Meditating From the Source

my-pictures-and-knee-010-001A while ago I was doing an online session with a meditator, and we were talking generally about what it is to practice meditation, and how difficult it can be to maintain a practice in the kind of culture we live in – and he made a very good point.

He said, ‘I keep wondering if maybe we’ve lost our way with meditation in the West. I mean, so many people are talking about it and there’s so many books and different views of the same thing. With all these different views it’s hard to know who to trust, and which is the right way. So I get confused sometimes.”

I thought about what he said and realised he was right and I just hadn’t seen it.

I was lucky – many years ago I decided on which path I wanted to take through the jungle of meditation and went straight to the source. And though, in the four temples I was trained in, I practised with four different teachers, and their methods differed slightly, nevertheless what they taught me was consistent because it all came from the same place.

But I could see how, in the current environment, with so much information around, and so many different views, it can get a little confusing.

So I decided to take him to the source.

Of the four teachers I worked with, my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, gave me the most simple and practical understanding of meditation. Unfortunately, he only wrote one book before he died – ‘Practicing Insight On Your Own’ so there is not much of his teachings that is not second hand, either from me, or his proteges, Phra Manfred (since disrobed) and Mae Che Brigitte.

But there was one teacher, though I never had an opportunity to practice with him, whose view was so clear and imbued with common sense that it was utterly dependable as a guide through the wildlands of meditation.

His name was Acharn Chah, and of all of his generation, I think he was the best. Luckily, he was surrounded by acolytes who recorded a lot of his extraordinary teachings as audio, video and as transcripts of his Dhamma talks, so there is a lot of his wisdom available online. It’s well worth spending time with, particularly if you’re looking for a clear view of the meditation process. Whenever I find myself a little lost, Acharn Chah’s words never fail to shine a light on the way ahead.

The most extensive repository of his teachings can be found HERE.

It was here I directed the meditator I mentioned before – and I strongly recommend it to anyone. It’s a place to go whenever you lose your way.

Following is a selection of quotes from some of his talks and then a video about the forest tradition he comes from – always lucid, to the point, and inspiring.

And if you’ve got time, I strongly recommend you read the entire collection of his teachings which can be found HERE.

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“Whatever happens, you endure, because that is the way it is. For example, when you begin to practice samādhi you want peace and tranquillity. But you don’t get any. You don’t get any because you have never practiced this way. Your heart says, ”I’ll sit until I attain tranquillity”. But when tranquillity doesn’t arise, you suffer. And when there is suffering, you get up and run away! To practice like this can not be called ”developing the heart”. It’s called ”desertion”. Instead of indulging in your moods, you train yourself with the Dhamma of the Buddha. Lazy or diligent, you just keep on practicing. Don’t you think that this is a better way?”

“The way of the heart is like this. Sometimes there are good thoughts, sometimes there are bad thoughts. The heart is deceitful. Don’t trust it! Instead look straight at the conditions of the heart itself. Accept them as they are. They’re just as they are. Whether it’s good or evil or whatever, that’s the way it is. If you don’t grab hold of these conditions, then they don’t become anything more or less than what they already are. If we grab hold we’ll get bitten and will then suffer.”

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“Nothing happens immediately, so in the beginning we can’t see any results from our practice. This is like the example I have often given you of the man who tries to make fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. He says to himself, ”They say there’s fire here”. and he begins rubbing energetically. He’s very impetuous. He rubs on and on but his impatience doesn’t end. He wants to have that fire. He keeps wanting to have that fire, but the fire doesn’t come. So he gets discouraged and stops to rest for awhile.

He starts again but the going is slow, so he rests again. By then the heat has disappeared; he didn’t keep at it long enough. He rubs and rubs until he tires and then he stops altogether. Not only is he tired, but he becomes more and more discouraged until he gives up completely. ”There’s no fire here!” Actually he was doing the work, but there wasn’t enough heat to start a fire. The fire was there all the time but he didn’t carry on to the end. This sort of experience causes the meditator to get discouraged in his practice, and so he restlessly changes from one practice to another. And this sort of experience is also similar to our own practice. It’s the same for everybody.”

