Meditation the Journey

recent-007” The things that trouble our spirits are within us already. In meditation, we must face them, accept them, and set them aside one by one.

Cristopher Bennett

I was thumbing through a popular tabloid news paper on the weekend, and in the middle pages, in the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ section, I noticed another article on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The central theme of the article was ‘the meditation experience’, which it described in terms of ‘calm’ and ‘peace’, and ‘clearing the mind’ by developing ‘single pointed concentration’.

I read this with an increasing sense of despair, because yet again, it glibly reinforced the misconceptions and myths that have cursed meditation ever since it was imported from Asia a few hundred years ago. This focus on the ‘meditation experience’ as a pre-requisite to any transformation that might occur is incredibly destructive – yet it preoccupies almost the entire conversation around meditation in the West.

But, I suppose, as I think further, I understand how it happened. The imperatives of our mercantile culture, in which everything is reduced to its most saleable aspect, always prevail – and meditation has, like everything else in our world, become a product.

The origins of meditation in Asia were essentially and solely spiritual – people meditated to progress along a path to enlightenment. And enlightenment was commonly viewed as the ultimate aspiration in a life. As such, anyone embarking on the difficult journey to enlightenment was universally supported, and meditation was taught freely. The community supported the monks, wandering sadhus and holy-men, simply because they recognised and respected the incredible commitment and inner strength it required to embark on such an endeavour.

Meditation was simply a means to an end – not an end in itself. And the ‘meditation experience’ was not considered significant, except as an indicator of progress, and what needed next to be done. It was accepted that, as the meditator began and progressed, they would meet aspects of their sense of self that were painful, confronting or simply deceptive – problems along the way that would need solutions.

And the many methods and strategies that evolved throughout the history of meditation, became tools to be used to navigate through those various problems.

Then meditation was imported to the West.
And along with many other imports from ‘the exotic east’, in line with our habit of commodifying everything, the most marketable aspect of meditation was the possibility of ‘an experience’, and ‘the getting of calm’. Key terms were used – bliss, tranquillity, oneness, natural high, and so on. Instead of being a powerful medium of self realisation, an incredible journey into what we’re made of, meditation became simply another therapy among many to soothe our pain and fill the holes we felt in our hearts.

Essentially, meditation was reduced to being a product – a kind of natural Aspirin or Prozac. Either that or a spiritual sideshow in the carnival of sideshows that became ‘The New Age’.

People bought the product in the same way they bought pills or a massage, and they wanted what was on the brochure – to stop thinking and be instantly relaxed and calm.
Result being, the entire premise of meditation practice switched from self realisation to self-indulgence and the possibility of an easy escape.

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For sure, there are so many extraordinary experiences that can be had during meditation, in which it’s as if we are poking a hole through our personal reality, to peep into what we have hitherto never experienced. But what nobody tells you is that these experiences cannot be had with a couple of half hour sessions a day. One has to meditate intensively over a long period of time, to poke the holes through the walls of our life conditioning.
And even then these glimpses of the unknown are of no use.

The most useful aspect of meditation is the slow grind to change the stuff we’re made of – the web of habits and conditioned reactions that form the prison we live in. And the habits of a lifetime are not changed by an ‘experience’.

Life habits can only be changed through persistence, tenacity and practice, using the various methods that meditation makes available to us.

So at the risk of being boring, I’m going to say it again. The meditation experience means nothing – so please resist giving significance or meaning to it.

And, more importantly, resist the temptation to judge your practice, or your ability to meditate, on the quality of your meditation experience.
If you do this, you’ll only create failure – because no matter how intoxicating meditation might be right now, a time will come when you will encounter some block, or emotion, or a point where your mind will rebel against the changes that meditation is creating, and you will suffer.

