I include these next sections because a number of you have written asking for more information. Please note that I do not consider myself an expert in meditation. I do feel that, after 35 years or so of practicing, I finally understand something about what mediation is and is not. It is this that I will try to convey in what follows. Also, some of this was presented elsewhere in this forum, but is included here for the sake of completeness, so forgive any repetition.
This entire section is about the idea of meditation and does not present specific meditation techniques. If you need instructions on technique, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org
) and I will try to locate the nearest center (Buddhist, Hindu, whatever) where you can receive them.
Well, the problem with meditation is that most of us here in the west have no idea what it is. It has not been part of our training and we don’t even have any folklore or stories about it in this country. We just don’t know much about it.
That might be considered a good thing, a blank slate, except for the fact that the popular notion of meditation in this country is something akin to relaxation therapy, a new kind of stress reducer. Or, on the other hand, another notion is that beginning meditation is the key to enlightenment and Samadhi. In either case, we would be mistaken, and all of these misconceptions swirling around in our brain only fill that blank slate with obscurations we somehow have to remove before we can even start. And, we don’t even know we have to remove them.
So before we even know what meditation is, our own expectations drawn from books, friends, and our imagination have already formed an image of meditation in our mind that slows down any progress we might make. One analogy might be that just as many people think they know what astrology is (and reject it), so we think we know what meditation is.
As astrologers, we can find the above analogy useful. It is the same way for us with meditation. We have only our expectations to go on unless we actually go and discover for ourselves what meditating is all about, and that too is fraught with problems.
There are literally hundreds of practices that go by the name of “meditation,” because here in the west we have only that single word to work with. And before I go on, let me be clear on what we are discussing here. I am not putting down the types of meditation out there for relaxing, zoning out, reaching the ‘inner depths,” and what-have-you? I either just don’t know anything about them or have looked into them enough to know they are not meditation as the Asian practitioners, in countries like Nepal, India, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, and so on are doing. Meditation, as practiced by Buddhists and many Hindus sects alike, is what is called (in ancient Sanskrit) “Shamata,” which translates as something like ‘calm abiding,” often called simply ‘Tranquility Meditation.”
This is not to say there are not other kinds of meditation, but only to say that a great many diverse groups all seem to agree upon Shamata meditation, and that it is the place to start. I agree, so we can start there.
There is no way around the fact that since beginning meditation is unknown to you, you will be able to avoid going through the motions in something of a rote fashion, not unlike the old “Say-Wah Tay-Gu Sigh-Am” mantra that many of us enjoyed as a kid. We have to begin somewhere. If you have ever tried to learn an instrument like the guitar or piano, you already know that those first couple of lessons can be tough and many of us fall by the wayside and turn to something else to master.
And the mind is the most sensitive instrument ever known, what the Tibetans call “The Wish-fulfilling Jewel.” And it is just that. The mind is the key to just about everything we know, have known, and will know. We can lose a leg or an arm, but if we lose our mind, it is pretty much all over.
The majority of the people in the world (in Asia, etc.) learn from an early age that the mind, like any instrument, requires training or at the very least learning something about. I like the way the Tibetans put it: the mind is something we each need to be introduced to, and (according to the Tibetan lamas), we can’t introduce ourselves to. They claim that the true nature of the mind is something that can only be (and needs to be) pointed out to each of us by someone who already knows it.
Unfortunately, in this country, while we have all kinds of disciplines for using the mind, like mathematics, philosophy, theology, etc., we have given about no thought to calibrating or looking into the mind itself. And we have no one introducing our children to the mind, as they do in Asian countries. Most of us here have yet to be introduced ourselves, much less to introduce others, but that is gradually changing.Meditation and Deep Space
We use our minds to reach only so far, but almost always outward, and seldom inward, although that is where all that we are comes from – from within. Today I find astrologers making all kinds of connections in outer space, like the Galactic Center, black holes, information theory – whatever. I even helped to pioneer that kind of investigation back in the early 1970s, so I do know something about this.
And in our headier moments, when we are riding high out of the body for a day or part of a day, the endless identification of this and that black hole or neutron star as being part of us, this process of identification of our own self as writ large in the cosmos, is just that: identifying our own self as it is already out there in everything. We are finding what we have never known.
