In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.