Category Archives: What is meditation

Dialogue Reports – Dec. 9

I wanted to share some of what came up in our recent meeting. I’ve often meant to do this and usually don’t remember anything afterwards!

(If you were there, I may not accurately represent what you were saying but am using what I remember to touch on some universal issues.)

1. Thinking. One person was frustrated with the amount of needless thinking that she finds herself doing. She wanted to know how meditation can help her change that.

We looked at this more closely. For most of us, processing things through thinking often goes on without being noticed. It’s just automatic. Then there is a moment when it is suddenly clear that I’ve been wasting a lot of energy going over and over things.

This moment of noticing is critical. When this happens, isn’t there already attention functioning? Often when this “dawning” happens, we start thinking, “How can I do this more often?” or “What’s wrong with me that I let myself drift off like that?” But this is the beginning of more thinking, isn’t it?

Maybe those thoughts may not lead to more thinking. Maybe they lead to wondering what’s going on and then watching right here in this moment that is now visible because of the attention.

So we can look at where I am right now that I’m not going around and around in thinking. We can feel into it.

Sometimes people say, from that place, that they don’t know what to do. They feel kind of lost because the sense of control or direction is gone. They may feel disoriented. So is it possible to stay with all or any of that despite how it feels? The only alternative to being in this moment is to go back into the daydreaming.

Each person can find out what happens, what comes up, what shifts, if one stays with this moment. No need to make a plan to be a better meditator. That takes us away from the direct experience of what is happening here. We’re not used to living in that direct experience, so naturally it may feel disorienting. Maybe it’s ok to not be oriented!

2. Dissatisfaction. Another person reported being relatively happy and successful in her work and personal life but having an underlying feeling of a sort of existential dissatisfaction. The feeling has not been resolved by the occasional meditation or quiet time that she takes.

My first response to this was that that is probably how it is for almost all of us. There is a residue of dissatisfaction that builds up from how we live, from the accumulation of unfinished business, from deep questions – some going back to our early childhood – that have never been addressed or resolved. In Buddhism people are advised to come in touch with this dissatisfaction and to let it fuel the need for resolution.

I think this is very, very helpful. Coming in touch with a deep unhappy feeling may not sound like a helpful thing to do. And maybe for some people with chronic depression it isn’t a good way to go. But for most of us this dissatisfaction is there but it is deeply buried and untouched. My feeling is that behind this feeling there is a great deal that needs to come out into the light, to be touched by life and to begin to heal.

We also discussed that when one really begins to stay in touch with that which needs to be healed in us, we may find that daily sitting doesn’t really touch it. Daily or weekly quiet time helps clear out the upper level residue of our ordinary life but may not go further.

We discussed the critical value of devoting a special time and place to be able to allow the deeper issues to be able to come to the surface. Specifically, for me, this means an extended number of days (6-7) in a place with little talking, little social interaction, and little work responsibility. I should probably add no social media, phone, or internet either. This happens best in the presence of others who are doing the same work and with whom there can be occasional meeting.

This is how we design retreat. It is nothing special other than a specific situation that fosters deeper healing and in-touchness.

I think I’ll stop here so this doesn’t go on too long! There was much more that came up in the dialogue but it’s too much to try to write about.


What Needs Attention?

I have a friend who, when I asked him why he goes to so many retreats, replied “Because there is always something that needs attention and because of nothing at all.”

This struck me as a wonderful and true answer. There IS always something in us that needs attention, isn’t there? In fact it often feels like there is an overwhelming amount of “stuff” that needs attention.

How do we give attention to these things? It seems that our usual first attempt is to verbalize what’s going on. That’s a natural first step, although it has some limitations as well. What I “think” about what’s going on is often not very accurate. Sometimes the very act of identifying a “problem” actually reinforces it. Certainly, being able to verbalize an issue clearly is helpful but I’m just reporting what I’ve observed in myself. I need to take the verbalization with a grain of salt and I need to let go of it at some point.