Today we do it in a piecemeal fashion (object by object) and, as science turns up another piece of the puzzle, so we find ways of giving these distant cosmic events personal and cultural meaning for astrology. Like beads on a rosary or mala, we string together parts of our own history and destiny - Astro-archeology. We identify!
What would happen if instead of these Uranus-like flashes of insight about the exoskeleton of the cosmos (the latest black hole, etc.)… what if this same kind of light or insight were to overcome us in a steady Neptune-like dawn, that is: what if the whole Sun were just to rise and we saw the whole thing for what it is? What if the mystery was no longer a mystery, if the occult was revealed, and the esoteric made exoteric? What then?
In Tibetan cosmology, there are an infinite number of worlds with sentient beings like ours, and if you can know one, you know them all. If you touch one, you touch all. How to do that?
I know from experience about connecting the elements of deep space into somewhat of a unified view or whole, so I am not brand new to this. I know how the mind runs the gauntlet of the present to identify everything that at first appears alien or foreign to us as only yet another part of our self and life. I have seen the light of the mind race through the deep-space forms in the process of identification, finding that even at the most far end of the universe there is none other than ourselves, not because we can see that far, but because we are already (and have always been) the universe looking at itself through our eyes. We are the intelligent life we keep searching for in space. We have been looking everywhere for intelligent life, except in the one place it actually is, which is within our own self and mind.
We are already it, in there, looking out at ourselves. So if you want to know what meditation is all about, it is about turning our gaze from out there inward toward itself, learning to look at our own self for what it actually is, and beyond that ‘Self” or Sun to the true nature of the mind.
Just as from the center of a sphere, we have leverage on the entire periphery, likewise from within the mind itself comes all the appearances in this world we love to appreciate and get to know. In all of this, we are only knowing ourselves through this process we call identification. Identification is not just how we know ourselves, but also how the universe knows itself, and how cosmic information is circulated, that is: through us. We are the 'alien' space man that we are waiting to find out there and have always been that. We are looking to find ourselves.
This realization is available to anyone willing to just look. If we don’t yet know ourselves in all of our creation, it is because we have not ever bothered to look, have never bothered to break away from our deer-in-the-headlight stare and just look. It may be paradoxical, but the key to what is out there in the cosmos of deep space is only to be found within our own mind, because we are the “looker.” Because meditation is about “looking at the looker,” getting to know the looker, and this is why learning something about it is so useful.My Own History
A number of you have written to me privately asking various questions about meditation. Since there seems to be some confusion about this term, it seems worthwhile to present at least some detail about what meditation is all about.
For myself, I have been practicing (or trying to practice) meditation for some 35 years. That might sound impressive, but probably only I know how much of that time was perfectly wasted because I had little to no idea of what I was doing.
Yes, I had instructors and I am sure they knew what they were doing. It is I who did not know what meditation was all about and that was a large part of the problem. Most of my difficulties had to do with my own expectations as to what meditation in fact was and, of course, I did not know what to expect. Expectations by definition are fraught with confusion.
So what follows here is intended to make clear (hopefully) some of the obstacles I came across in trying to learn to meditate. May they be helpful to those of you just starting out, and for the record: I had a very late start.
My difficulties were not the fault of not having an experienced instructor. I had the extreme good fortune of meeting the Most Ven. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in early 1974 and serving as his chauffer for a short time. In fact, almost the first thing Trungpa Rinpoche did after getting off his plane and back to the professor’s home in Ann Arbor where he was to stay, was take me into a small room, close the door, and proceed to teach me basic Shamata (calming the mind) meditation for an hour or so. Of course, he never gave it a name, and I had little idea at the time just what it was he was showing me. Yet, it had a profound effect on me.
After that, I received booster shots of the basic instructions for meditation from a number of other qualified teachers, read many articles and books, and from all of that I thought I had the general idea, which was that I was to sit and look at my mind.
Looking back now, it is clear that I probably wasted twenty years or so not getting much of anywhere with basic sitting meditation. With its older brother, Vipassana meditation, I had better luck, and better yet with Mahamudra meditation, the principle form of meditation in the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism to which I belong.