And if you’re focussed on the experience, you will assume you can no longer meditate, and you will give up. In monastery life, it’s called ‘the rolling the mat’ stage – where monks roll up their meditation mat and give up because its all become too hard.
The irony is, it’s these apparent obstacles that appear in meditation that are where the real training and progress is to be had. As my last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri said, ‘All the fizzy blissy stuff is just waiting for the real work to begin.’

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Really, when you boil it down, a serious practice of meditation is simply problem solving. Its a long expedition through the jungle of the self, and the distant destination you’re headed for, is the finely balance tranquillity of stillness.
Stillness.

And all the so-called problems you meet are when one or other of our clingy, competitive, fearful, desirous, excitable life habits prevents us from falling into the stillness we unconsciously pine for, but have forgotten how to access.

So you’re meditating to learn how to let go of everything, to clear a space for stillness to appear.

Stillness within the storm of being.

And once you’ve developed a relationship with stillness in your core, you become a bit like an oak tree in the storm of life. And even as your branches whip and sway, or break – even when the winds of life strip away your leaves – with stillness at our core, the trunk remains stable, still and strong within the chaos.
That’s stillness.

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So as you meditate, forget what you want.
Pay attention to the journey you’re on.

Treat each meditation as an adventure – an expedition through the raw stuff of what you are, and what you’ve become. Not what you think, but what you feel – the swirl of sensations that you are, around the slow rhythmic pulse of the breath.
Feel all the sensations in your body as if it were your friend.
Smile inwardly at the mischievous tricks your mind plays.
Feel whatever feelings arise and let them pass on through your awareness, as your attention remains poised on the breath.

And some of what will happen will be incredibly pleasant, and some will be uncomfortable.

So, meet it all with the same quality of mind – with fascination, and compassion for this organism you have become.

Because all the chaotic stuff as it passes through is simply mind and body in process – healing and reorganising themselves like any field left fallow, or any forest left to itself. All things heal themselves and find balance if given stillness.
Each meditation, as you use the methods to deal with each obstacle, no matter how chaotic the experience is, will leave you just a little lighter, and more inspired.

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The Breath, Only the Breath.

IMG_0266-001In my audio course, and in some of the posts I’ve written for this blog, I’ve spoken at various times about emotions and pain during meditation, and described methods for dealing with these things. And this is all well and good – when pain or emotion becomes to powerful it distracts us from the breath we need a method to deal with it.

Trouble is, I’m hearing about people trying to use these methods as their central meditation method – as a kind of self administered therapy to exorcise whatever emotions and anxieties that haunt them.
This distortion of meditation practice, in which we use methods almost as weapons against parts of ourselves we don’t like, is unwise because it arises from fear – fear of aspects of our own self – which runs counter to the mental qualities we’re trying to build in meditation of equanimity and acceptance and surrender as primary conditions for letting go and allowing stillness to arise.

So in this post I’m going to review meditation from the bottom up and clarify the role of the breath as both the foundation and central pivot of meditation.

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While meditation is certainly therapeutic, it is not meant to be ‘a therapy’. It’s not about fighting parts of ourself or trying to create the new self you think you should be.

It’s about being still. That’s all.

Do that, and nature will do the rest. Once we’ve learnt how to let go of everything other than the breath, in the stillness that occurs, the innate self healing mechanisms of mind and body find their own equilibrium and balance in their own way. There is no need to do anything other than that – no need for meddling, or trying to use the methods to change yourself. Just stop and use the methods to pay attention to the breath and stillness will give you everything you need.

Sounds good – except for one thing. We have great difficulty with stillness, because we’ve never learnt how to do it.

Unlike every other creature on the planet, who when there’s nothing to do, does nothing and is blissfully happy about it, we cannot stop. Even when we’re sitting alone, in silence, our attention is flitting everywhere, creating internal chattering – getting bored, frustrated, worrying, anticipating, fantasizing.

Even when we want to be still we can’t do it. For a lot of us being physically still is torture – we need activity, entertainment, a radio going or music, drugs, gossip, television – anything to distract us from a mental and physical environment that is so foreign we’re terrified of it.

