Pitfalls In Meditation?

B: Based upon your personal experience in meditation, what are the pitfalls of the mediation which yourself did and also have seen others doing/ going through? Also, how to recognize and get out of it (them)?

Jay: I don’t really remember anything I would call a pitfall. Certainly there have been times that were difficult but meditative work really involves, for me, being with the unknowableness of the present moment.

I can say that every moment, if really listened to carefully, is beyond really knowing whether the current state of things is good or bad, helpful or harmful, to be embraced or to be avoided. How could I know these things?

Certainly, there can be an immediate response in the mind to an unpleasant state. I’m sure you’ve noticed that. Let’s consider for a moment a state, maybe during meditation or not, that is fearful. Looking at this carefully, there is some kind of state that happens first before it is even labelled as fearful. Maybe the heart starts beating faster, the palms sweat, there are anxious thoughts in the mind. After the fact, the mind says, “I am afraid.” This labelling itself can affect the state. It can make it worse or it can result in a rigidity or in some attempt to get rid of what has been labelled fear. The mind can say, “I know what this means and I know what happens when I get in this state. Or at least I know what might happen.”

But we can ask, what is this state really if I don’t stick too much to the evaluation that it is fear. What is it if I just listen to what is going on right now without trying to change it? Usually when people do this, they find that what is going on is not what they thought.

So what would constitute a pitfall then? Obviously you don’t want to put yourself in physical danger. But mostly we are afraid because of what we are imagining might happen. It doesn’t hurt to get up and make sure that the loud noise in the living room is not someone breaking down the door. Once that is ruled out, then just listening freshly to what is going on.

Do you get the observation that labelling something as negative, a pitfall, can keep you from finding out what it really is? I am talking about when something is going on for you right now. I’m not talking about trying to figure out abstractly what is good or bad.

There is nothing wrong with the thought, “I wonder if something negative is going on now.” Or “I wonder if I’m making trouble for myself.” Maybe these are valid warning signs. The important thing is to listen carefully to what is going on at this moment – not just my thoughts about what I think is going on – to find out directly. Then you can know for yourself if something is helpful or harmful.

B: The pitfall that I referred to was when I ended up meditating on a fixed object – not like Insight meditation where everything is dynamic as the mind constantly on the move from place to place. As my concentration became stronger and stronger, I also felt the peace and calm that I wanted to stay with me. I would get angry if something distracted my “flow” and always yearn to be in that peaceful state again. Not a good idea, as I now know that nothing is in a permanent state. And, there is a limitation as to how long I could hold my concentration at certain level. By just focusing on being at peace, I felt the meditaion wasn’t advancing either. It was rather dry and systematic. And, I remember being at that stage for many years! – until I learned not to let the mind dictate what I need to do.

I understand exactly what you mentioned at the above, that is what I am also currently doing- being in the moment, and at the same time, pay attention to the mind (pay attention to what is coming and going) and the surrounding- without judging. It is kind of like just seeing that the water level is the middle of the glass- instead of seeing (judging) it as half empty or half full. And instead of controlling the mind, I watch it and use it when necessary. I sometimes get the urge of wanting to remain at certain (peaceful) stage. I simply watch the mind and a moment later that urge disappears. And, I know it wasn’t really me. It was the mind playing tricks, doing what it does best.

Jay: I remember now that we talked about this before. Well, you have discovered a pitfall for yourself and you have stepped out of it.

Maybe you still wonder a little bit about this focusing because you are asking about it. I agree with you that focusing on an object is not the same as having an open mind.

From my experience, focusing the mind does often bring about a state of energy or peace. But first of all, it is temporary. It is a mistake to think that somehow we “should” be able to train ourselves to have that feeling. That is not what meditative listening is about.

Most people use some form of this focusing in their lives. It is exactly what watching TV or a movie is. Or riding a bicycle fast, or running. Or even sex. That is why we like these activities. There is nothing wrong with them unless people try to use them to shut out painful things in their life.

Sometimes the mind may take on a certain focus naturally. That is not a problem.

So it sounds like you have discovered that focusing is not the same as being open with whatever comes up at this moment. It is very helpful to not be too concerned about what the state of the mind or body is. We can notice it. We can take care of the body and mind. But it isn’t necessary to create certain states. It takes too much energy and it blocks what is really happening right now.

To me, at each moment my body/mind has a certain state for this moment. The state of this particular moment is like a child that is trying to say something. It needs to be heard. If the state of this moment is sadness, it needs to be heard, so I have to be careful not to try to change it or make it be something different. I just need to hear what my body/mind is trying to say right now. If it has a chance to express itself, then it will be done with this state. Otherwise the state will come back again, until it is deeply heard.

Usually with children, if they are in a state that we’re uncomfortable with, we want to make them feel better. As adults we have a strong habit of wanting to interfere with a child’s difficult states. We tell them not to worry or to be “nice” instead of angry or we distract them with a game. How do we know that isn’t a disruption to what is going on for them at this moment? I watched once when our three year old granddaughter was standing in the hallway, arms crossed over her chest, a scowl on her face. She stood glaring and I stood there watching, interested, without interfering. Moments later her face and arms relaxed and she walked away to do something. The angry state was completely finished!

What I said about the body/mind expressing itself like a child every moment is sort of a metaphor. It probably isn’t true all the time but it has some reality and maybe you will relate to it.

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