It is said in the Mahamudra teachings that the function of the guru is to point out to the student the true nature of the mind. “The Nature of the Mind,” this phrase immediately raises expectations reminiscent of the realm of Zen koan dramas. One thing I did not at first understand is that recognizing the nature of the mind is not the same as enlightenment (whatever that is), so let’s start there.
What is meant by the phrase ‘recognizing the nature of the mind’ as I understand it is more like being able to finally see the actual problem I was having with meditation and, having seen that, I then saw that the nature of the mind was not something beyond my reach (as I had always implicitly assumed), but rather more like seeing how the mind actually worked, seeing that the mind (my mind) was in fact quite ‘workable.” I finally could see a little into how I might work it. This was a very practical revelation.
When I read in the classic texts about “seeing the nature of the mind,” I assumed and expected some grand fireworks-like display and that I would be immediately transported into some transcendental state of illumination. You know, “enlightenment” Expectations are hardly ever your friend and almost always obscure the path and the reality. It might be better to say the teacher points out the nature of ‘how’ the mind works rather than say simply the teacher points out “the nature of the mind.” In my case, the less that is left to the imagination, the better.
In other words, at least in my experience, the ‘Aha!” experience was not “Aha!, this is enlightenment,” but rather “Aha! I get it now. This is how the mind works and even a beginner like me can do that. This is actually workable, something I could do.” In an instant my years of expectations vanished and were replaced by something practical that actually made sense to me. How encouraging!
The “pointing out” instructions didn’t somehow mark the end of my practice and my graduation to some higher level, but rather the end of my imitating what it is I thought practice was supposed to be, and the very beginning of actual useful practice. Finally I got the general idea of how to work with my mind. For the first time I saw and that there was no reason that I (just as I am, warts and all) could not do it. It was up to me to figure out just how.
And while this was less exotic than what I had expected, it was the first tangible result of many years of practice, and it was not just a passing experience, but a simple realization as to what had to happen next, like: when you learn to ride a bike, you don’t forget. That quite ordinary insight was a form of realization.
In reality, this was a huge result after about 31 years of meditation of the “sounds like this” variety during which I sincerely went through the motions, but with little result. I had been rubbing the sticks and getting some heat but no fire. Suddenly, there was some heat and also fire.
The mind was suddenly workable and all I had to do was to work it. After many years I actually understood something about meditation, not the enlightenment-revelation I had in my expectations, not the thunderbolt from above, not something beyond this world of Samsara, but something much more down to earth and already very close to me – the nature of ‘my’ mind, that is: how to work with it. After all my years of theoretical practice, it finally got practical and therefore real practice could begin. Nevertheless, as minimal as my understanding was, it brought about a profound change in my approach to meditation. Let me explain.Daily Practice
For a great many years I had set aside time in my daily schedule (or tried to) for meditation. In the beginning, it might have been as little as five minutes of sitting a day, often propping myself up in bed after I hit the covers because I had forgotten to do it that day, or in some little bit of time shoe-horned into my busy schedule. Later, as part of various practices, it might be two hours a day. It varied over the years. What didn’t vary were the results I was getting, as in: little to none, at least as far as I could tell.
Whatever amount of time I spent on meditating, it was not enough to amount to much in terms of any kind of “enlightenment,” in realizing how my mind worked. In fact, it was not much different from my previous Catholic upbringing of going to church every Sunday morning, whether I felt like it or not.
Soon after the pointing-out instructions and my understanding that the mind actually was workable, almost the first realization I next had was that I was not going to get very far on one or two sitting sessions a day anymore than I was likely to get to heaven going to church once a week when I was a kid. This was just obvious. Like any other study, it would take a lot more time than that to learn about the mind. Most of us could not go to college for an hour a day and expect to learn very much. This is even more true in the case of meditation, a subject that is not yet even taught in our schools!
I had one thing going for me and that was crucial: for the first time in my life I at least knew how the mind worked, even if only in the most rudimentary way. And this knowledge was what I had been waiting for all these years. It took meditation out of the realm of expectation and placed it in my own hands. My teacher had done his job. He had pointed out to me the nature of my own mind and I had understood it, however incompletely; it was now up to me to figure out how to take it further – my responsibility.