A second step is to look for some help or insights outside of myself. This is also helpful, including reading books, talking with others, and getting professional guidance. I’ve found some really wonderful help this way.

Ultimately, there is another step that is different in that the first two involve what I know and what other people know. This “new” step involves moving beyond the limited realm of what is known and into the open space of being with the wholeness of what is happening inside and outside, beyond trying to know what is happening. In other words to really be with what is going on requires, in my experience, a letting go of that activity of the brain that tries to put new, fresh input into my existing knowledge. The key is that that activity of the brain lets up so that the brain can experience more fully and deeply what is right here. Knowing may happen or not happen but the brain can learn to relax away from the compulsive attempt to know so that the brain can operate in a new, direct sensing way.

In my experience deep healing of what needs attention comes most directly out of this unknowing, relaxed deep and still sensitivity.

This deep listening can operate in us even when we come together as a group for dialogue. In fact coming together – if we don’t wander to far away into trying to figure things out – can amplify this process of stillness and listening penetrating into the hidden areas that need attention. By habit we don’t usually talk and listening together in this way but we can learn to by coming together, if we give this process enough chance with each other.

So part of this shared healing process is making the effort to come together from time to time and learning – sometimes awkwardly – how to talk and listen together in a way that begins to penetrate into those areas that need attention. This is the purpose of our group activities in and out of retreat.

What about the “because of nothing at all?” This is a beautiful way of saying that healing, opening, growing together is a natural expression of life that just happens and takes care of itself if we give it a chance. We don’t have to struggle to do it. And while this healing and listening is happening for us in a group or alone, it is an expression of the wholeness of the world all around us at this very moment. Just as the sun sometimes pokes out from behind clouds, the heart sometimes open in joy or in pain, for its own sake. Not for some future goal. We can say that wholeness in a moment is exactly what heals and it happens for its own sake.

Consciousness versus Wholeness

QUESTION: Here is a separate question. I briefly saw the title of an article that suggested that science had proved that when we die our consciousness moves on to a different universe. Perhaps parallel. What do you think? What implications does such an idea have?

Jay: I’m not overly concerned about consciousness. I used to feel that’s what I was – my consciousness – and I didn’t want it to end.

But through careful observation and still listening it has become clear to me that consciousness is the smallest part of who I am. It has become clear that life is a living thing that is vast and does not depend on my – or anyone’s – consciousness.

Consciousness is a useful and sometimes beautiful expression of life but it comes and goes. Life itself – the wholeness of things – doesn’t come and go.

This is my experience, not a philosophy. Usually our experience feels very different than this. We usually feel very limited, isolated, and in danger of being changed or destroyed by life. We tend to live in our consciousness – our thoughts and story – because it seems safe.

Questioning this and beginning to look more carefully and listen more deeply is what meditative work is about. We do it because our usual way of living is very often unhappy, fearful, and isolated. We also do it because some people who have looked carefully confirm that in us that knows that the way we usually see things is not the way things really are.

But we have to do this exploration ourselves in order to discover the simple wholeness of life.

I know that’s not exactly what you were asking but it’s my honest response.

What is the Problem?

If you are like me, you spend a lot of time considering the problems in your life and trying to creatively work with them. Sometimes the problems seem impossible to deal with. Sometimes they respond to some new approach.  Sometimes they come back in different forms. I’m sure this sounds familiar to most people.

Let’s consider for a moment what a problem even is. Maybe I’ve recently interacted with someone in a way that has been painful for both of us. There may be a sense that my interaction was not “skillful,” that I could have done better. And I may wonder about it, think about what happened. Maybe ideas pop up of what I could have said or done that would have worked better. This seems like a natural process.

