Wisdom traditions all teach that there is real work involved in pursuing their teachings. The idea that there is a savior going to fix everything for you is foreign to this way of thinking. No one can do for you the working with your mind you need to do for yourself. The different traditions have differing disciplines but all of them include an element of getting to know your mind, your psyche, your soul. Mediation is just that, a date with your mind; a time set aside to observe with care just what it is that is unfolding in your awareness at that very moment. One of my teachers said that meditation is like scheduling a meeting with your mind at Starbucks, a getting to know you better appointment.
Meditation quite simply is a dedication to a very simple and fundamental realization: it is an endlessly fascinating thing to be a self-conscious awareness awake in a universe full of wonders and mystery. Meditation is a deliberate remembering that right where you are sitting now you are participating in a cosmic experience.
For thousands of years countless individuals from both the East and the West have made a daily discipline of meditation. For the most part their experiences have been communicated to others as what to do as opposed to what to expect. Not a whole lot of time is spent explaining the types of results that a daily discipline encounters. Instead there are explanations of just how to go about doing the deeds. How to take the seven point posture and breathe in ways conductive to the quieting of the mind are often the only real instructions given. The traditions have learned to trust that those who do the work will also come to the fruition. There is a great respect for the individual nature of the inner experiences of consciousness that are nurtured in meditation and which go beyond what can be put into words. Indeed, too many words describing the results can be a hindrance if they tempt us to force our meditative experiences into what we think they should be. However, in the West there are too few traditions of contemplation to encourage people to take up the actual doing of a daily practice. For some few people the carrot of enlightenment is sufficient to create the stick of self-discipline. For others, perhaps some description of results will be the enticement they need. My hope in sharing these thoughts through this blog is to persuade those readers who do not have a daily practice, or are unable to maintain it regularly, to give it a shot. Why not? See you on the inside.
Choose a point of focus to anchor with; a small religious statue, flame, feather, stone or classically the breath. It could also be a particular thought or visualization. Train the mind to stay focused on the anchor with a rested concentration. Return the mind to it when you notice it has wandered. Hold the posture still, root the mind in sitting so it can spread its wings. Breathe from the belly; breathe naturally though tending towards the long and deep. The eyes stay open with slightly closed eyelids, resting the gaze on the object as if on a gently flowing stream. For inner thoughts and visualization also the eyes stay slightly open while the gaze rests dispersed in a gestalt, seeing everything, focusing on nothing. If you chant or sing make the tone deep so that it vibrates the body.
Relax. That is the key.
This first technique to be mastered, just described, is known in Buddhism as shamatha, calm-abiding meditation. In the Western mysticism of St. John of the Cross it is the stage spoken of as “my house being now all stilled.” This settling of the mind, quieting it down, allows a one-pointed concentration to develop. It is as if the mind becomes a calm pool from which it is possible to gently bring up an object of contemplation and stay with it without distraction. Perfecting this one-pointed concentration it develops into what is known in the East as samadhi, non-dual awareness. In the poetry of St. John of the Cross, “O night that has united the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover.” In this way a skill in calm abiding is both the foundation on which all other techniques are built and the deep pool of peace from which one begins and to which one returns in every meditative session.
When a person first sits still for a half hour or more and simply observes the goings on within their mind typically the experience is one of anything but calm-abiding. Thoughts ping-pong off the skull, weave emotionally engaging stories of what should have been or should be in times to come, the chatty inner voice seems to be unceasing and many people conclude at this point that this mediation stuff is just making it worse. What is really happening is that the nature of mind is being encountered for the first time. This kinetic, frantic spinning is what you have been living with day in and day out for years without really noticing it for what it is.
So how did the idea that there is a calm-abiding state to be found within ever arise? There are a few ways to talk about it which in my experience can be very helpful for understanding the process and helping people stick with it. One way of touching the peace is to allow an awareness of the gap between thoughts or the gap between breaths to grow. That chatty inner voice that seems to be unceasing actually is modeled on the outer voice and stops to take a “breath” every once in a while. A related way of understanding what it is to practice calm-abiding recognizes that while on one level the chatty, discursive, conceptual mind works ceaselessly, never resting in sleep or wakefulness, on another level a continuous simplicity also exists which is untroubled, profoundly grounded and at peace. Do not expect thoughts to cease, it is the nature of thoughts to be continuously arising. Instead, when meditating move the locus of awareness deeper into the body, beyond the whirling thought-mind. Dwell in the heart.
In Tibetan traditions shamatha is not considered the final point of meditative practice. After gaining some facility with calm-abiding the student proceeds to what is known as vipassana which is a type of contemplation of ideas that are conductive to the nurturance of wisdom. Western traditions teach that after the purgative stage comes the illuminative (on its way to the unitive). When we understand this give and take that weaves periods of concentration with periods of rest, meditation soon becomes pleasant, which encourages us to stay with our discipline day after day. Once the mind has been calmed a bit the object of the meditative session is brought to awareness. I have found many times my contemplations on these subjects are greatly enriched by starting with whatever understanding I have of history, biology, chemistry, ecology, evolution, cosmology and physics. At other times a snippet of song or poetry or a remembered dream provide good starting points. In these practices radical acceptance is extended to self and others; the pain and confusions of ignorance and selfishness are absorbed deeply into the heart on the in-breath and an aspiration for all sentient being to be free of such suffering sent out on the out-breath.