And the good news for me is that I wanted to take it further. Actual enthusiasm for practice, which I had never had that much of before, was now in full flame – on fire. Meditation had become practical, something within my reach, something in my own hands, at last. And practical things I do understand.
One of the first realizations after my initial insight was that my practice all of these years had been mostly of the pretend variety, as in “meditation should look like this,” and so on. The cushion, the shrine room, the text, everything I used (and my whole attitude) were steeped in expectations and self-consciousness like a cheap perfume. This would not do.
In the past, as I approached the task of practicing, as I arranged my cushion and sat down, I drew around me a cloud of expectations and artificiality that drowned out any insights that might be waiting for me. I had made way too much out of my meditation practice. My expectations and assumptions as to what practice and realization were about overwhelmed the actuality, which was as stale as an old cigar. I knew that I had to boycott that mess, at least for a while.
Could I have avoided this? I doubt it, but it would have helped a lot if I knew that all of the phony-baloney feelings I was having, my pride and arrogance as a “meditator,” and my own actual aversion to much of what I was doing, was quite natural and to be expected. It was ok to not know a damn thing about what I was doing, and yet still keep doing it. Yes, most of us will have to 'pretend' until we catch a break, a real insight. If you are unwilling to go through the motions of trying to do something you know nothing about (like trying to play a song on a guitar), you are in trouble, time wise. I was that way and my unwillingness to pretend when I didn't know what I was doing added many, many years to the task.
I had read all the stories about practicing and getting no results, but had managed to elevate even the “getting no results” part to something beyond my kind of boredom, my playing hooky, delinquency, and so on.
I had elevated even my pretending to meditate and my “monkey-see, monkey-do” aspect of practice well above what I was personally experiencing, which was mostly humiliating because I couldn’t quite get into it. And so I was perpetually punishing myself for not measuring up to a bar I myself had set too high. And this went on for years, until something quite practical suddenly clicked.
At that point, and for perhaps the first time, I now wanted to actually practice more, where before I usually would try to see how little practice I could get away with without a twinge of conscience. How could I get more practice in when I could not even approach my sitting cushion without entering a boring envelope of bad habits and previous disappointments. The answer was quite simple.
I could take what little I had finally learned and, like the single thread that unravels the sweater, begin to use that. It was clear to me that to get anywhere I would have to do a lot more practice than I had been doing, yet I still had to make a living, be with my family, walk the dogs, and all of that everyday stuff. How could all that ever happen?
Well, it could happen by taking my new experience of working with the mind (however little that was) off the cushion and into my day-to-day life. And that is what I did. Very gradually I began to transfer what I was learning from the moment’s instant glimpse on the cushion (or wherever it happened) to whatever I was doing at the moment, wherever I was. I believe that it was helpful that I am (among other things) a computer programmer.
Computer programming requires quite a lot of concentration, and concentration for long periods of time. I had been used to doing that since the early 1970’s and my programming time was the easiest avenue to introduce to my new-found methods of observing the mind. It was quite natural for the two to go together, my ability to concentrate on programming and the Mahamudra techniques I was in the process of learning.
So, very slowly at first, sitting at my desk, concentrating on the programming at hand, I began to learn to look at the nature of my mind, a microsecond at a time. I would be working lost in thought, suddenly become aware that I was distracted and daydreaming or whaterver, and right then look at the nature of that thought or experience I was in that moment having, be aware of the nature of that thought, and then rest in that awareness. The books call it “Awareness Awareness.” This is a technique that you need to be instructed in. Note my words.
This took many, many months, but the beauty of it was that before long I was able to practice while I worked. Instead of only meditating for ten minutes or an hour or two, I was practicing (in this particular way) for very long periods of time, like most of the day. I probably work at least 12 hours a day.
Then before too long I found myself doing this same kind of practice not only on the computer, but wherever I happened to be and with whatever I happened to be doing. If nothing else was accomplished, by looking at the nature of my thoughts, thoughts that would have otherwise taken me on long distractions just dissolved and went on their way… without me. I was not being distracted by them or if so, only minimally. At the very least, I avoided accumulating a lot of the imprint or karma that those constant day-dreaming distractions would have no-doubt involved me in.
