Following the Breath and Concentrating on a Mantra versus Simple Presence

C: I’ve been meditating on and off for several years. In the last 6-8 months I’ve more or less been meditating every day. Mostly I meditate simply by focusing on my breath. When thoughts arise, I just notice them and move back to my breath. I am able to reach quite deep states of relaxation with this and quiet my mind.

However I’m now questioning whether I should continue this way and whether I am actually meditating or it’s just relaxation. I don’t expect miracles but I haven’t seen many benefits or changes outside my meditation time. I know many people experience a lot of benefits and even have visions, etc. I have suffered from shyness, low self esteem and depression for a while and none of these have improved. I also continue to feel stressed and often find it difficult to concentrate outside my meditation time.

The other aspect of this is that I have occasionally tried mantra meditation. When doing mantra meditation, I find it extremely difficult to shut off my mind, and it takes me much longer to quiet my mind to any extent than with breath meditation. I’m wondering whether the fact I find mantra much harder is evidence that I’m not really meditating properly with breath.

Based on the above two paragraphs, I’m wondering whether I should now move away from breath meditation and focus on mantra meditation. I do find breath meditation relaxing and enjoyable at the time but I’m wondering whether mantra be more beneficial for me. I’d rather do something that will be beneficial to me than something that is easy and that I enjoy.

So basically I’d be grateful for advice on the following:

– Do you think mantra meditation would be more beneficial for me, particularly in bringing benefits in relation to stress/negative thinking ,etc?
– Is it normal that mantra meditation is more difficult than breath meditation or does this show that I haven’t been meditating properly?

Hope this is clear and thanks for your help.

Jay: C, it seems that your main concern is that there are issues in your life – shyness, low self-esteem, depression – that are not changing despite your meditation time. I think this is a good thing to consider.

Now you wonder whether you should be doing something restful or something active about this problem. Naturally, these two impulses are in conflict with each other and it is difficult to know which one is appropriate at any particular moment.

Let’s consider what is required to shed light on a difficult issue or problem. First, it is important to understand the issue, or, we might say, to come in touch with the issue directly. To take it more deeply, it is necessary to come in touch with the root of the issue. Without this coming in touch, anything we try to do about the issue is at best very partial and at worst a violation, because the root of the issue is not clear. So the first step is to notice and let up on the various efforts to do something about your situation and to let the focus shift gently to being interested in simply being in touch with what is going right at this moment in a simple way that does not try to change it or interfere with it.

Would you agree that in each moment whatever is going on inside you reveals something about your situation? If the heart is pounding or the stomach is clenched, that is a direct, observable bit of information. If one does not try to interpret such things and does not try to change them by moving around, one begins to notice the natural tendency of the body to set itself right if given the chance. The heart eventually begins to slow. The gut unclenches at some point. This happens without our doing it and without our needing to know how it happens!

Let’s say you are sitting quietly now and trying to be in touch without judging or reacting. So you are not concerned with focusing on the breath and you are not concerned with focusing on a mantra. Awareness of the breath may come and go. It is not necessary to be aware of the breath all of the time. It takes care of itself! So you are simply letting whatever comes into awareness appear and disappear as it will. Because you are not interfering with the body in the way that we usually do, it is natural if the body begins to feel a little better on its own. Now, the first thing that you might notice is that the mind is almost constantly trying to judge, evaluate, figure out what to do about the situation, and then implement its decision. In letting go of your intention to do these things, you begin to come in touch with this nearly constant activity of the human mind and with how exhausting and relentless it is. This is the beginning of some wisdom about how we live.

Let’s say that because you do not try to interfere with or change the way the brain reacts, things begin to quiet down a bit eventually. Judgments or urges to react come and go but don’t bother you. They are heard and are finished. Now you begin to think, “Here I am, listening, not reacting, just as was suggested, but how does this relate to the issues in my life that I would like to change? I’m just sitting here doing nothing and feeling okay, but I don’t see how this can help in my life.”

At this point it is certainly valid, as far as I can tell, to think about the aspects of your life that trouble you. Consider what you know about them. It might be easiest to choose one specific issue, let’s say shyness. Consider what you know about this shyness – what triggers it, how it feels in the body, what your usual reaction is to it, what it is that feels uncomfortable to you about being shy, your assumptions about how it should change, and so on. You may well find that thinking about it may bring up some information about the situation. It may help you be physically in touch with the way your body reacts to the situation. You may also find that thinking wants to solve the problem, to come up with a mental goal to fix it. And it may be clear that such a goal is pretty useless. Thinking does not realize that it can’t solve the problem.

If you consider what you know about one issue, you may find that at some point, there is nothing else to consider. You’ve considered what is known and you are at a dead end or at the boundary between what is known and the rest of life. Do you agree that life – as it expresses itself each moment in us and in everything around us – is much too big and real to be captured by our knowing brain. Consider what is going on as you read these words – the sounds, the feel of the body, the space around you, the movements of people in the distance, the silence of the sky. How can the brain possibly make an image of this? What can you say in words to capture it? Can we say that simple, direct Presence with life in each moment is not part of the world of knowing that the brain constructs in thoughts and images? If we sit quietly, in stillness, with an openness and sensitivity, and a willingness to be in touch with whatever actually arises inside and outside, then we are in touch with vast unknowable life. If you stay with this and listen sensitively, you may discover that this in-touchness carries an amazing intelligence with it. In a silent way that we hardly recognize or notice, new information comes into us and the whole body and mind begin to respond, change, in a live way.

This in-touchness is the root of fresh seeing and the source of any possible intelligent healing of our habitually ways of living. Does this make sense?

You may well say, “Sure, I’ve done pretty much what you’re saying for some years and these problems have not changed.” This is a sign that there is something deeper that hasn’t yet come to light at the root of these issues. One clue for going deeper is to be carefully in touch with the body throughout the day. The body reflects in a concrete way what is happening inside. You can easily begin to see the habits of how the body holds itself, where the tensions are held. As the body unwinds with attention, it begins to reveal the thoughts assumptions, emotions, that are controlling it. Especially watch the strongest emotions and reactions – the defensiveness when people treat you in certain ways, the anger toward certain things. It is very helpful and healing to remember that absolutely nothing needs to be done about any of the things that are seen this way. They do not need to be changed or controlled. It is not necessary to think about how you are going to get rid of them. In very, very simple seeing, the thing is done in this moment. Anything else is extra and perpetuates the problem.

Personally I have many issues that are still healing and unravelling after 40 years of meditative work. Many things take lots of time. At the same time, there is certainly an immediate urgency to address these issues because they affect us nearly every minute of the day. I would highly suggest that daily meditation cannot get at issues in the same way that an extended time devoted to meditation can. I personally go to three 7-day meditation retreats a year and I find that what happens in these retreats goes far deeper than daily meditation can do. I could talk about why this is but have already written a lot and don’t want to overburden your brain or mine. I would just say that it is important to go to a retreat that supports each person in finding their own way and does not lay a lot of traditional interpretations, philosophy and rituals onto the retreat setting. It’s not easy to find such a simple retreat but there are a few places that I know of.

I hope this has been helpful. If I have not been too clear about something, please feel free to write back, or to share your observations.

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