Meditating From the Source

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

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

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

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

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

So I decided to take him to the source.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LINKS

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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LINKS

The World of Worry

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

Making Friends with the Bird

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

And the ‘good stuff’ never happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why we do it.

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

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

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

That’s why I do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He decided to give up trying to catch the bird.

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

And suddenly the bird landed on his shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this way the man and the bird became friends.

Best wishes
Roger

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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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The Perils of Positive Thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recently, in experiments with positive affirmations:

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

So let’s sum up their results:

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

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

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

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 So, what does this have to do with meditation?

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

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

But then I give them the twist, which is:

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

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

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

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

This is letting go. Non-reaction.

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

And how do we know you’re fearing it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pendulum left alone.

Naturally finds its balance.

And stillness comes on its own.

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Some extra reading:

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

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Make Friends With Yourself

IMG_8827-001So, let’s go back to basics.

Meditation is not a big deal. All we’re doing is learning to sit still, and be still, mentally and physically, without it making us anxious. We’re teaching ourselves to be happy to be still. And in that stillness the mind and body slowly unwind and balance naturally occurs.

It’s inevitable. Be still long enough and the mind and body will naturally become tranquil. Trouble is, we rarely have the patience for this to happen.

The stillness I’m talking about is the most fundamental state we can be in – mind and body in a state of symbiotic unity so close the two become one.

And for every living thing on the planet except us, this stillness is an integral part of their lives. Everything in nature moves in and out of the alert stillness that lies at the core of the life experience.  For them, it is one of the most necessary parts of their life – an endless source of wellbeing  – everything they do arises from it, and when there’s nothing to do, they return to it.

Take your family cat, for instance, or your dog. When there’s nothing to do, they do nothing. They sit or lie still. And though their eyes might be closed, in many cases they are not asleep. They’re just resting until something happens, aware of everything that’s going on around them. And in that awareness they are not worrying, or fretting, or regretting, or planning, or needing. And if something happens they’re instantly awake and refreshed, ready and raring to go.

This is a skill we contemporary human beings have largely forgotten, though we unconsciously yearn for it.

And we suffer the consequences.

In the restless world we have built, with the kind of lives we’ve created, our attention is constantly engaged, like a motor always running in top gear – work, entertainment, life business, social media, radio, television, computers – we’re constantly being force-fed from a plethora of often meaningless and unnecessary information, in which our emotions, fears and desires are being tweaked or titillated in some way. This is the world we’re used to – the exciting, adrenalised race in which, while we have the stamina to keep pace, we thrive on.

And because we’re used to it we tend not to notice the fatigue it creates, because things are happening so fast and it’s all so exciting. We’re addicted to the adrenalin, so we don’t notice until the effects on our wellbeing have become so debilitating we cannot ignore it anymore. Trouble is, then we have drugs to keep the effects at bay – caffeine and anti-depressants being the most common. And though these keep the effect at bay, they are not solutions – they simply blind us to our dysfunction until it makes us sicker or kills us.

In nature it’s not normal to suffer the way we do with depression, anxiety, psychosis, cancer, high blood pressure and heart problems. Within their place in the flow of nature, other creatures on this planet live relatively successful, quiet, peaceful lives while all the while we humans are getting sick, going crazy, getting lonely and depressed and messing things up.

But as critical as we know things have become, we blame everything else for our problems – our workplace, food, our relationships, parents, childhoods, government, pollution, bacteria, virus’s, lack of money, lack of exercise, lack of everything we can think of – the list of reasons why we feel ruined is endless.

We point the finger at everything around us – but never at ourselves.

Twenty three years ago, when I began my training in Vipassana meditation at Sorn Thawee Meditation Centre in Thailand, my teacher said something that gave the shock I needed to take meditation seriously. He said: “Your self is like your own child, ignorant and often lost. For this reason you should treat your own self with the same love, kindness and patience as you would treat your own child. This is what we do when we meditate.”

In that moment, as I turned around and looked at what I had become, and how I had treated myself throughout my life, I realized how abusive I had been – and how mindessly cruel I had been in my treatment of my best friend – my Self.

I had taken my mind and body for granted and ruled my Self like a tyrant, always expecting and taking from my mind and body but never listening, or giving back. I had expected my body to feel good and look good and do what I wanted when I wanted it. And if it complained, I ignored it.

Same with my mind, which I expected to always be happy and confident and inspired – if it tired or complained, I whipped it along with drugs to keep it at work, to get the stuff I wanted. And I judged my Self more harshly than anyone else and was unable to be satisfied by its efforts, no matter what I achieved. And if my Self failed I cursed it, worried at it and hated it, while shutting out its complaints with entertainment, alcohol and drugs.

I was no friend of my Self – not at all. I was a slave driver, and in those days it showed. I was only 38, but my Self was exhausted and disillusioned and my body was falling part.

I realized then, this was not a mental crisis I found myself in, nor was it a physical crisis as I had always thought – it was a crisis of love.