So a meditative session is not an experience of voidness but instead a type of tasting of an insight. Intuition and felt-images work together to sow seeds of wisdom. Slowly as the days go by and melt into years the inner landscape of the body-mind unfolds, growing ever more detailed and rich. Both highs and lows, moments of despair and moments of ecstasy are all mixed together with the mind-stream in a type of alchemical process. When done correctly there is an increased empathy for everyone who shares with you this tricky yet wonder-filled mind and there is a gratitude for experience that extends forgiveness to all, leading beyond ego based judgments of good and bad.
I recommend adopting a daily practice. Take anywhere from a half hour to two hours every day to set aside the concerns of the world, concerns around survival and status, and recall the true roots of what it is to be human. Mindfulness is remembering.
This life that you are experiencing will not last forever, of that we can be sure. Drink deeply of it.
The practice of contemplation is an act of protest against the shallow characterizations of living that pervades our cultural mono-vision of consumers and consumption. Deep practice is an alternative lifestyle, a step outside of the mainstream. With the development of skill these practice sessions become a way of bathing again in the refreshing waters of earth’s purity. By nurturing compassion and aspiring to heal the rifts that have grown so threatening between us and the earth, we touch the natural world as a friend, confidant, and admiring lover. By bringing the value of living-being clearly to mind we strike a blow against the nihilistic meaninglessness that has grown like a cancer in western societies since at least the First World War.
Practices like the Zen tea ceremony are a good guide to what the contemplative traditions hold as the good life. They celebrate better without the more and faster that has become our cultural dead ends. Every meditation session is our small yet important contribution to the overall state of mindfulness enjoyed by the whole of the human race at that moment. Every session is a blow against the darkness of isolation and anomie and a ringing endorsement of our profound inner liberty, dignity and freedom.
The inspiration for practice comes from some glimpse we have had into the potential of the human mind’s states of consciousness. Perhaps it was a moment of love that knew no bounds and embraced all beings, all things, and all events. Perhaps it was a moment when the intricate pattern of cause and effect, that seems so filled with the pain of mistakes, was seen through the eyes of grace to be perfect, just as it is, always has been and always will be. Perhaps it was a second of helping another living thing find peace or laughter or healing when the scales fell from our eyes and we saw the sacred within this very earthly life. There are many, many states of consciousness in the mansions of the mind. With practice all three realms are visited: the heavenly, the hellish, and the earthly. Yet to do the practice is itself an affirmation that our small, selfish, fearful states of mind do not wholly define us. To do the practice is to affirm that these higher, selfless states of consciousness are precious even if they are discarded and belittled by the culture at large.
In the age of ecocide we can be overwhelmed, wailing ‘what can I do?’
“The Most Radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.” Joanna Macy
A word or two about doing the work. It is your mind, your body, your fate, your breath, your death, your love, your wisdom, and your folly that is the content. Ultimately it is also your skillful means and inner guru that will see you through as well. Fundamentally, any practice done with sincerity and integrity cannot be done wrong. If your will is to sit and meditate and you sit and meditate for some time regardless of the actual content of the session it will have a beneficial fruitfulness from whatever effort was extended. Contemplative practice is an experiment in the exploration of consciousness. Your life events as they are processed by your mind and body provide the lab materials. The contemplative training technologies are the instruments, tools for this most exacting observational science. No one knows what result you will get from the experiment, not even you – until you actually do the work. I was also taught to keep a journal, a lab notebook as it were. You might find it aids in keeping focus as the years go by.
One final note. I studied the collected works of Carl Jung intensively for four or five years when I was young, between the ages of 17 and 21 or so. This model of depth psychology has remained with me to some degree. The model has a place for mandala images of the non-ego Self, a dictionary of symbolism by which to understand the hypnogogic imagery that can arise in deep meditative states, and a rich understanding of the developmental tasks typical of the different stages of life. His work served as a bridge for me to learn to rationally respect the non-rational, for the waking self to respect the dreaming self. I do not consider myself a Jungian nor do I think his model is as complete or useful as other, non-psychological ones. Still, Jung’s is the best work I know in the modern Western cannon of intellectuals that provides a context for and understanding of what the real alchemy of consciousness is all about. Buyer beware, but it worked for me. (See Lewis Mumford ‘The Revolt of the Demons’ New Yorker 23 May 1965 for an important corrective.) I mention this intellectual debt so my readers aware of Jungian thought will have a proper context in which to asses my ideas and in the spirit of sharing what I have found supportive of living a contemplative life in these modern times. My attention now that I am in my 50s is on science and meditation, the ecological crises and healing the deep wounds it causes but I recognize the expression of my thought bears an indelible stamp from my earliest teachers.