Technique and Practices versus Simple Presence

L: I’d like to ask you three questions and will appreciate your answer.

1. What is your favourite book (or maybe some course available online) on meditation?

2. What is your favourite meditation technique? How do you usually meditate? What do you focus on? Can you describe it to me?

3. I suppose there are loads of books on meditation out there, but I cannot find anything on the subject of CONTEMPLATION. To me meditation and contemplation are not the same and I’d like to find out more about contemplation. I’d like to start practicing it. Do you know any good books (or maybe some online courses) on contemplation?

Jay: 1. Books. My teacher is a woman named Toni Packer and she has written several books. They are about how meditative work functions in our life.

2. To me the mind is like a pond or lake. If you jump around alot, you stir up the mud. If you are quiet, then you can start to see what it really is. So in sitting still, I don’t try to control the mind. I don’t try to make myself quiet. I don’t try to make the mind focused. It is just a time for a quiet presence that shows what is really going on. This means I may hear things or feels things more sensitively. But it also means that it becomes possible to hear the mind, the thinking, the wanting, the fear. To hear it all without needing to judge it as good or bad. Just to find out what the mind really is.

When I hear the noise in the mind, I realize that that is not what the mind really is. The noise comes and goes. It might get louder. It might get quieter. It might disappear. It might start up again. This all comes and goes. So what is the mind that notices all of that? I don’t know. I sit quietly, not knowing, just listening, more and more deeply.

3. I’m not sure what you mean by contemplation, so I can’t really answer that. For me, there is listening. Questions and observations come up in listening but it is the listening that is important.

Maybe by contemplation you mean there are some subjects you want to consider, to think about. For example, maybe someone experiences anger and wants to know more about this anger and not just sit quietly. I can understand that. So when I sit down, I may think about anger for a little while. What makes me angry? What triggers it? Do I think anger is helpful for me? If so, how do I think it helps? There may be many questions that come up. At a certain point I have thought of all the questions and there is nothing else I need to think about so I return to sitting quietly. I think the power of these questions then helps me continue to sit. I am sitting without knowing what to do or what to think but I am still interested in knowing about myself, so I stay alert. Then the mind may become deeper and quieter because it is interested in being open, alive, listening. At some point when it isn’t expected, some aspect of anger may reveal itself. This can happen when the mind is awake, sensitive, listening and yet still – not actively thinking.

So in this sense, contemplation opens up into meditation and meditation brings up deeper questions and deeper insights.

L: Hello again Jay!

As far as I know there are many Buddhist meditation techniques, but is it possible to say which ones are the most popular/widespread?

I’m asking because I’d like to write something about Buddhist meditation techniques and I’m wondering which ones should I pick and focus on during my writing?

I know that zazen and Vipassana are popular (although they seem to be very similar to each other). Do you know any others that I could/should focus on during my writing?

Jay: When I write about meditation, I am always concerned about being very careful, considering whether what I am saying is from direct observation or from my imagination, wishful thinking, or habitual ways of thinking. I don’t want to confuse others with my own confused ideas.

So I am considering carefully what to say about what you refer to as meditation techniques. You mention zazen and Vipassana. Zazen refers to sitting meditation in the Zen tradition. Vipassana is a different tradition. I think what we are talking about is what each tradition advises people to do while they are sitting.

There are various practices in Zen (I started out in Zen and have some personal familiarity with it). These include counting or following the breath (for beginners), working on a koan, or “just sitting” (shikantaza). Vipassana teachers also instruct students to follow the breath and give instructions to just observe what comes up.

Other “teachings” include focusing on various objects, such as a sound, a vision, a certain feeling.

Some of these activities have a helpful place at various times but all of them can very easily become a channel for simply reinforcing our own blind patterns – focusing our minds to avoid being in touch, placing our hopes on an activity that we think will make us better in the future (which can result in spending our whole lives without ever seeing what is really right here), standing back from experience and labeling it, trying to reinforce certain “good” feelings by repeating them over and over again. Our minds are addicted to all of these patterns and the various “practices” can very easily play right into these addictions. In that way practices give the practitioner the illusion of doing something that will lead to improvement in the future, where in reality these repetitions of habit simply lock us into blind behaviors while our life passes by unexperienced. Many devoted practitioners have gone to the grave believing they have devoted their life to something useful and instead they have missed their life. This is sad.

Life is not a technique, is it? The key to living openly and freely lies in questioning this controller that wants to create a path to future liberation and to question the observer. We do this work together, inquiring, questioning, revealing the inner confusions, anxieties, the controlling. We work together in the darkness, not holding to techniques or promises for future spiritual gain. In this work there is no place to stand but there is always the possibility of being in touch with what is happening right now, which includes those habits in us that always take us away from our life of this moment. It is those habits that need to come to light.

Well, you didn’t ask my opinion on techniques and traditions but I couldn’t address your question without doing so. I think you would find that traditions are based on techniques and that techniques fall into a few specific categories, which play into certain main habits that we all have, which I described above. Perhaps originally, or with the help of a skilled teacher, the techniques were supposed to shed light on these patterns. In practice, for most people they simply reinforce them.

There have been many spiritual leaders who did not work in any tradition and did not recommend techniques. These include Krishnamurti, Vimala Thakar, Toni Packer, Eckhart Tolle, and probably the Buddha. These people talk instead about deep and honest inquiry into the patterns that run us.

Sorry if this wasn’t what you wanted. I hope it is helpful in some way. You’re welcome to write back with a follow up.

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