In following what I am presenting here, one has to discriminate between the subject of a thought (like: ‘lunch is in an hour.’) and the true nature of that thought. It is enough here to mention this, but this is a very important distinction. the subject matter of a thought is not important, only the true nature of the thought and that is an area you will have to seek instruction in from a very experienced practitioner.
The net result has been to (more than before) provide me with a portable practice that I could use on the job, off the job, on the cushion, and off the cushion. Accompanying this approach has been an ever-increasing appreciation for my dharma teacher, for his having somehow managed to point out to me this technique, a technique that without which I would be right back where I was before – wasting large areas of my life and understanding very little.
And with that appreciation came increased love and devotion to my teacher and gratefulness for his existence, for our meeting, and for his success in outwitting my previous (like: my whole life) ignoring of the obvious, of what was right before me all along, and not (as I had mistakenly assumed) something always just beyond my reach, some mythical enlightenment that I was to get to someday, like pie-in-the-sky.
It really is true when they speak about ignorance in the teachings - ignorance as in “ignoring,” refusing to actually look at the mind itself – anything but that! It is actually as simple as learning to look at the mind.
My teacher gave a most useful analogy of the process I am trying to describe here. Finding out the nature of your own mind for the first time, he said, is like viewing a herd of wild horses racing across a great plain. They are wild, untamed, disheveled, and dirty. The teacher manages to get your attention just long enough to point to one horse in particular and say “Do you see that really dirty one over there? That is your horse.”
This pointing out of the mind-horse is not the enlightenment I had always kind of expected, as in: I did not suddenly become enlightened, but I did finally see the horse and see what I had to do. What the teacher managed to do was introduce me to my particular horse, my particular mind, and put me in touch with it for the first time, demonstrating to me that my own mind is simply workable, if I ever cared to actually work it. And with that came the understanding that it was my responsibility to deal with this. That perhaps was the most important realization of all.
Wow! I had no idea it was that simple and direct or that it was so close and right in front of me all this time. I had been reaching for the stars when I already had everything I needed right here with me all the time. And I was used to dealing with practical things, so I didn’t need to learn anything new.
And just to make it clear, this is not the first time that I had the pointing-out instructions from Rinpoche. He had given them at least one other time that I can remember, and try as I might at the time, I didn’t get it, so maybe that is where all of my effort at doing “sounds like this” meditation paid off – loosening me up to get it. And this speaks to the value of doing a lot of repetitive practices, like prostrations, mantras, and the like.
Rinpoche pointed this out to me and I finally got it and from that instant it was up to me. He put my eventual “enlightenment” or lack of it in my own hands and made ME responsible for it, not him. After a lifetime of ignoring, I had managed to respond, however minimally. The words in the sacred texts I had read for so many years make so much more sense now, and I repeat:
It is the job of the teacher to point out to the student the nature of his or her own mind. This is what is called the “Pointing Out” instructions, and when understood, this marks the beginning (at least for me) of real practice, a practice I no longer have to force myself to do each day, but a practice I cannot avoid doing by just living each day.Repetitive Practices
I am sure many of you have heard about other kinds of mind practice beyond simple meditation, the various pujas, sadhanas and prayers, plus the cycle of practices of the “Ngondro,” called the Extraordinary Preliminaries, with its 111,000 prostrations, 111,0000 invocations, 111,000 mantras, 111,000 offerings, and 111,000 supplications of the guru? And after that, the years of elaborate yidam practice? What is all of this formal practice about?
I sure don’t know the entire answer to the above question, but I have done them. And I do know that I am probably a hard case, a tough nut to crack, and so on. All of those practices, the ordeal of ngondro (and I did it twice!) and the more complex advanced practices, all of which were not done by me in any (even) semi-enlightened manner, gave me something to do until some small amount of realization came along. These practices kept me busy and pointed in the right direction, and probably gradually wore down my resistance and lessened the obstacles to my actually seeing what needed to be done.
Rinpoche says that these kind of practices allow us to accumulate the merit needed to experience deeper insight into the nature of the mind. For me, beginning meditation was strictly “monkey see, monkey do,” with me as the monkey and mediation as what I was trying to do. You have to start somewhere, receive instructions, and try them out. Maybe that is why it is called “practice,” because we are just practicing until the real thing comes along, until we can learn what actual meditation is all about. But we will never learn unless we try, just like we will never play the guitar unless we can go through the process of learning the chords, and starting from the beginning.