This is how our modern culture has made us.

It glorifies activity, dynamism, competition, yet totally ignores stillness – even denigrating it, calling it ‘laziness’, ‘stagnation’ and so on. Our culture has trained us to convert our entire life into information and take action – even if the action is something as stupid as worry.

It encourages us to be constantly scanning ahead to the future, or behind us to the past, and reacting to everything. Politicians, advertising agencies and the media are devoted to tweaking our attention – attracting it, provoking it, anything to make us react. Because they know, if they can get the right reaction from us – trigger the right thoughts, the right mix of emotions – they can control what we do – buy a product, do a job, elect a government, go to war, whatever.

This is modern life.

So it’s entirely understandable that when it comes to meditation – which is about stopping and being still – mentally and physically still, and being happy to be still, we can’t do it.
Which is why we’re the only creature on earth who has to learn how to meditate. Cats don’t need to meditate – they know. So do dogs, fish, birds and everything else. Everything else lives with stillness except us.

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Most of us consider the mental jitteriness we live with as normal, because we’re all doing the same things and suffering in the same ways as as result. There is a perverse sense of community in that.

Nevertheless the constant reacting exhausts us, because we get no peace. Our mind rarely gets the space to clear itself and our body never gets enough of a pause from the constant excitement being generated by the mind, to heal itself and let go of accrued tension.

As I said before, this is a madness other creatures on our planet don’t have. They slip from action to stillness in a heartbeat, whenever they want. Whenever they need. The cat chases the mouse, eats it, then sits and goes still until another mouse appears. Stillness to action, action to stillness seamlessly – always relaxed, in the moment and aware.

It’s this same ability we’re creating in meditation. Not therapy.

We’re learning to be able to be still whenever we choose. And to that end, every method of meditation is simply another strategy to help coax our mind to accept stillness. To get to know it, and feel comfortable enough with it to be able to slip into it in a heartbeat. Just like a cat.

And it’s our attention that is front and center in this endeavor. Because it’s our attention that is the problem.

Awareness is not the problem – awareness simply ‘is’. Awareness knows things – hot, cold, up, down, danger, rightness, wrongness – bare sensations. Bare existence, moment by moment. Awareness knows these things, but has no reaction.

Sensations are not the problem either- they’re simple – sort of like binary code. Either on or off. They come and go according to nature and change.

It’s only our attention that creates the reactions that disturb us. When our attention is drawn to something we’re aware of, or a sensation, it generates a reaction – we like what it’s found or we don’t like it – all of which creates anxiety, whether pleasant or unpleasant. It’s all anxiety of one kind or another. Suffering.

Whatever problem we have, if we look right down the chain of cause and effect, we find the dysfunctional habits of our conditioned attention, and the distorted sense of self it’s created, which accepts anxiety as normal.

So in meditation, it’s ONLY our attention we training. And in this training, the breath is incredibly important, because the breath is the instrument we use to train the attention.

And all the peripheral methods, however therapeutic they may seem, are only meant as temporary strategies to help our bristling, hyperactive attention learn to have a calm relationship with the breath, where it can be still.

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In the meditation method I use, the breath is all we need.

The breath is the core of meditation.
The breath is the path into stillness.
There is no other path. If we pay calm attention to the breath and let everything else go, we naturally become still. That’s all.

And why?

Well, the breath is the only consistently recognizable and constant phenomenon we have in our life, where our attention can rest without having to think, or evaluate or react . Because the breath is simple – it’s always been with us and will always be with us. It is regular and automatic, yet immediately recognizable, with none of the reactive triggers that other sensations create. That is, we neither like it or dislike it.

It’s just the breath,

This is a perfect place for the attention to rest and learn to be still. So, with training, as we keep encouraging the attention to stay on the breath, it gradually learns it has an alternative place from the storm of life – a place it knows is always there, where it can rest.