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We try so hard to give meaningful love to people around us – yet invariably we forget to form the same meaningful relationship with ourselves. We forget that, like any of our lovers, parents, children or friends, our own Self needs the same kindness, patience, tolerance and understanding  that we try to give to them.

In this, we never stop to ask ourselves – what are all these aches and pains telling us? What is our body trying to say when it gets ill and when we feel terrible? We rarely listen – rather we try to escape, ignore or take drugs to make the sensations go away, then keep whipping ourselves forward.

The same with the mind – do we ever ask ourselves, what is this anxiousness or depression trying to tell me? What is my mind trying to tell me? Again, not at all – we simply amputate the feelings with anti-depressants and keep whipping ourselves forward.

In this we forget a simple truth of nature, which is this – there is nothing in existence that has no reason for being there.

Pain, anxiety, depression are all there for a reason – as such, they are not superfluous inconveniences to be pushed away and ignored. They are your body and mind telling you the truth about themselves – and usually, if they have gotten to the point of extreme pain or anxiety or depression, they are truths you have already been ignoring for too long.

The sensations in our body, and the feelings that arise from mind are the child of your Self asking you to pay attention.To pay attention with patience, tolerance, kindness and …. Love.

And in good meditation, that is what we do. We commune wit the Self, and give it the attention and love we usually reserve for everyone else. In fact this kind of self-love should be right at the core of meditation, because without it, meditation will just not work.

As a meditation trainer, I keep hearing the same complaints. ‘I feel pain and it’s distracting me,’ or ‘I can’t stop thinking, and its distracting me,’ or ‘My body is so restless I can’t sit still so I can’t meditate,’ and so on. And I keep telling people that all these things – the pain, the thinking, the restlessness – they are not distractions from meditation. At the point where they are happening, they are the meditation. But people keep forgetting this – they keep trying to meditate past these things – to make the signals the Self is sending go away – as if meditation is simply another anti depressant or analgesic.

And in this, they betray themselves terribly.

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 As you meditate, it is inevitable you will meet your Self and it won’t be the carefully constructed apparition you like to present to the world each day. No, the Self you will meet will be the truth. It will be your real self.

And you must be there to meet it. And you must be ready to pay attention to what it tells you – without judging, or reacting. Like any good parent with a child, you must be there to pay attention and be patient and kind and listen to its confusion and sadness and rage and pain. Because after all, no-one else ever will. No-one else can ever give you the attention your Self needs.

And you know what?

This paying attention is all the mind and body needs to heal.

What you will find as you meditate is, if you stop trying to use the meditation method to escape yourself and do the opposite – turn around and give your self loving attention, things will begin to evolve and change.For example, the thinking that ‘curses’ you – instead of trying to stop it, pay attention to it.  Take an interest in what it is – not what it is saying, but what the phenomenon of thinking actually is – feel the activity in your head, watch the frenetic quality of it.  Take a interest in it ‘as it is’, and you will find the thinking will calm down.

Same with pain, or anxiety. Instead of trying to stop it, or escape it – turn around and give it a gentle, loving attention. Let the discomfort be there and just pay attention. ‘Listen’ to it as a sensation. Let it change and evolve. Take an interest in it, because after all, it has very good reasons for being there.

And you will find it will change, and calm down.Your mind and body have been waiting for you to turn around and love them.

And you will find when you do, they will respond. Like an abused child, they will calm beneath your touch, and all kind of emotions long suppressed will arise – of grief, anger, or even happiness.  And as the good parent, you allow these to unfold.

And as you continue meditation, using the methods to listen to you Self rather than escape, you will find more and more sensations in the body, and deeper levels to mind – because finally you are listening. All of the different parts of your Self will ‘speak’ – skin, muscles, stomach, lungs, kidneys, heart, emotions. They speak with sensations, feelings, memories and compulsions, some so strong they will be uncomfortable, some so subtle you barely notice them. And as each part of your Self is listened to, it also listens – and in the wordless dialogue that occurs, mind and body become unified, helping and healing one another, and balance appears naturally.

No need to imagine figures of light or ridiculous visualizations. Just pay attention and listen, without thinking or trying to do anything, and change will happen naturally.

And the longer this meeting of the spirit continues, and the more often it is done, the deeper the healing effect will become. You will lose mental and physical ‘mass’ in layers. First the surface layers of body tension. Then the layers below, of sensations and feelings more subtle than before – tingles, itches, deep aches, emotions and feelings.

And as each layer arises, the sensations and thoughts will become more and more subtle.  And the deeper we get, the more subtle these layers will become until our mind and body are in balance. These are the layers of our physical and mental Self which, as each of them passes through our awareness, are re-assimilated with each other so that the community of our Self can work more efficiently, and feel more unified with itself.  In the lessening of internal conflict, we feel more clear, more fluent, and our life opens up and breathes a sigh of relief.

But don’t wait for it. That would be like trying to watch a flower grow.  And anyway, the end point is not the purpose. The purpose is to be in an on-going fully functional relationship with your mental and physical Self.

Change will come as it comes, in its own time – all you have to do is make friends with yourself … easy huh?

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