My main mistake was the assumption that I was to practice until I received some signs of enlightenment and I assumed that enlightenment was the end result of my practice. In other words, I was to meditate until I had glimpses of enlightenment or something like that. In fact, what I should have been doing is meditating until I understood what meditation actually was, and only after that begin meditating in earnest. This little misunderstanding cost me many years of practice.
What would have worked better for me is to have been shown how to meditate and then told that, no matter what I thought I understood, chances of my actually understanding how to meditate, what it was, what results to expect, etc. were not likely, and that first I should just try it out and just see what happens.
Instructors local to me were either in the same boat as myself or didn’t manage to note that I was imitating something I didn’t even know enough about to imitate properly. And Rinpoche was at the end of an 800 mile drive and, even then, available perhaps for a 15 minute interview, and he speaks no English. So I didn’t know that I didn’t know what meditation is. I thought I knew what meditation was and that I just had to do more of it, when in fact I had no idea of what meditation was supposed to feel like, how the nature of my mind actually worked, and all of that.
So I spent a great many years more or less pretending to meditate, which makes some of the Zen methods look a little more interesting, in that sitting in a sesshin for a week with someone to whack you on the back once in a while might not be a bad way of waking one up.
What I needed to know back then was that I had little to no idea of what mediation was, no matter how many books I read or instructions I had received. This is probably why there are so many stories in the literature (especially in Zen) about teachers upsetting the apple carts of students, and forcing them to think out-of-the-box.
I was practicing until I got enlightened, when I should have been practicing until I got the hang of it and could see how to do the real thing – like actually meditate. When we learn to ride a bike, most of us get a few bruised kneecaps before we can actually ride. As far as I now know, that is the view to hold when beginning meditation – to know that you don’t know, that you have no idea of what it is, and that you will be just going through the motions until something clicks.
As I look back on my beginning practice, I have many thoughts and feelings. Yes, there were days or parts of days when my practice filled me with happiness and I had the experience of this and the experience of that, only the next day to have the experience of something much less grand, and so on it went. I would be filled with hope of achievement, glimpses of clarity, and equally with dullness, discouragement, but mostly with the knowledge that I had not practiced enough. How did I know this? Easily, I wasn’t getting anywhere. And “getting somewhere” was on my list of things to do, and this became a major problem because in the end there was no ‘somewhere’ to get to of the variety I had imagined. This is a common mis-take.
Also, I was ingenious at getting out of daily practice, of cutting my practice short, and explaining to myself why another day would give me a fresh start, etc. And I was mostly discouraged with my own inability to enjoy practice. In truth, for the most part, I didn’t like practice for the same reasons I never had liked school and rote learning.
I got through it, like I got through many practices, by just doing it one day at a time, but I can’t say that my motivation was that great or that my actual practice was great, or that I got great results. One of the senior students (since become a lama) once told me that her practice was like an old worn shoe. I can agree with that, only my shoe was old but not so worn.
In short, I found it hard to take joy in my practice and I well knew that practicing without joy was not a healthy thing. And I was ashamed. I manage to find interest and joy in almost all of my business and personal pursuits. I can hardly wait to get up each day and work on whatever project I am doing, but that mood did not extend to my dharma practice.
Yes, I did my dharma practice, “religiously,” and that was part of the problem. It was more like having to take cod-liver oil, my daily medicine, than it was about joy and discovery. That is not what is called a ‘good’ attitude. I ask myself: how could this have been avoided?
That is hard to say. All of the teachings, the dharma books, the sadhanas, the empowerments, the time with Rinpoche… all of these were right on the money. When I go back today and read in the texts and instructions, they all are correct. Of course, it was my point of view, my understanding, and my expectations that skewed everything, but that is by definition true for all new practitioners. How could we already know anything about what we were here to find out? Expectations are killers. In fact, the Tibetans point out endlessly that the hope and fear are the two main enemies of progress.