At some point in this process I may feel like I’m done thinking about it. I don’t need to continue to drum up the memories and mentally review them. This is an interesting point. It feels to me like at this point there are still some questions that hang in the air, some feelings that still sit in the body. At this point it feels helpful to give these “silent” questions some attention and space. To feel into how the body is doing with all that has happened. To come in touch with who it is – right here – that has gone through all of this. This “who it is” contains not only the memories of the current experience but all of “Jay” – the whole organism with its laid-down memory traces in the nerves, muscles, guts, bones and the vast space in which this organism exists.

Perhaps in this space the current problem – the one that for the moment the mind is most worried about – may come up again. In other words the memory gets pushed up into conscious awareness, along with the anxiety surrounding it. As I consider this and write about it, the question arises What is the problem? Or maybe we can say Is there a problem, Is what’s happening right now a problem?

The memory has been broadcast into the conscious mind. There is a sense of urgency to change something that seems to have led to pain. But that’s not all there is right here. There is a spacious awareness of the environment, the sense of the body and mind as a whole phenomenon – ever dynamic, subtle, sensitive. There may be the sense of other people nearby. What happens to the energy if one goes into the “problem” – the memory, the strategizing? Can the energy stay with the wholeness? I find that it is possible, even though it may seem impossible. It is possible to stay with wholeness and yet have some insights about the “problem situation” arise, with maybe a little conscious help or maybe no conscious involvement at all.

When this happens, the problem doesn’t become overwhelming. It seems to disappear – perhaps to reemerge from time to time.

When this doesn’t happen – when all of the energy becomes narrowly focused on fixing something, it really feels like I’ve lost touch with what the problem is and the context in which this “problem” exists. I’ve lost touch with myself. I’ve lost touch with what other people are. I’ve lost touch of the humanness and of the aliveness of the situation and of life. And the actions that come out of this kind of problem solving, for me, may lack humanness. They may not address the wholeness of the situation.

In such narrow moments things may suddenly open up, along with the realization that I don’t really know what the “problem” is or even if there is a problem. And I enter into this not knowing, this wondering. This os forgetting of the problem and awakening to the precious wholeness in which all of life – with its beauty and its challenges – takes place.

What Should a Buddhist Practice When Suffering?

Recently someone wrote asking what a Buddhist should practice when suffering. Here is my response:

Wow. A simple but profound question. Let’s consider this together.

Buddhist teaching claims to deal with the cause of suffering. So what actually is suffering? What’s going on right now for you? Something has happened and now you’re in a really uncomfortable state. I don’t know if it’s something just moderately serious or something that is really awful for you right now. (Maybe you’re asking this question even though you might not be suffering right now but it’s not too hard to remember difficult situations, so we can start with that if you need to.)

Usually when we’re in pain the last thing we want to do is to pay attention to it. There are lots of ways to distract ourselves from it and that’s natural in a way. The body is designed to try to get out of pain. But the kind of suffering we’re talking about is different from simple pain. If I get stung by a bee, there’s a certain amount of physical pain going on. If, as I’m smarting from the sting, I start thinking that I better not ever do any gardening again, and then think about how much I’m going to miss gardening, and then being angry that I can’t do my beloved gardening without having to watch out all the time for bees, and then thinking about how I always have to be on guard against people too and that I’m sick and tired of it, etc., etc., then now there is suffering. There is pain being added layer upon layer by trying to deal with a current, simple pain through the imagination. In other words imagination amplifies and magnifies the pain and it does it over and over because it can’t really solve the problem.

It is really helpful to become familiar with what is going on inside as suffering takes place. Then naturally the nervous system doesn’t enter into a process that it knows is not helpful.

So in the case of whatever you’re experiencing that’s painful right now, have you been able to notice the thoughts that go on around it? Maybe that seems like a dumb question, especially if there’s nothing but negative thought after negative thought going around and you’re sick of them. You could say you know the thoughts all too well.

It’s always possible to listen a little more to what’s going on beneath the thoughts. What are the feelings? The patterns of reaction? What triggered the whole incident? What was it about the trigger that really got you? I’m just making up some possibilities. You can come up with the questions that are real for you and help you listen beneath the surface.