As the relationship between the attention and the breath deepens, the attention eventually grows to like the breath, and make it its home. This is essential to learning to meditate.

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Of course, a lot of things get in the way of the making of this skill – because that’s what it is – a skill. Our attention is not used to being still so it keeps darting away to all the distractions it’s used to – thinking about things and building reactions.

No stillness there.

This is where the peripheral methods come in. When a particular obstacle arises, and interferes with the building of the skill, we use one or other of the peripheral methods to help the attention come back to the breath and get used to staying there.

The most obvious example is the method I teach known as ‘mental noting’. We use mental noting to assist in the process of letting go of distractions which get in our way. Or we use another method for pain, or the multi-point method when our attention is too fidgety and energized to work with.

But only temporarily. All of these methods are temporary – even mental noting. We use them until the relationship with the breath has been established and is strong, at which point, we resume the central method of paying attention to the breath.

And eventually, after a few years of practice, we even let go of the breath – but that’s another story.

For now, in this evolving skill of being still, all methods and their variations are simply temporary tools to remove obstacles from   a moment by moment relationship with the breath. And though these methods are indeed therapeutic, they are not intended as therapy. So please don’t make any single method a central pivot of meditation.

For now, the breath, and only the breath, will take you to where you need to go.

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LINKS

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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Facing What Disturbs You

Oh the Pain

Following is another of the questions that came in, this one concerning an unusual condition that keeps repeating each time Jacques meditates

Hi Roger, I liked your online course and your book but I got a big problem meditating. I have given it many tries but every time I meditate I build up tension in the area between my eyes, top of my nose and bottom of my forehead. If you draw a circle from about 3 to 4 cm with middle point the top of my nose between my eyes that is the area I’m talking about.

This tension gets worse every day and after a few weeks of meditating it stays all day. I is so annoying that I stop meditating all together. I tried to include it, calling it tension, not ignoring it, dealing with it in a relaxed way but no result. I would so much like to start meditating again. Can you help?

All the best, Jacques

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Hi Jacques, I’m going to answer your question in a round about way.

My last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri, who taught at the Kanduboda Meditation Centre in Sri Lanka, said something to me that pertains to what you’ve described.

I was there for a silent retreat, practicing a method I’d been using for many years – following the breath and mentally noting whatever distracted my attention. But this particular retreat, things were not going well. I was experiencing a strange physical phenomenon that was making the long days of meditation very difficult.

About fifteen minutes into each session, my body would begin to clamp up. It was as if all the muscles were turning to stone – particularly around my shoulders and chest and I’d begin to panic because it felt like I couldn’t breathe. And nothing I did seemed to alleviate it. The solidification of my body would intensify until I opened my eyes and moved, when the rigidity would instantly disappear. But then on beginning again, the same thing would happen again.

At first I didn’t tell Pemasiri, thinking if I just kept noting this event it would pass away like other temporary effects of meditation. But after the second week it had not only persisted, but gotten more intense, such that I was waking up each day dreading the hours of pain I would have to go through.

So at the morning interview I told him.

Pemasiri listened, nodding his head, then prescribed a different method to the one I had been practising. He told me to switch to the ‘Multiple Point’ method (which is a part of the Practical Meditation Audio package you are using – strongly recommended for your kind of problem).

So I began using this method – beginning with my attention on the breath as usual, then switching to the multiple points method as the rigidity began to encroach – moving my attention from point to point around the body until the rigidity disappeared – at which point I’d return my attention to the breath. It worked wonderfully, and eventually the rigidity disappeared and I went back to my core method.

But what is pertinent here is Pemasiri’s reaction when I came in smiling the next interview and thanked him for ‘fixing up meditation.’ I was joking, but he didn’t smile with me.

‘So you are having a good time now?’ he said sourly.

‘Well, the pain has gone,’ I said, a little defensively.

‘And you think this is the way meditation should always be?’

‘Well, no, but at least I can meditate now. Before, all I could do was struggle.’