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“…. both happiness and unhappiness are not peaceful states. The Buddha taught to let go of both of them. This is right practice. This is the Middle Way.

These words ‘the Middle Way’ do not refer to our body and speech, they refer to the mind. When a mental impression which we don’t like arises, it affects the mind and there is confusion. When the mind is confused, when it’s ‘shaken up’, this is not the right way. When a mental impression arises which we like, the mind goes to indulgence in pleasure – that’s not the way either.

We people don’t want suffering, we want happiness. But in fact happiness is just a refined form of suffering. Suffering itself is the coarse form. You can compare them to a snake. The head of the snake is unhappiness, the tail of the snake is happiness. The head of the snake is really dangerous, it has the poisonous fangs. If you touch it, the snake will bite straight away. But never mind the head, even if you go and hold onto the tail, it will turn around and bite you just the same, because both the head and the tail belong to the one snake.

In the same way, both happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and sadness, arise from the same parent – wanting. So when you’re happy the mind isn’t peaceful. It really isn’t! For instance, when we get the things we like, such as wealth, prestige, praise or happiness, we become pleased as a result. But the mind still harbours some uneasiness because we’re afraid of losing it. That very fear isn’t a peaceful state. Later on we may actually lose that thing and then we really suffer.

Thus, if you aren’t aware, even if you’re happy, suffering is imminent. It’s just the same as grabbing the snake’s tail – if you don’t let go it will bite. So whether it’s the snake’s tail or its head, that is, wholesome or unwholesome conditions, they’re all just characteristics of the Wheel of Existence, of endless change.”

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If you’d like a more comprehensive list of Acharn Chah’s quotes, I have compiled a pdf (about 8 pages). It’s a wonderful resource to have, to refer to. I always find something to set of a little explosion of understanding in my head. You can download it from HERE

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LINKS

Change Your Self, Change Your Life

A wonderful movie showing how the process arising from Vipassana meditation methods can change the way we are.

It’s by Eilona Ariel & Ayelet Menahemi, the story of a strong woman named Kiran Bedi, the former Inspector General of Prisons in New Delhi, who strove to transform the notorious Tihar Prison and turn it into an oasis of peace using Vipassana meditation methods. But most of all it is the story of prison inmates who underwent profound change, and who realized that incarceration is not the end but possibly a fresh start toward an improved and more positive life.

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The World of Worry

10414847_10155846597095171_2268366880859880061_nIn the mid nineteenth century, the word ‘worry’ referred solely to the act of physical harassment, whether of animals or humans – for example, ‘the dog worried at the sheep to herd them into the pen’. 
So it was that, in the pre-industrial time, when watches and clocks were rare, worry was relatively rare. It seems we have acquired the habit of worry with the advent of clocks, schedules, competition and the expectation of achievement and success that came with the industrial revolution.
In this fascination interview with Francis O’Gorman, the writer of ‘Worry – A Cultural and Literary History’ he and Philip Adam’s  look into how we acquired this annoying habit, and its place in our clickety clack modern lives. Well worth a listen.

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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The Perils of Positive Thinking.

scan0016Let’s get it out in the open at the outset. Positive thinking, either as affirmations or visualizations, doesn’t work. And worse than that, these strategies actually have the opposite effect for most of the people who use them.

Ever since Norman Peale’s book, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ became a world best-seller in 1952, the popular media have been selling the dubious view that ‘thinking positively’ can improve our life and help us achieve success – and more lately, quack science in ‘The Secret’ has been extending this notion to include the idea that visualizing positive outcomes will cause ‘possibilities to manifest’ at the quantum level, and cause desires to become physical reality.

I remember when I first heard about ‘the power of positive thinking’, back in the ‘80’s, when I was going through a hard time in my life, and looking for solutions.

I was at a new age seminar, and the speaker had spent a whole afternoon linking our thought environment to the very stuff of the universe, to convince us that our thoughts affect reality at the most profound level – the particles and atoms that form our reality.In the cause of ‘manifesting’ a reality we desired, we were encouraged to ‘lock out’ negativity – to not hear, or speak or look at any ‘evil’.