One thing that I’ve found worth noticing is that there are moments when the crazy cycle of thoughts does slow down and perhaps even stop for an instant – a tiny gap of freedom from the thought cycles. It’s amazing enough just to notice that this happens. It’s also helpful to notice that something kicks the thoughts back up again and the exhausting process continues until it wears itself out and pauses for a second again.

There are lots of ways to work with this situation but they all come from your own intuition. Maybe we can share a little bit together but the real guidance comes from wanting to really see what’s going on deeply for yourself. When it’s clear how thinking kicks up endless anxiety and that this kind of thinking is not a good way to come to terms with whatever difficult life situation is going on, then the mind doesn’t go there. It stays with just being in touch right here. For that moment there is an end to suffering and a beginning of wisdom. But there’s no guarantee about the next moment!

When we’re caught up in endless thinking about a problem, it seems like there is nothing else to rely on. But looking more carefully, there is always the in-touchness of this moment, which might include a tight and tired heart, a sore back, a feeling of sadness. These sensations are all real, unlike the complex world of imagination. And these real sensations tell us something. They feed us real information. They lead us into understanding ourselves.

Does this make any sense? Have we addressed your question? I guess I haven’t spoken about “practice” but that’s because I don’t think or experience in terms of tactics to apply over and over. For me it’s about direct in-touchness with what life is manifesting this moment, rooted in simple sensation. That’s all that’s needed. Everything flows spontaneously and ever freshly from that.

Please let me know if you want to ask more about this or question something. I hope you feel more at ease soon.

What is This Meditative Work Together Really About?

As I think about us getting together – some of us regularly over a long time, some of us new – I’m wondering what we can say about the nature of this work together.

In just sitting quietly there is certainly a boost of energy of being with other people without having to socialize or interact. That’s a nice feeling. However, it doesn’t touch on the real dynamics of our ingrained reactions to others and our unseen assumptions about ourselves and life as intimately as dialogue does.

Actually it might be better to say “as dialogue can” because just participating in dialogue doesn’t guarantee that a particular person comes in touch with these hidden dynamics and assumptions. It feels to me that in dialogue, I’ve got two options. I can stick with what is safe, which typically involves sharing suggestions, strategies, describing meditative work, encouraging someone, being sympathetic, helping someone feel better. But the other option is to pay more attention to myself during dialogue. To listen to what comes up when other people talk. To notice and feel into reactions – negative or positive. To listen to the puzzlement that may come up in listening to others. To notice the questions that resonate in me.

I’m thinking now that this opening of deep questions is one of the most profound aspects of meditative dialogue. For me these may have to do with our mortality – the indisputable fact that no matter how well we may live, living comes to an end. These questions for me also revolve around wondering how in the world it might be possible to live harmoniously with others, given the deep conditioning of feeling defensive, of being guarded, of feeling isolated, of longing for something better.

When we come together in monthly dialogue or retreat, when I really listen to what other people are talking about, it seems to open up a whole unknown and maybe unknowable realm. This happens in so many ways, if I’m really listening to myself as I listen to others. This unknown space seems to bring up questions that invite and require listening, deeply honest listening. It invites giving more time and space to this listening. And the listening seems to move into greater openness and sensitivity in this body/mind, which seems to have a built-in concern that it’s going to be overwhelmed by sensation if it becomes too sensitive.

There are many ways in our lives that we are together with others, at least in the sense that we’re in the same location and maybe doing the same activity. But in sitting and dialogue we are together with others in way that it becomes clear that we don’t know who we are. We don’t know who others are. We don’t know who we ourselves are. And in not knowing, we wake up to listening right here.