He sighed heavily.

‘What do you think you are here for?’ he said. ‘To sit with your head in the clouds, feeling blissful and wasting time? What you call ‘struggle’ is the meditation. Struggle is the work. You are training the mind, and the things that make you struggle are the tools you use to develop your mind and make you stronger, so you can find peace in your life. You’re not here to have peaceful meditation. You’re here to create peaceful life. So all the good times and pleasant feelings and sparkly things you think are ‘good’ meditation? They are not. They have no importance at all … they are just what happens in between, when you’re waiting for the real work to begin.’

And its strange because I already knew what he was saying. I’d been practising for over a decade and a half, and I realised I’d forgotten the most important lesson in meditation – that the meditation experience is the least important aspect of it. That the most important aspect of meditation lay in the use of adversity to train the mind – that the still, sitting body is the theatre we use to develop the mental skills we need in life – of detachment and awareness and intuitive wisdom.

Or, in one word: ‘mindfulness’.

So now I was confused – having realised I’d used the multiple point method to avoid an important lesson, did Pemasisi want me to go back to learning how deal with the suffering? I certainly hoped not. But I asked him.

‘No!’ he said curtly. ‘Just as we teach our self not to cling to pleasure, we should not seek out suffering. You must think middle way. Middle way is the key. Neither this, nor that, but in between. That is the lesson you’re teaching the mind.’

‘But isn’t the multiple point method simply a way of avoiding the lesson I have to learn?’ I said.

‘No … your problem was never the suffering. It was your reaction to it. The pain you felt was held in place by your reaction. You were afraid of it. You hated it. So when the suffering arose you paid too much attention to it. This reaction magnified the suffering as you tensed up around it trying to shut it out and make it go away. With this reaction you made suffering out of suffering. So I gave you the multiple point method to distract your mind from its reaction. Without the reaction, you saw the suffering passed away naturally – as it might have, had you treated it with detachment before. You see?’

I did. The lesson was clear – suffering in any form is not our enemy. It’s simply the natural friction of being alive.

Our true enemy is our own self and its reaction to this friction. As is the case with all the ways we human’s suffer:

Like when we get depressed – we get depressed about being depressed. We get sad and react to how we feel by being sad because we’re sad. We get angry about being angry, or anxious about being anxious. In the same way, with physical pain, we tense up trying to make physical pain go away, which only makes the pain worse … and so on.

One of the primary lessons of meditation practice and perhaps the hardest to adapt to, is to remember that meditation is first and foremost mental training – not a nice, comfy equivalent of sleep.

So, as in any life training, whether it be physical or mental, there is a component of suffering. It cannot be avoided – it naturally comes with the change of transformation. Just as any athlete must learn how to deal with pain to adapt their body to their chosen field of excellence, it’s the same in any area where we seek to improve ourselves – any gym-goer, mountaineer or running enthusiast knows they have to deal with the discomfort of adapting themselves mentally and physically.

It’s no different with meditation – suffering cannot and should not be avoided.

The still, sitting body is a boot-camp for our indulged, undisciplined minds, in which we use the stresses of being still with no distractions, as opportunities to teach our mind to let go of all the habits and little addictions it uses to avoid stillness. With these capacities, our mind becomes stronger and more resilient, and more efficient in the way it processes the vicissitudes of life. The stronger and efficient our mind becomes, the more calm and peace appear in our life.

So, Jacques, with regard to your particular problem, the tension in the area between your eyes, top of your nose and bottom of your forehead.

I suggest you use this event as a main object when it arises. .That is to say, switch your attention from the breath, to whatever is persistently distracting you – in this case, the sensations in the middle of your forehead.

And make this a rule.

Never try to meditate past a challenging event that has arisen in meditation. If something is disturbing you, then switch your attention to the sensations of that event. Try to relax the muscles around the event, and use the note, ‘thinking, thinking’ to cut away all the negative thoughts that are arising.