In effect, we were encouraged to refuse to feel what we felt if it was at all dark and to purposely turn our thinking into more cheerful channels.

My first reaction was panic – because my innermost thoughts at that time were so dark, and so intensely did I feel this darkness, I couldn’t stop it.

‘Oh my god, what kind of reality am I creating?’ I thought, because no matter how I tried to stop it, the rage and despair wouldn’t stop. And the more desperately I asserted positive thoughts over how I felt, the more my mind mocked me, saying: ‘Why are you asserting all this positive stuff?… oh, that’s right, because you’re so utterly enraged and ruined …”

In effect, I became terrified of my own inner self as it was. How ridiculous – and how destructive, to be split in two like that, trying to assert conscious desires against who I was at that time.  Kind of like a psychic civil war. But that is what I attempted. And it only made things worse. The more I tried to assert a false culture of positivism over my negative landscape, the more depressed and angry I became.

It didn’t take me long to start looking elsewhere for solutions, a journey which eventually set me on the path to meditation. I realized this kind of desperate positivity is actually an insidious kind of emotional fascism, in which we’re encouraged to divide our inner world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, then hunt down the ‘bad’ and try to kill it with the ‘good’. The inevitable result, as with fascism anywhere, is the ‘bad’ becomes empowered by our fear of it, and from secret places within, sabotages everything that’s ‘good’ in our lives.

What’s interesting to note is that almost all the people I met during that time who were adherents of positive thinking never realized the positive assertions they were so desperately trying to manifest for themselves. I meet them every so often, and they’re still mindlessly chanting affirmations and smiling through their angst – and still passing from seminar to seminar, guru to guru, who all basically peddle the same crap. And they still feel powerless and defeated while waiting for their visualizations affirmations to ‘work’.

Carl Jung, in a famous quote, had this to say about positive thinking in all its forms:

‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’

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Which brings me to an interesting piece of research by psychologists Joanne Wood and John Lee from the University of Waterloo, which verified my own experience.

Recently, in experiments with positive affirmations:

“They asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement- but only slightly.”

So let’s sum up their results:

  1. Positive affirmations were favored by people with low self esteem.
  2. When these subjects with low self esteem fixated on a positive affirmation about themselves it almost always made them feel worse about themselves – not better, as expected.
  3. When positive affirmations were used by people with high self esteem, they had absolutely no effect on their well being.

In a follow-up study, in which they focussed on low self esteem individuals, the researchers got half the participants to list only positive thoughts. The other half of the study had to list their negative self-thoughts alongside positive self-thoughts.

The results showed emphatically that low self-esteem participants who were allowed to acknowledge their negative self talk experienced more well-being those who had been directed to focus exclusively on their positive thoughts.

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 So, what does this have to do with meditation?

Well, when I first meet people who want to learn how to meditate I ask them, ‘Why do you want to meditate?’

Invariably their reply includes everything they want from meditation – to be relaxed, to be calm, to be free of anxiety or depression, to able to concentrate better and so on. The list of things people want from meditation is endless.And, for sure, I say, with most things, meditation can possibly help.

But then I give them the twist, which is:

‘If you try to meditate from what you want from it, it won’t work. For meditation to work efficiently, you must first let go of everything you want from it. And most importantly, you must unconditionally accept everything you don’t want.’

In other words, you must let go of your dualistic view of yourself as two parts – positive and negative. And more importantly, you must let go of your fear of what you consider as negative. You must meditate in unconditional acceptance and love of the whole you – positive and negative. Dark and light.

In this you trust that the natural order of the universe is to seek balance – stillness. It’s a bit like a pendulum – if you’re constantly pushing a pendulum toward one side – the positive side, let’s say, it’s only natural the reverse reaction will keep occurring. But if you accept both sides of your Self equally and allow the pendulum to swing to both its extremities, without pushing it either way, it will eventually calm itself and go still.

Meditation is like letting go of the pendulum and allowing it to find its own equilibrium – we cause balance and stillness to happen simply by learning to accept everything as it is, while not reacting to it.

