Wednesday, November 2, 2011


One day a friend of mine asked, 'What do you actually do when you meditate?  Because just thinking about your problems over and over just sounds awful to me'.  I had to agree that that sounded awful.  So it's lucky that that isn't meditation.  Although maybe it can be if you do it with the right attitude.  Because after a while you realize that everything you do, if you just take the trouble to be aware of what it is that you're up to, can be meditation.  It's the flip side of the old koan where the earnest young student asks, 'Master, what is meditation?' and the master says, 'Not meditation'.  Precisely - and not meditation is meditation.

But of course if you'd told me this when I first became interested in meditation it would have seemed like nonsense, and maybe it is.  So let's start how I started, by becoming aware that there are two broad styles of meditation, a style centred on concentration, and a style centered on mindfulness (samadhi and vipassana in Sanskrit respectively, for those who like ancient languages).  I also came across a few other approaches (like metta or loving-kindness meditation) that didn't seem to fit into either category, but I've come to think of most of them as involving some aspects of concentration or mindfulness (since loving-kindness is partly about becoming aware of the other people around you).

In any case, the first form of meditation that most people meet is based on focusing on the breath.  This is the style of meditation I learned about on the internet, and it's typical of many of the concentration approaches to meditation in that it offers you an object of meditation (the breath) and asks you to rest your attention on it.  Another popular technique is to focus on a simple physical object, like a doorknob (favoured by the British teacher Christmas Humphreys), or a ring (something I tried to pin my thoughts to for a while).  The visualization technique I learned from my Thai friend really just replaces the physical object with a mental one like a ball of light.

Mindfulness practices, instead of drawing the mind to a single point, invite you to expand it to embrace everything around you.  You can begin a mindfulness meditation by just becoming aware of the various parts of your body and how they feel, or by simply listening to the sounds around you while trying not to let any particular train of thought carry you away.  When thoughts come, which they will, just notice what they are without criticizing yourself and go back to listening to the noises around you or being aware of whatever sensations there are in your body.  You don't need to grasp at them - they'll come on their own, and all you need to do is pay them the tribute of your attention.

I've practised both these styles of meditation, and I've found that they are different in some ways.  I find mindfulness a more pleasant or rewarding practice when my mind is relatively relaxed and open to the world pouring in.  On the other hand, when I've had a stressful day and my mind is jumping from thought to thought (as one teacher always put it) like a monkey leaping from branch to branch (as it says in the scriptures), I find that concentrating on a visualized object will block out distractions like nothing else, though the exercise itself might feel difficult.  But the more I practice these two different styles the more I'm coming to think that they're doing more or less the same thing.

One way of communicating one of the things they have in common is to say that my friend was right - though meditation is never primarily about your thoughts, in some ways any meditation worth its salt will give you some kind of knowledge of your own thoughts.  In zazen (zen meditation) as I've been taught it the path to being aware of your thoughts is very direct - especially in its most unadorned form, shikantaza, in which you just sit and notice what happens, and whatever does happen in your mind is meditation.  But even the concentration styles have this feature, since though your intention is to focus on the object of meditation, part of the effort of doing that will be to notice where your thoughts have strayed to.

I could put it more strongly: the meditation object in these styles acts as a kind of crowbar with which you can pry your attention from your individual thoughts.  When I first read about meditation on the internet, the monk who wrote the piece I was reading went on at some length about how labelling your thoughts would eventually make you realize that your thoughts and phenomena in the world were two different things.  I didn't understand this at the time, and I took it to be so much metaphyscial claptrap I could leave behind while taking away a useful relaxation technique.  But actually, what the monk was saying is exactly right: really, it's only since I've started to become aware of all the voices in my head that I've realized that I'm going sane.

It's so easy to assume that your friend being an asshole is just a natural feature of the world before you consider that your friend being an asshole might just be a thought rather than something factual.  And your thought may well be right, but it may be useful just to be aware that it could also be wrong.  Mindfulness meditation makes you aware that there's difference between your thoughts and reality by the opposite route: rather than making you aware of your thoughts, it invites you to be awake to what is going on around you, which you then notice is not the same as the thoughts you'd complacently taken for truth.

And after a while you realize that what is going on around you is so much more varied and complicated and spacious and beautiful than what you were thinking that it's not even sad.  And after a little while longer it strikes you that even the anxious thoughts that are distracting you from the moment are part of the moment too, and you recognize that whatever you do, however you may conspire to cock things up, you're part of something very interesting.  And then you can relax, because there's no tecnhique or theory you could possibly need to make anything more perfect than it already is.  What is meditation?  Not meditation.

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