Sensations and Suffering

A wonderful, and quite forensic breakdown of the how sensations become suffering., and the role our conditioned reactions play in that transition. Essential viewing if you’re as fascinated by the processes within Vipassana meditation.

…………………………………………………………….

LINKS

 

Don’t Fight to Meditate.

img_0349-001Hi Roger .. I’ve been learning to meditate and I’ve been to a number of teachers who keep instructing me to concentrate on the breath. It is supposed to relax me and make me calm. For sure in the first few minutes it does. It’s relaxing to close my eyes and be with my breath.

But I find, as time passes, the breath tightens up and meditation begins to feel like a prison and it becomes extremely unpleasant.

I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.

Thanks in advance,

Brian

…………………………………………………………..

When I first began to meditate, I experienced something similar. Whenever I focussed my attention on the breath, either of two things would happen -either like yourself, my body would tighten up around me, or I’d drift into a disorienting unconsciousness. Some time later I realised what the problem was – and I’m wondering if it might be what’s causing your own problem.

Speaking for myself, I’d turned meditation into a kind of competition. I was channelling all my energy into a kind of competitive battle to ‘own meditation’. To win. To become a fantastic meditator. To progress.

To this end, I focussed on the breath in an almost muscular way, trying to fix my attention to it with ever more effort. As a result, awareness slowly closed down and my body tensed up with the effort, and a claustrophobic kind of mindset took over – with the result that I either closed down by falling asleep, or sat inside a body that felt like a block of concrete. Either way, it was extremely uncomfortable.

In this, I think the habits of my Western culture were showing themselves. And I see similar indications of this conditioning in the attitudes of many of the meditators I’ve worked with over the years – as sense that meditation is another skill that must be mastered. As such, they bring a muscularity to meditating that runs totally counter to the spirit of it – and only end up tying themselves up in knots.

And it’s understandable.

From the time we’re born, we in the West are instilled with the spirit of competition and the urge to win. It’s a kind of cultural anxiousness which permeates even our most benign interactions. Even in social situations, we are covertly competing with one another. Winning and competing is a huge part of the social conversation, and it’s propagated by the media, our schools and workplaces and almost every aspect of our lives. In this, the goal is everything – we do things with an imagined outcome in mind, then strive to make it happen.

And then we come to meditation. And suddenly everything we’ve learnt is wrong.

……………………………………………………………..

So let’s go back to the beginning.

For sure, there is a goal that’s implied in meditation. The goal is to learn how to be still, and create a relationship with stillness.

By stillness, I don’t mean unconsciousness. I mean conscious and calm disengagement.

So we’re using the meditation methods to practice disengaging our attention from all the things it usually reacts to – desires, fears, opinions, pain, emotional reactions, gossip, memories and so on.

This complex landscape of triggers are where our attention usually spends most of its time. From waking to sleep, it’s used to bouncing from one event to the other, creating all kinds of hormonal changes in the body as each reaction it generates blooms in the mind. As stressful as this unrelenting excitement is, we view it as ‘normal’ because that’s what we’re used to, so we don’t really notice the effects until its too late.

So our purpose in meditation is to create a kind of ‘reactive silence’ in mind and body.

To this end, we use the meditation methods to train the attention to gently disengage from everything that usually stimulates us. In this way we enter a paradoxical state where, though mind and body are still active, and we’re aware of everything that’s happening inside and outside of us, our attention is utterly disengaged from it all – either resting on the breath or, in more absorbed state, merged back into the awareness.

Either way, no reactions are being generated so, in mind and body, we are still.

…………………………………………………

But here we see some confusion arising from the use of this word ‘stillness’. The word implies nothing is happening. It implies complete silence – no activity.

But stillness is actually quite an active state. It’s only our meddlesome attention that has gone still – for the rest of mind and body, things go on – the only difference is, our meddlesome attention is not interfering any more.

With the attention still, the mind and body naturally turn their energies to ‘housework’. In this, they take the opportunity to re-organise and re-balance themselves. Recent experiences and reactions get filed into the unconscious. Concepts and ideas currently in process in the mind are intuitively refined. And all this happens without the attention needing to be present.

To the meditating mind this ‘housework’ shows itself as shifting clouds of thinking, memories and daydreams passing through awareness as we meditate. If we don’t pay attention to this mental stuff, it all passes away as quickly as it arises.