You might find in that instance that the sensations will temporarily intensify. Don’t worry about this – it’s what’s called an ‘extinction-burst’. Any condition, just before it fades away, intensifies into the lead up to its resolution. When it has faded, or become manageable, then you can switch back to the method you have been practising with.

If that doesn’t work, then use the Multiple Points method (Exercise No 12.) and see if the uncomfortable sensations fade away.

Some more points:

1. Try not to meditate in fear of suffering. Try to re-frame your view of each so-called problem that arises from ‘damn I hate this’ to ‘oh, how interesting’ – from ‘obstacle’ to ‘opportunity-to-learn’ .

2. When any problem arises in meditation, use any of the methods I have given you in the Audio Course to see if you can move through it.

3. Don’t cling to an expectation that meditation should be all bliss and sparkly stuff. For sure, there will be pleasure, but so too will there be pain – usually in equal measures. In time, the more you practice, the suffering will become less intense, as will the pleasure. It’s then that you will find a new quality appearing – not pain, not pleasure – but tranquility.

4. Treat everything that happens with the same interested detachment. And keep using the methods to let go and move forward. Always move forward. I hope this has been helpful.

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Beginning To Meditate

colour7Recently I sent out an email to all the people who bought the Practical Meditation Audio Course, asking them if they had any questions, so i could post my replies for everybody. Since then I’ve received quite a few replies. This first question comes from Brian, who asks:

“I think the course you supplied was great and I follow your blog avidly. My issue is that reading or listening is about as far as I take it. Despite my best intentions I ‘skirt’ around the disciplined practice needed – start and then put off when other issues in life arise. I sometimes think the only way I will overcome is via sessions with other practitioners to get some sort of structure and routine.”

Hi Brian,

I think your hesitation is quite normal.

One of the things people forget about meditation is it’s a skill formed a long time ago in a different kind of world to ours. No television or radios or clocks or mobile phones. People’s lives were simple, uncomplicated and leisurely and most work was in tune with the slow natural rhythms of sun, rain, wind and water – farming, fishing and so on. Life ticked along in a timeless way, making it such that meditation was not so separate from the lives people led.

In isolated parts of Thailand, where I’ve trained its still like that. Farmers in their rice paddies, peaceful villages – quiet, timeless and in flow with the flux of nature. Makes meditation easier than doing it in a city. Which is why many of the best temples to learn meditation in Thailand are in the forests, far way from the cities. That’s where the monks are who have reached extraordinary levels of mental development. But you never hear about them because they stay away from the world beyond the forest. They’re not interested in being a part of the environment we live in – this clanking, rattling, electrified world of information, celebrity and money. They avoid it because it’s too hard to meditate in the kind of environment we live in.

But we’re not not monks. We choose to live in this insane, modern world. And that makes meditation a very hard thing for us to do. In our modern world our mind has adapted to a different environment – of noise, languaged thinking, analysis, information, acquisition, entertainment and distractions. Our minds are not used to the stillness, detachment, silence and intuitive flow that’s needed to slip easily into meditation. In fact, for many people, these things make them anxious.

So in our world sitting still to meditate often seems quite daunting. And even if we do push ourselves to do it, it takes time and quite a bit of discomfort to get used to the strange mental environment of meditation.

So what’s the point then? Why meditate?

Well, even though we might struggle and feel uncomfortable with meditation, nevertheless, even with the struggle, a meditation practice inevitably creates a stronger, more resilient mind with new habits that enable us to process life more efficiently.

And why have a more efficient mind? Because in the cut and thrust of our insane and rather brutal world, an efficient mind creates:

  1. Less stress on the body as emotions and reactions are processed more quickly.
  2. A more agile and intuitive mind, not so bogged down in convoluted loops of thinking.
  3. A greater capacity for kindness and joy as the mind becomes more interconnected with the intuitive heart.
  4. More creativity as our thought processes change from heavy languaged thinking to more intuitive flow.