In dialogue together, as in life, the energy may be mostly caught up in patterns of interacting – sharing advice, comforting, trying to feel connected – or there may be a shift in which it becomes more important to really listen to what’s going on in myself and others. When this happens, it feels like living in a fresh way. And if some reaction comes up in me, it can be seen honestly. The interest in honest seeing at that moment is stronger than the need to present myself as a non-reactive person. Life is so much simpler then. Energy isn’t wasted in trying to be something.

It might not always be obvious but when that kind of honest looking is the important thing, the sense of being so separate and isolated from the world drops away, maybe for just an instant, along with worry about the future. For that moment, life simply lives itself. And we may recognize that this is and always has been the natural state of everything.

Meditation In the Midst of Distractions

L: I was hoping you would be able to help me please.

I traveled for a year going back a few months ago and plan to travel again perhaps just for weeks or months at a time though so found it quite difficult to meditate as I was on many tours and shared rooms with sometimes up to 20 people (hostels, where virtually everything is communal)!

I normally meditate twice a day for 20 minutes.  I just sit and let my thoughts, feelings, sounds and any body irritations pass me by and I’m happy with this practice, for now.

Anyway I know that there are many body postures depending on what practice you choose to follow… what I wanted to know is that I normally meditate in a chair so my spine is upright and my feet are planted firmly on the floor.

Do you have any suggestions of how I can practice when on the road so to speak?  Sometimes you can be up at 6.30am and have no time to yourself at all.  When on a tour people just won’t leave you alone… I was on Route 66 talking to some Americans (I’m British) and ‘my tour group’ quizzed me as to who they were and what I was talking about… I’d only left the group for a few minutes!

The only thought I had was to wake up before everybody else and just sit upright in bed and do it that way…

Any thoughts would be really helpful

Jay: I’ve been thinking about your question. Yes, it’s hard when we can’t get the quiet time we need to let things settle down and digest. The nervous system gets overwhelmed. I don’t have too many suggestions for you other than what you came up with, getting up before others, or possibly just excusing yourself from the group for half an hour during the day. I think posture is sort of secondary to just being able to be still somehow.

I also travel a lot but I’ve never joined a tour, in part just so that I have more control over getting overwhelmed. Which happens anyway. It seems to go along with going off on a vacation. There is so much more input than in my regular life, where I’ve gotten used to my surroundings. So periodically I want to be someplace new. And going along with that is the potential for feeling overwhelmed.

Traveling alone gives me a little more flexibility. But on the other hand I begin to miss having people to talk with. When I do find people to talk with, it’s not long before I get overloaded with having to relate to them.

So I’ve been thinking about how we affect each other, long for each other, overwhelm each other, and try to find some way with the turmoil of emotions and movements. This leads me to consider that it may not be enough just to “unwind” from the turmoil of the day. It may be helpful to look at the dynamics of how I live, how I relate to people, how I react, to begin to see more clearly where the anxiety and exhaustion is coming from. Some of it is natural. If a neighbor is playing loud rock and roll, it will have a physiological effect on the nervous system. But so much of it, on closer inspection, is sort of out of proportion. A person says something to me with a certain look and it is associated in the mind with some painful situation in the past when, maybe, someone was terribly angry at me. The current situation may not be the same at all but the past situation is triggered and takes over.

I think that careful examination of how we live will show that the great bulk of our nervous system overload comes from this kind of blindly associated reaction. And yet if it begins to be discovered, something starts to change. Reaction starts to let up and instead we have a better chance of responding more appropriately to what is actually happening.

So we’re talking about bringing awareness into the dynamics of our lives. This doesn’t need a sitting posture. The opportunity for this is nearly constant. It’s wonderful to have quiet sitting time, especially if there has been some attention to the dynamics going on as we move through life. But it is this attention that is the key to any possibility of change, of freedom. Without attention to these internal dynamics that are running nearly all the time, we can only hope to occasionally catch our breath.

And as you mentioned, there is often no opportunity for even that.

I hope this is relevant a little to what you’re talking about. Feel free to write back with your responses or questions.