In the body this clearing process is felt as changing landscapes of sensations – aches, tingles, itches coming and going. And feelings – happiness, peacefulness, or sadness or anger, or even boredom. And if we don’t react, but keep meditating through them, we see they pass away quite quickly.

This is mind and body doing what they naturally, intuitively do. Left to themselves, they devote themselves clearing and reorganising themselves.

…………………………………………………………..

As I said, it is our attention is the key to this cleansing/reorganising process – which is why it is only the attention we are concerned with when we meditate. It’s our attention we’re training to be still.

We’re not interfering with awareness. If anything, as the attention becomes more still, we will become more aware. We become aware of deeper substrates of thinking and emotional undercurrents, and deeper tensions and imbalances in the body, which can feel quite uncomfortable at first.

Commonly, to the inexperienced meditator, these things can be misleading – it can seem as if meditation ‘isn’t working’, because, understandably, the attention becomes more and more restless in this uncomfortable environment.

And this is when our competitive spirit can kick in and create even more problems. We think if we just try harder, we can get the calm and peace we’re trying to win. So we begin using brute strength to bury our attention in the breath.

But the more muscular we become, the more our awareness shrinks.

And meditation, instead of being the open, unconditionally aware and accepting environment it is supposed to be, becomes a prison in which we lock ourselves.

………………………………………………………………

Try to always remember, the game you’re playing here is not meditation – it’s stillness. So you’re not trying to become a good meditator. You’re simply reaching for stillness, however it comes – and meditation methods are an array of tools to help you.

So don’t fixate on the breath if it’s only making you tighten up.

The breath is simply a convenient main object for the attention to rest on. It’s bland (not much to think about) and it’s constant and easy to feel. Also, the breath is in the centre of the body, which helps us learn the delicate balancing act between paying attention to the breath while maintaining passive awareness of the rest of the body. Other than that, there is no special significance with the breath.

So as I said, if, as you rest your attention on the breath, you feel your competitive spirit kicking in, and you begin tightening up in a tussle with to keep your attention there, then let go of the breath.

Go to the body sensations. The whole body.

Pay attention to the sensual shape of the sitting body.

And if it helps, note ‘sitting, sitting’ as you do this, and just feel the body. Feel the layers of sensations of the skin, the muscles and organs. Feel the weight of the body, and the mass. Feel the tensions that have built up and allow them to let go if you can.

 

When you are paying attention to bare sensations – as they are and without thinking about them or reacting to them – you are in stillness. It doesn’t matter how painful the sensations might be – if you simply feel them as they are, and give them all your attention, you are in stillness.

This is because, unlike thinking, which creates reactions in the body, sensations are simple and ‘in the moment’. As such, paying attention to any or all body sensations will calm the attention down.

In fact, it’s a good idea, even when you’re not meditating, to keep breaking your experience down to sensations. Every so often, as you move through your day, bring your attention back to basic sensations.

In this, unconditional acceptance is essential. Keep bringing your attention back to how you feel rather than what you think about how you feel. This will slowly acclimatise your attention to the habit of feeling rather than thinking and make meditation easier.

I hope this has been helpful.

……………………………………………………

LINKS

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.

……………………………………………………………………….

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.

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.

…………………………………………….

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.

…………………………………………………………………………..

LINKS

Love Your Pain!!

Roger's Iphone pics 076-001Most people, as they go through the process of learning how to meditate, pass through a number of stages, some pleasant, some unpleasant. And no matter whether pleasure or pain, all these stages are good.

These stages arise naturally as your mind acclimatizes itself to the strange and wonderful environment of stillness.

You’re teaching yourself the skill of being still. To be still in mind, and still in body whenever you choose. You’re learning to sit and let go of your reactions to everything. Surrendering the mind and body to their own processes while ‘you’, the meddlesome aspect of mind you call by your name, go still.

More importantly, you’re learning to be happy to be still – to be able to sit still without getting bored, or worried, or impatient or anxious – which are our usual reactions to being still.

So it is that, as with learning any skill, as the mind and body slowly acclimatize themselves to stillness, together with all the feelings that come with it, you will struggle sometimes. Which is what the meditation methods are for – to help you pass through struggle in all its forms as easily as possible.

But for the methods to work, you must accept struggle as an inevitable and integral part of the training.

…………………………………………………………………………………………

So what do I mean by struggle?