I did not have the right idea of what was needed. I did not know much about what I was doing and only dimly why I was doing it. I was going through the motions of practice based on my respect and devotion to Rinpoche, the dharma texts, and from the few clear moments when it all made sense.
Most of all I marvel that someone like Rinpoche would go through all the trouble it took to get my attention and to patiently (and very, very slowly) show me how the dharma actually works, despite how I thought it should work. And I can see that we each face that same ordeal: how to find the right attitude so that the dharma makes sense and is workable for us.
And not everyone may have access to a Rinpoche or be pushy like I am. I managed to ingratiate myself into the dharma scene in an attempt to absorb whatever I could, and hopefully change my attitude.
Although our lineage does not manifest in a Zen manner, all the Zen rituals come to mind where the student tries to show the teacher that he or she gets it, and receives a boot in the pants or a whack with a stick. All of that makes perfect sense to me. Sometimes we need a kick in the pants when we pretend to know what we don’t and don’t even know we don’t know it. You have to trust the teacher to know the difference! In the end, my early practice was just the second-best thing to do until the real practice came along.
In the end, it was my own expectations that held me back, assumptions that I had made about what practice was, how it should manifest, and what its effects should look like. And these assumptions were just my take on the teachings I had heard, the dharma books I read, and what I managed to think it was. And I clung to those assumptions for so many years.
It would have been better for me to have had a course in taking those assumptions apart, now that I look back on that time. And of course, any breakthrough moments I did manage to have immediately became the coin of the realm and I spent all my time measuring my experience against those moments and trying to repeat them - a perfect definition of the term “vicious cycle.”Meditation is Foreign
How can I know what I don’t know? How can I even have ideas about what I know nothing about? We all do it every day.
“Your ‘guess’ is as good as mine,” Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, with a smile. With something as foreign to westerners as meditation, it is no wonder that very few knew what to expect or anything at all about what it is, how to do it, what to expect as results, and when to expect them. One thing I do expect is that years from now, books will be written about how westerners learned to mediate, but we are not there yet.
It is not a tradition in this country to work with the mind directly. It is as if we have not yet been introduced. Instead, in the west, we use the mind to look at any and everything else but itself. Yet in doing that we make one very mistaken assumption and that is that the mind, just as it is by virtue of birth, is good-to-go and does not itself need training. It would be like being given a distorted pair of glasses and wondering why the world is such a distorted place, yet never examining the quality of the glasses themselves.
How many people do you know in your community (outside of avowed meditators) that practice using their minds, that actually practice looking at the mind itself? It doesn’t happen, and ‘mind practice’ is not a part of our upbringing. As a nation, we have almost never heard of it. And the current concept of meditation as relaxation therapy is nowhere close to what we are discussing here – looking at the mind itself, looking at the looker. We just have no idea. It is not a part of our upbringing.
Therefore, beginning meditation for westerners is fraught with all kinds of roadblocks and obstacles from the get-go. Since we have never been formerly introduced to our own mind, we have no idea what meditation is about, so we mostly have to fabricate our expectations based on what we can gather from books and instructors. Meditation becomes whatever we think it is and before we can find out what it in fact is, we have to breakdown and remove all our ideas about what we think it is – our expectations.
Then, to top it off, when we actually start to sit and meditate, the experience is anything but peaceful for most of us. It is not like taking a Valium. It is more like grabbing a tiger by the tail. While we expect to sit calmly and focus the mind, suddenly, we have a wild and unruly beast in hand – our own mind for the first time. That experience does not synch well with the idea that sitting on the cushion for an hour is peaceful and calming. For the most part, it is not.
I would have probably done better had I been instructed to expect an incredible struggle with my mind, which in fact was the case, rather than to think that everyone should expect to find peace and a calm mind from sitting meditation. It would be the very, very rare student who would be able to sit down and just rest the mind in meditation. No one I have known has told me of that experience. While most don’t talk about it at all, those that do seem to have experiences similar to my own – anything but calm, at least at the beginning. Shamata – Calm Abiding
Beginning meditation is called Shamata in Sanskrit (Shi-nay in Tibetan) and this translates to something like ‘calm abiding,” the idea being to calm the mind. It is pointed out again and again in the Tibetan texts that Shamata is not to be viewed as an end in itself, as a final resting place for the mind, but as simply a way to prepare for Vipassana or Mahamudra meditation, which for beginners can’t take place if the mind is turbulent and wild.