And much more – in short, a meditation practice helps us sail the toxic oceans of our world and live well.

So why is all this relevant to you?

Well as I said, it’s understandable that beginning meditation seems quite daunting. because sitting still with your eyes closed is a very strange thing to do in our culture. Think about it – when have you ever sat still with your eyes closed unless it was to go to sleep. For most people, rarely.

But it can be done – so long as you’re patient and kind with yourself. No need to rush.

So lets see how we can make meditation seem a bit less daunting. 

For a start, whether you begin attending sessions or not is up to you. Many people find them very helpful because the group dynamic helps them settle down more easily. But ultimately everybody has to face up to the fact that sooner or later you still have to face up to doing it on your own. And for this reason, I focus on exactly that, because I have found people who rely on groups to practice become addicted to the group dynamic, and find it very hard to do on their own.

So whether you begin with a group or not, doing it on your own is the challenge you ultimately have to face, so you might as well begin there.

I think a part of your inability to begin meditating is in the way you’re framing it. You seem to be looking at meditation in very workman-like terms – as something you ‘should’ do. Something you need ‘discipline’ to do.

I think with any beginner words ‘discipline’ and ‘structure’ and ‘routine’ are very daunting in themselves. Not to mention totally ‘un-fun’. You’re turning meditation into work even before you’ve started. So I suggest you listen to the Audio Course in a playful way – soak up the information that interests you and see if a motivation grows out of that.

Then, once you feel motivated to try it out, take it easy – just play with meditation for a while. Get to know it in an experimental way.

I suggest you:

  1. Only sit for as long as it is comfortable, and play with all the methods in the Audio Course Package (particularly walking meditation) – if five minutes is all you can do, then just do that.
  2. Get to know yourself in the new and strange environment of your still, sitting body with its eyes closed.
  3. Use the methods to see what happens … with no expectations.
  4. Get to know meditation as a friend.

Hopefully, you’ll begin to experience things that pique your interest a little more, and provoke you to begin the work, or training of meditation, such as it is.

But don’t rush into it.

The training can come later when you’ve explored the methods and gotten to know them, and feel more comfortable with sitting still. Then you can begin pushing yourself to begin training the mind in a more determined way.

I hope this has been helpful.

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Sleep – The Giver of Life

At this time in the Western world, it is rapidly becoming noticeable that most of us are chronically under slept.  And as the studies and research are done, it’s becoming clear that this cumulative exhaustion is also a possible cause of many other apparently unrelated problems, such as obesity, cancer, allergies, heart disease, colds, and the list goes on.

One of the biggest problems we have with regard to sleep is that, in the world we have gotten used to, we are working harder and longer hours than ever before, so we are tending to take our leisure, and ‘quality time’ with family and friends later and later. Chores, socialising, winding down and entertaining ourselves get pushed to the evening, when we should be sleeping.  Where our forbears were usually in bed by 9 or 10 pm, the average Westerner considers it normal to go to bed at 11 pm or midnight.

“Chronic sleep deprivation is becoming so universal that Thomas Wehr, chief of the section on biological rhythms at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes few adults in the industrialized world know the crystal-clear sensation of being completely rested. Of this he says “Perhaps we modern humans have never really known what it is to be fully awake,”

Even to meditate, we need to be well slept.  You’ll find as you move through meditation methods in this book, that, though meditation certainly has a calming effect, it’s extremely difficult – almost impossible in fact – to meditate if your mind and body need sleep.

In meditation we are practicing being in a highly aware state of being – we have to have our wits about us to take charge of our skittish mind.  So if you’re already exhausted, as soon as you close your eyes to meditate you’ll find unconsciousness beginning to close you down.  Oncoming sleep will quickly rob you of any chance of being able to use the methods to meditate.

Which is why I regard the following video as essential viewing, not just for meditators, but for anybody wanting to live a vibrant and fulfilling life.

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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