Well, think about all the things that annoy you in meditation – periods of over-the-top thinking, aches, itching, restlessness, boredom, frustration and even pain. We tend to regard these things as impediments in meditation. We think when these things are happening that ‘something is wrong’ with the way we’re meditating, and we wonder what we are doing wrong – because ‘meditation is not working’.

Not so. These apparent disturbances are not wrong. They are right. They are a natural result of mind and body learning to adapt to being still, just as muscular aches are a natural result of weights training in a gym. Indeed, the disturbances we experience during meditation are an integral part of the training process.

…………………………………………………………………………

One would think stillness would be easy. After all, we only have to stop.

Our dog and cat can do it, and they take great pleasure in doing it. But for us, stillness is very hard to do.

To the average modern human being, even the idea of being still is utterly foreign – even threatening.  In the busy world we’ve created we’ve become acclimatized to action, restlessness, excitement and distraction – not stillness. Stillness has never been a part of how we’ve been taught to live, nor is it spoken about, or given any value or encouraged.

And even if we do get the opportunity to be still – in a doctors waiting room or waiting for a bus, or sitting in our lounge-room, we’re not used to it, and we don’t know how to react to it. Hence the irony that even when we have the opportunity to be still, we can’t do it – it creates feelings of irritation, boredom, restlessness and so on. Unlike every other creature on the planet, who use stillness to rejuvenate themselves throughout the day, we have lost the ability to be still.

Which is why we have to learn how to do it by using meditation.

………………………………………………………………………

There is an immense amount of scientific and anecdotal evidence for how essential regular periods of stillness are for our mental and physical health.

When we are still the mind naturally re-organizes itself, re-patterning recent information and clearing the decks by storing unneeded information into the unconscious. Also, in union with the body, the mind uses the space of stillness to process the emotional reactions it has recently experienced. This cleansing activity appears to the passive meditating mind as errant thoughts, memories and worries that arise and pass away, as well as temporary feelings, patterns of sensations, aches, twinges and pain in the body.

During meditation all this activity appears naturally. And if we allow it to happen, all the anxieties and emotions that cause it will pass away as quickly as they arise. And once processed, we are free of it.

There is a profound union of mind and body that occurs when we meditate. Stillness in mind creates stillness in the body and vice versa. And in that union our muscles are able to let go of retained tension, and our organs have the time to rejuvenate and process the backlog of hormones and any leftover toxins on the blood.

And this cleansing process can only happen when stillness is present. Once we become active, and the mind and body become focused on some external task, this healing process becomes secondary to it’s primary purpose of serving our needs and desires.

The problem with stillness is, people think it should feel pleasurable –  blissful, peaceful, calm and so on.

Maybe once you’ve trained yourself with meditation it will be. But in the beginning stages of meditation, stillness is filled with all the things that arise into it and clutter it up.

So all the things you think are disturbing you in meditation.The boredom, aches, itches, passing memories, worries and squalls of errant thinking – they wouldn’t arise if stillness wasn’t accessed by the meditation methods. These things arise into the space that stillness creates. They are mind and body naturally seeking to throw off mental and physical tensions – to find their own balance. And they need the space that stillness creates to do it.

And this process of ‘throwing off tension’ is sometimes fast, and sometimes slow depending on how complex the problem is – but if you just keep using the methods, like a boat crossing a river you will eventually get to the other side – and any mental or physical glitch you were struggling with, once processed, is gone –  you are free of just a little more of the weight you have been carrying.

So learn to love the suffering that arises when you meditate. It’s the only way you’ll be free of it.

Use the meditation methods to accept and let go of everything as it passes through, because all of it is a part of the healing and rejuvenation that is itself the path to a stillness that becomes increasingly spacious and profound the more you meditate.

The more you practice acceptance of the struggle, and use the meditation methods to remain detached from any suffering that might occur, the less intense the suffering will become.  You realize then, that all the things in your life you thought were problems – of worry, circular thinking, anxiety and physical discomfort – are not problems at all. They’re simply a mind and body seeking balance.

Love your pain and it becomes your friend.

………………………………………………………………….

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.

………………………………………………………

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.

………………………………………………………………………………………………….

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.

………………………………………………………………………….

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.

……………………………………………………………………………………….

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

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

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

………………………………………………………………………………..

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.

……………………………………………………………..