What is Meditation?

R: Jay, Thanks for reading my question. I’m sure you must receive my kind of question all the time. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry.

I just want to know how to meditate. You see, I have read so many different articles about this, and they all say different things, like counting breaths/visualisation/sitting in a lotus position etc. I’m just not sure what to do.

My purpose in meditation is to (hopefully!) clear my mind and my awareness of my thoughts, so I could have greater control over my thoughts.

Thanks for your time

Jay: Thanks for your note. Actually it’s always interesting to consider a question again, even if it sounds like something I’ve heard before. You’re different and I’m different than before! So we’ll start from scratch.

First of all, after nearly 40 years of being involved in meditative work, I would say not to take what other people, even so-called masters, say too seriously. Actually it’s difficult to know how to interpret what someone else is trying to say about these things without having a chance to talk with them in some depth. Often the things we read about meditative work may be out of context or easily misunderstood. It’s nice to be able to communicate and inquire with a live person about these issues. Ultimately we need to find out for ourselves what is helpful and what is not. But it is very easy to get off on certain habits and spend years doing something without carefully examining or experimenting with what I’m doing.

I’m glad you talked about your purpose. I think this is important to examine and consider carefully. You would like to have greater control over your thoughts. You don’t say why but maybe you find that your thinking easily gets out of control, takes over on its own, leaves you in some confusion, or is perhaps disturbing. It would be interesting to examine carefully what it is exactly that bothers you about your thoughts.

So being concerned about your thoughts, the idea of controlling the mind sounds appealing. It may be important to clarify what you mean by “controlling”. If you mean giving the mind and the body (body/mind) what it needs in order to function in a healthy way (which includes rest, quiet time, a break from mental activities) then that seems fine. Maybe in that case “control” is not the most accurate word. We could say that is nurturing or supporting the mind.

If you mean learning mental activities that focus or channel thoughts or mind states, then I would look carefully at what you are doing. That kind of activity, I find, is very tiring and has only limited, temporary effect. It address symptoms but does not get to the root of the difficulty with thinking. Some people have very powerful experiences with focusing the mind. It can have ecstatic effects in the same way that ride a bicycle very fast or running can have, or immersing oneself in a problem or a book or movie or person. This can generate a lot of feel-good chemicals and people can spend years trying to build their ability to do such things and have such experiences. I have the feeling that usually they don’t really increase their abilities and in fact the experiences, with repetition, become less rewarding very quickly. But if the person has been led to believe that if they keep at it, they will eventually experience something even more wonderful, they can continue with this for years.

So let’s go back to what is the state of mind that bothers you. Before deciding on a remedy, it is probably wise to become much more intimately and carefully familiar with what is going on that you have identified as a problem. In order to do this, it is necessary to take time to sit still – putting aside the physical moving around for a time, because it is clear that there can be subtler listening when the body is relatively still.

It also requires leaving the mind alone! If you try to “do something” – focus your attention, try to achieve certain states, try to “calm” the mind, get upset with what the mind is doing, try to keep from daydreaming, etc. – all of these things simply churn up more activity in the mind and prevent a simple seeing or revelation of what is really going on.

Inevitably, in sitting down, the mind will – on its own – engage in reacting, chattering, fidgeting, daydreaming, and so on – at least at first. There is no need to add any further reacting to what is already happening. Just to see if all of this internal activity – along with the external sensations – can be noticed as it arises. It is also helpful to see if the “noticer” can be noticed. What is the nature of this space in which noticing can happen? Is there anyone behind it, in the middle of it controlling it, or does it just happen? This is an open question.

You might say, “Well, you still didn’t tell me what to do when I’m meditating.” The value of sitting still is in the possibility of the inner activity of the body/mind becoming noticeable. And the amazing thing is that this happens on its own. If you stop running around and are still, much more is noticed. It doesn’t take an effort to notice. Noticing just naturally happens when there is some additional quietness of the body and mind. You may sometimes feel that certain things you do make something more noticeable but if you experiment with it – and don’t “do” anything in particular at all – you will find that this noticing still happens.

Many people worry when they realize they have been daydreaming or lost in thought. There is no need to worry that you should have done something to prevent that. My experience is that the brain needs to throw off a lot of excess activity and it does it as daydreams. When we daydream we are disconnected from a lot of reality. That’s just how it works. The very interesting thing is that the instant of realizing that one has been daydreaming is already the instant of waking up from it. Nothing further is needed.

So to your question of the mechanics of meditation, certainly it’s helpful to sit in a stable position but there is no reason it can’t be a comfortable one. If you sit on the floor, try to have both knees touching the ground, rather than having them up in the air, because it’s hard to sit stably with the knees up in the air. To get the knees on the ground, you need to sit up higher. I personally sit on a sofa much of retreat.

In a certain sense we can say there is no such thing as meditation. There is only the allowing the body and mind to be still, letting up on our usual attempts to control the state of the body/mind. In some stillness things reveal themselves in a simple awareness that is not personal, that has no agenda, that does come from any efforts on our part. This is not a mysterious thing or an advanced state. It happens all the time. It’s just that we don’t notice it and as a result we think that intelligence only arises from our self-conscious efforts. And so we set out to become good meditators. It’s unnecessary. Wisdom and freshness come when this simple listening is given enough time and space.

You may still feel like I haven’t given you any tools and when you sit down to meditate without anything to focus on, you may find yourself very uncomfortable. Isn’t that exactly the state that you wanted to use meditation to overcome? Instead of overcoming it, can you live that state intimately and sensitively? Confused, uncomfortable, without anchor, just as it is happening? If you need to find out what it is, there will come the energy to be with the state that is going on.

You may find it helpful to ask “What is the ground, the root, in which all this is happening?” This is similar to the question “What/who is the observer that is noticing all of this?” This question opens up into the body itself.

Is this a good enough start? I don’t know if I’ve addressed your question well or not, so please feel free to write back with clarification, questions or other observations.

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