude such a sense of powerful grace.  They are practiced in the art of ‘being here now’.  Awareness and economy of function come naturally to them.

And as we practice meditation, so stillness gradually comes to us as well.

Like the forest, it is in stillness that we become rejuvenated by the nature we have spent our life shutting out with obsessive thinking and activity.  This is what we practice in meditation.  We practice aware stillness.  We develop the ability to stop every so often, and allow nature to possess us and heal the wear and tear of life.


[1] Alfred North Whitehead, in Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Present of the Past’ Harper Collins, London 1994 p 55

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Clearing Away The Crud

37540_10150238430970171_3558999_nHi Roger, Sometimes when I’m meditating and my mind is running away with itself and I find myself sitting with my mind all over the place.

But I’ve noticed during these times, though I am not meditating, this sitting with my mind seems to have very beneficial effect.  As it’s happening I notice myself feeling different things –  sometimes happiness, sometimes sadness and sometimes anger.  But these emotions don’t stay .. they come and then go. And I feel like I’m wandering a landscape of myself and everything I am and it seems very cleansing.  No matter how sad or happy or angry I get , when I open my eyes after an hour or so of sitting I come out of it feeling very refreshed.

So my question is, can you explain what is happening.  And tell me is what I am doing a waste of time or wrong in some way?  Or is this a valid way of meditating.

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When all is said and done, the most basic prerequisite of meditation can be distilled to one word:

‘Knowing’

So long as awareness and knowing is present, what you’re doing will be beneficial, and meditation will eventually work itself out.

But having said that, there is something missing from what you’re doing which is also very important.

In this passive floating from one thing to another, you’re not training the mind to be more skillful with its own processes- which is a primary part of the practice.  As such, though what you’re doing is beneficial, and restful – it is not affecting change to the mental habits and reactions which cause suffering.

Now, bear with me while I explain …

In life as it is, we are taught to win, to hold on, to get, to create and so on.  In short, we’re taught to accumulate things, not just on the physical plane, but mentally as well. For just as we accumulate money and property on the physical plane, so too on the mental plane, we accumulate mental things – habits, both good and bad; memories both pleasant and unpleasant and so on.  These things collect in the mind like crud in an engine, affecting the way our mind functions, and our view of life – forming dysfunctional habits that affect our sense of Self – habits like worry, anxiety, depression, negative self view and so on.  We weren’t born with these habits – they were formed from the accumulated crud of a life – and they become a large part of our Self definition.

After all, what is our Self, but a big formation of memories and learned habits in formations within the greater formation we call by our name. Everything we think we are, we learnt to be.  We accumulated our sense of self, picking up new habits all the time – new memories, new patterns of emotion, intellect and so on.

All well and good – but the problem is, we’re always adding new habits and reactions, but rarely removing them.

So after a while, as the crud of life collects, we lose the simplicity and freshness we had in our youth.  With the clutter of past experiences and reactions we’re constantly adding to our Self, our view of life and ourselves becomes over-complex, ungainly and confused as we accumulate fears, anger, sadness and so on.

So then we come to meditation.

Meditation is essentially the act of letting go.  In meditation we learn to let go. We practice letting go of what we have accumulated.

And as time goes by and we practice the meditation methods, this letting go becomes more innate and automatic.  Essentially, the methods help us to build a habit of letting go that prevents the usual crud from building up and altering our Self view.  So we feel lighter and more fresh and our view becomes young again – but with the wisdom of age.

And its a wonderful way to be.

But here’s the rub. In this process of letting go there is one element that is essential.

And that is ‘knowing’.

Because we cannot let go of that which we do not know.

And what does this mean?

Well, to let go of pain, we must first know it – that is to say, we must first feel it – every part of it, in all its intensity.  Only then, as any experience meditation practitioner will tell you, will the mind let the pain go and it will disappear.

To let go of past trauma we must first know it – that is, the memories must first be recalled and the emotions they elicit must be felt – only then will the mind let go and the trauma and it’s effects will disappear.

So ‘knowing’ must always come before letting go.

We must know the true nature of whatever is harming us, to be free of it. .

Too many people forget this. They think they can meditate blindly – by simply chanting a mantra or mindlessly noting, or visualising positive things – they think they meditate without knowing what ails them.

But that’s not meditation.  All they are doing in that instance is burying these unpleasant things further inside their psyche, making it such that, like assassins in the night, these things will attack them in covert ways and sabotage their lives – all the buried rage and sadness, and all the buried anxieties and tensions.

This does not mean consciously thinking about these things, or reacting to them, or imagining them. Not at all.  To wilfully dwell on anything harmful will only strengthen it.

I mean to simply be aware – to know it as it naturally arises and feel it as it is, until it is gone.

And this happens naturally as we practice a good meditation method.  As we train the mind to be more efficient we notice memories, feelings and sensations of all kinds of things arising in our awareness. And our attention wants to go to them, to build them into something bigger, but we use the methods to keep letting them go, so they pass away.

In this, we’re knowing all the parts of our Self, and the accumulated crug our Self is made from, while at the same time practicing the skill of letting go.

That is good meditation.

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Now, as far as I can tell, you seem to be doing one thing, but neglecting the other.

You’re drifting through the landscape of you, knowing memories, emotions, thoughts as they arise and pass away, and in this your attention is basically passive – simply wandering where it will.

This is indeed knowing and letting go and it’s very beneficial – restful and reviving. I do this myself quite often when I take a nap, or rest.  It’s very pleasant and sometimes, if an unpleasant memory arises, a temporary body reaction will occur but as you say, it passes away quite quickly, and when I’ve finished resting, I always feel refreshed.

But it is not meditation.

Because, though for sure it is cleansing and refreshing, you are missing the second essential component of meditation practice – you’re not training the mind, which is why we use meditation methods in the first place – to train our attention to let go in real time – as we live.

We use the meditation methods to build a skill in the mind – to teach it to experience life without accumulating the usual mental crud of our reactions.

In meditation we are building a skill of letting go of the usual push/pull of habits, so they do not accumulate – training the mind to live life like a duck walking in the rain, the water of  life running off our feathers to leave us dry and untouched inside.  A clumsy analogy, but it’ll have to do.

If we can learn to live as a process of letting go instead of constantly accumulating, we wouldn’t need to meditate because life would have become meditation.

So when you’re drifting in meditation – unfocused and afloat in your inner landscape, as I said, you’re only fulfilling the first  requirement of meditation – you’re knowing and letting go of inner crud.

But you are not training the mind to not collect it in the first place.  And this is the most important aspect of meditation.

But, nevertheless, what you’re doing is beneficial. So keep on doing it, while at the same time, gently encourage the mind back to practicing whichever method you’re using, to keep on building the skill of letting go.

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