This is letting go. Non-reaction.

So if you’re using affirmations or visualizations to try to create some desired state – whether it’s calm, or happiness, or love or wealth or whatever, though you might well experience a soothing endorphin effect from your imagining, what you’re actually doing is pushing the pendulum – you’re empowering the opposite of what you’re desperately being positive about, by fearing it.

And how do we know you’re fearing it?

Well, ask yourself, why else would you be using affirmations or visualizations? Because you fear their opposite.

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I’ll finish with a wonderful quote from a famous and enlightened Thai monk, Acharn Chah in which he uses the word ‘suffering’ as a generic term to describe everything we consider ‘negative’ in our life:

“If you want to understand suffering you must look into the suffering. The teachings say that wherever a problem arises it must be settled right there. Where suffering lies is right where non-suffering will arise. So if suffering arises you must contemplate it right there. You don’t have to run away. You should settle the issue right there. One who runs away from suffering out of fear is the most foolish person of all. He will simply increase his stupidity endlessly. Just know yourself, this is your witness. Don’t make decisions on the strength of your desires. Desires can puff us up into thinking we are something which we’re not. We must be very circumspect.”

Ultimately there is a profound irony inherent in meditation, and in life itself. And that is, the more we try to escape suffering – with drugs or comfort, or mis-use of meditation methods,  the stronger the suffering will become.

Similarly, the more we try to imagine our way out of suffering with positive thinking, affirmations or visualizations, the more likely it is that suffering will blindside us further up he track, and sabotage us from the secret places we have consigned it to.

So the trick, if you like, of meditation and life itself is:

Never run away. When suffering is present in any of its forms – as emotion, negative reaction or misfortune – turn to it and look into it as sensations. And as you pay attention to the sensations of how you feel, be aware of the story your mind is telling you, but don’t pay attention to it – let it fade away by not participating in it. In this way, you are not asserting the positive – so much as simply choosing not to participate in the negative.

Meditation trains us for this – because in meditation we practice accepting how we feel, while at the time letting go of our reactions to it.

The pendulum left alone.

Naturally finds its balance.

And stillness comes on its own.

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Some extra reading:

‘The Power of Negative Emotion: Psychologists Believe Bad Feelings Produce Success’  (The Age Newspaper)

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Feeling Before Thinking – Always

Hong Kong Sept 2012 162As much as I have covered this subject in numerous posts, I keep hearing meditators complain about thinking: ‘I cant stop thinking,’ seems to be the main complaint and obstacle in meditation.

And its understandable. After all, in a culture such as ours in which we’re constantly encouraged to think from waking to sleep, in a lifetime of thinking about things – indeed, where our very survival depends on us thinking, calculating, anticipating, worrying, wanting, chatting and so on … it would be a bit ridiculous to expect our mind to suddenly stop thinking just because we’ve sat down to meditate.

Because our thinking habits have become insanely over developed – such that even when we don’t need to think, our mind is still mindlessly labelling, classifying, judging and reacting – all on its own. As I say in my book, ‘Happy to Burn’: ‘Our mind is like a hyperactive hand that never stops moving – even in rest it still twitches and moves on its own.’

So it’s quite a logical response in meditation, to try to use meditation to ‘stop the thinking’,

So let’s, once more, look at what thinking actually is, and where it comes from and how to deal with it.

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Thinking is never the source of itself – it is always caused by something else – a sensation or feeling, an event, an inspiration or an emotion. Thinking always comes after these things – either as an identifier, or label. On their own these initial thoughts are benign and have no effect on the body – they’re simply the mind noticing things and labeling them then forgetting.

Which is why I say it’s okay for spontaneous thinking to arise in meditation. This kind of pure mental flow of thoughts arising then passing away has no influence on the body – it’s just a mind idling like a motor in neutral.

But if we react to these initial thoughts with more thinking, a body reaction is created. And that happens when the mental noticing of what has just occurred attracts other thoughts from the subconscious. That’s when we find ourselves actively involved in what’s just happened, judging it, remembering similar things, evaluating whether we like it or not. And the longer this goes on, the more momentum the thoughts get – and the more the body becomes affected by what we’re thinking.This is a reactive cycle – patterns of thinking creating feelings in the body (hormonal reactions), which create more thinking and so on.