Shamata is meant to be the place where the bumps and wrinkles are worked out leaving the ability to rest the mind calmly. That being the case, it is no wonder that beginners who expect simply sitting on the cushion to be peaceful and calm have quite another experience in store for them. And the more you try to force the mind to be still, the wilder it becomes. Every meditator knows this.
Shamata is the place where we first learn something about how the mind works, at least as far as push-me, pull-you training is concerned. Since strong-arming the mind just does not work, we learn instead to take a more gentle and accommodating approach. For most of us, there is a lot to be worked out as regards our approach to the mind, and it is with Shamata that we work it out.
Learning meditation is foreign to our way of thinking, not because it comes from another country, but because it challenges a basic premise of western philosophy, that the “‘Self” has true existence and is the boss. The Tibetans on the other hand point out that the “Self” is more of an obscuration than a permanent condition and, if investigated, will be something to be seen through rather than listened to. We can learn to see through or work with the "Self," not destroy it. It too is quite natural in its un-naturallness.
The “Self” as not real? We can’t even imagine what that means, much less have a real discussion about it in this country. Here in America, of course we assume the Self has a true existence. It’s me, myself, and I straight down the line, is it not? If we want to look for a flaw in western psychological dogma (or at least a hairline crack), it might be the fact that on one hand we are encouraged to find our self, to take possession of our self, to be our self, and so on, but at the same time told not to be selfish, not to love our self too much. Which is it? This contradiction is a perfect sign of the problem we face today.
It is not surprising that meditation has met with such a lack of understanding as to what it is, how to do it, and why to do it. Yet, without a doubt, meditation is one of the keys to our future here in the west. It is not a question of whether westerners will learn to meditate, but when.
The concept of meditation popular today reminds me of when LSD first appeared. How on earth could we have known what that drug was about? There was no way. And since LSD by nature is whatever you think it is, this really opens up the possibilities. Meditation is similar, in that since it first appeared in America, it has been anybody’s guess what it is, and we have all been guessing. It is whatever we imagine it to be.
Mostly we have imagined it was a way to relax, something akin to a stress reducer. Or we imagined that it was a place to go inside ourselves and get away from it all. Or perhaps a time of reverie or a gap in our day-to-day routine during which to contemplate eternal concepts like justice or truth. We are all over the board with this.
The Tibetans have dozens of words for meditation, but they all point to the same actuality. We have one word for meditation and it kind of points everywhere and anywhere, whatever we imagine meditation to be. It is only now, many decades after it was introduced to the west that the word ‘meditation’ is starting to resemble something that Asian meditators would even recognize.
Is it any wonder, considering that when we set about learning to meditate we have no idea of what we are doing? Our culture has not prepared us for the concept and probably no one we knew meditated as we grew up, so what do we think we are doing? Meditation really is ‘foreign’ to us, so it is not surprising that it has taken our society so many years to get any kind of handle on it.
The result is that many of us who approached learning meditation took a very long time to make any progress at all, and most of that time was not so much spent actually learning the technique, but instead it was spent removing our expectations or breaking down whatever we imagined meditation was all about.
Meditation is not in any way ethereal, but a very practical technique (like learning to type) that can be learned by anyone with a proper instructor. They teach typing don’t they? It is no different with meditation. Forget about ringing the gong, lighting the incense, and humming “Om.” All you need is a good instructor and to just get on with it.
Removing the phony spiritual stigma that surrounds meditation is a first step. Yes, meditation is related to enlightenment and to ‘spiritual” things, but as a match to the fire, at least in the beginning. You have to light the match to get the fire. You have to meditate to move toward enlightenment, but mediation is very much a part of this earth, the very essence of practical. It is not an end in itself, at least in beginning or Shamata mediation, but a means to approach getting to know the nature of our own mind.
I write this to hopefully take some of the mystery out of meditation and to help distinguish authentic Shamata meditation from relaxation therapy. For me meditation has been very difficult to learn. However, I credit meditation as the single most important technique I have ever managed to learn. It has made my life productive.