Worrying is a classic example of this. And this process is largely automatic – a mind trying to find solutions to what it perceives as a sudden imbalance away from its preferred state of equilibrium.

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Trouble is we spend so much of our life thinking, we think it’s the primary cause of everything. Which is why we try to stop it when it’s annoying us in meditation.We forget that thinking always comes second to something else.

The initial thought follows a physical event. It’s triggered by something that’s happened in our awareness, whether it is a sensation, an intuitive ‘knowing’, an instinctive reaction or a surprise event. And as I said, if we let the thinking rise up in the mind then pass away without bothering to react to it, it disappears like a dream. But if we react to that thought a reactive cycle begins, where our body gets excited in one way or another, which provokes more thinking.

And right there, it’s the feeling in our body that becomes the cause of the thinking. Not the initial event that made the first thought, but our reaction to what we’re thinking about – and the emotion that comes with it, however subtle, of irritation, frustration, anger, sadness or whatever.

If there was no reaction, feeling or emotion, there would be no thinking.

As such, particularly in meditation, if thinking is a problem, we should go to what is now causing the thinking – the feelings or emotions, not the thoughts themselves.

We go to the feeling-reaction, as sensations. Focus our attention there, and the thoughts will slowly fade away.

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For example, let’s look at fear.

Let’s say we have to sit for an exam tomorrow, and we’re absolutely petrified of what’s going to happen.

On noticing that first thought ‘I’m petrified of this exam tomorrow,’ our attention becomes fixated and more thinking arises from the unconscious, and a reactive cycle begins. And the longer our attention remains fixed on that general theme, the more the compatible thoughts will be dredged up from the unconscious – associated experiences from the past: ‘that exam I failed in high school’, ‘the test I failed in primary school, failure, failure. failure … and so on’

Our body is now humming with a cocktail of hormones, of which adrenalin is the main component, which energises the worrying mind. With our mind now a swirling storm of thoughts along the theme of ‘failure’ we are creating a fictitious ‘tomorrow’ in our head and reacting to it continuously – all of which is energising the body reactions … which energises the mental reactions and so on.

This is a reactive cycle.

And because we mistakenly think everything begins and ends with what we think about it, we keep hopelessly battling the mind, trying to stop the thoughts. But as long as the body keeps reacting, our mind will obediently keep delving into the unconscious and free associating, trying to find a solution. And it will keep on doing this, for as long as our attention remains engaged with the thinking.

So trying to stop thinking in meditation, or any other time, is like trying to stop a fire by waving at the smoke – a total waste of time and energy. The only way to stop a fire is to ignore the smoke – go to the fire and pour water on it.

Divert your attention away from what you think, to what you feel.

Work with the bare sensations in your body – relax the tensions that have been created. Feel the anxiety as physical tightness and work with it. Pour all your attention into untangling this tightness and thr thoughts will lose power and fade all on their own

Working with how we feel does two things:

1.   It gives your attention something practical to do, and diverts it away from the thinking.

2.  It unwinds and soothes the physical reactions that are energising the thinking.

Because you are NOT paying attention to the thoughts, they lose momentum and coherence – which lessens their ability to cause body reactions.

With less body reactions, less hormones are released – so the feelings slowly subside.As the feeling of fear subsides, the mind naturally calms down and begins thinking other thoughts

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So there it is – whenever you have a problem with thinking, the trick is to look past it at whatever physical effects accompany it. Look into the body and find out to where the thoughts are being provoked and pay attention to that.

Use the meditation method of Mental Noting to note the sensations as you work with them – it helps to keep the mind focused.

And be prepared to find emotions you didn’t expect, provoking the thoughts.  For example, sometimes thoughts of boredom or frustration are actually coming from anger or sadness. So go with whatever emotion or set of tensions are there in the body, and keep tracking them with the mental notes as they change.

And be patient. Depending on how intense the body reaction is, it can take time for the organs to metabolise the hormones that are in play.

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