Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category

Dark night?

Friday, October 26th, 2007

These last few days have been strange in that I have felt unable to write, to think, or even to read much. It is as though my intellectual faculties and all my sensations have been dulled. There is no excitement, nothing that fills me with enthusiasm or that I really want to do. Reading novels, always a fallback when feeling listless and bored, is no longer an escape. They seem superficial and inconsequential, with cardboard characters in unlikely situations dealing with exaggerated emotions. And so I dither about, unable to engage fully and wholeheartedly in anything, listless and dissatisfied with myself. It occurred to me that these symptoms are not dissimilar to those described by John of the Cross talking about the Dark Night of the Senses. He, however, makes the DNS seem a situation of all-pervading gloom, a nightmare from which there is no escape. If this is what I am experiencing then it is nothing so dramatic. It is really very ordinary and not some spectacular spiritual achievement.

All it means is that I have caught a glimpse of something, in comparison to which ordinary life with its day-to-day pleasures and excitements has become trivial and dull, of secondary importance compared to the existential depths that lie within. The irony is that I have had no ecstatic experiences, no supernatural revelations, no transports of delight. There is nothing that I can put my finger on except a feeling – no more than that – that I have caught a glimpse of a beyond. I have seen the footprints of the ox, though ‘seeing’ is the wrong metaphor. Felt, experienced, would be better.

I am also much more critical of what I read on meditation. There seem to be three types, or categories of writing. There are those who, I suspect, have no experience and are doing no more than regurgitate what they have read, or worse, made up. They do not seem to be aware of the difficulties, or of the fact that there will be differences of experience even among those following the same methodology. They make vague generalisations of what will happen. In the second category are those, like some Vipassana meditators, who are concerned almost solely with techniques and whose goal is a raw awareness. Finally there are those, Zen especially, who acknowledge the transcendent. I do not want to achieve mindfulness just for the sake of mindfulness. It is not the goal. It is the path.


Monday, October 22nd, 2007

I want to understand, to get to grips with the fundamental reality of what it means to be human. I thought reading and meditation would get me there. I am beginning to realise that they will not be enough. Much of the reading, especially the Japanese philosophers is very difficult, and requires more than a nodding acquaintance with Zen in order to be understood. I thought meditation would deal with that side of things and for a while meditation seemed to be going really well and I seemed to be making progress. But lately it feels as though I am wading through the dense and clinging mud of the stagnant swamp that is my mind. There is no clarity, no stillness of pure observation, no peaceful contemplation. Neither is there an urgent cry of anguish from the depths pleading to be rescued from the slough of despond.

I know that devoting some short time during the day to meditation is not enough and I think I wrote about this not too long ago. Then meditation was going well and it provided an impetus that persisted through the day. Walking, working, or reading I seemed to be in a state of detached mindfulness. No longer. After what seems like a futile struggle with wayward thoughts and feelings the end of meditation comes with a sense of relief. At last that’s over. I don’t seem to have got anywhere but I hope that, unknown to me, something has been achieved. And I turn to other things. Not that there is anything wrong with the other things. What is wrong is the attitude, the state of mind in which they are done. Living inauthentically, acting from impulse, with laziness, allowing oneself to be carried along by external events – all these lead to apathy and a feeling of general helplessness. Hence the depression and the feeling of getting nowhere. So I need a structure. Not a structure like a timetable dictating when to do this or that but a mindset injecting self-conscious awareness into everything I do.

Reading Michael Barnes: God East and West, and my own musings earlier has made me realise that what I was groping towards earlier has already been clearly laid out in the Eightfold Path. Morality is at the heart of being a person. Not just morality in the sense of not harming others, not sinning – that goes without saying, but morality in the sense that thinking and behaviour are self-conscious; that one is living authentically, engaged in projecting oneself forward as Sartre would put it, and not just drifting and taking the path of least resistance.


Thursday, October 18th, 2007

It is quite strange this feeling that I am getting nowhere in meditation and yet there is also a feeling that there is progress. I am much more conscious now of what I have to do – concentrate, to the exclusion of all else, on the breath as it comes in and as it goes out. Doing it is still very difficult although I am much more aware now of these squalls of thoughts and feelings which emerge from nowhere and carry me away. These are ‘me’, or rather, they are the various ‘me’s’, depending on who, or what, is preoccupying my attention at the time. And I have to let these go. That is difficult. It is like dying and there is a very deep-seated instinct which resists, hanging on to the life of these ‘me’s’ because that is all there is. If they are allowed to go there is nothing.

I now understand why ‘nothing’ holds such a prominent position in Buddhist thought. Meditation very quickly leads to the experience of ‘nothing’; not to no experience at all, not to blank, empty thoughtlessness. The experience of ‘nothing’ is an experience, not the absence of experience. Paradoxically it is not an experience of something or anything. Nishitani talks about it as coming up against an iron wall. That is not how I would describe it although I understand what he is trying to say. ‘Iron’ implies impenetrability – thus far, no further. ‘Wall’ implies closure. It also implies a beyond. Like the horizon, which can only be seen when one can see beyond it, wall implies an other side.

For me the experience of ‘nothingness’ is like being suspended in the void over a bottomless abyss. Wisps of thoughts and feelings emerge from nowhere, coalesce around me, drawing me into them. When they are thick enough I am no longer aware of the void. When I manage to dissipate them panic and vertigo urge me to reach out and cling to these insubstantial strands. I have to hold myself there, suspended, motionless above the abyss of nothingness. I am suspended by faith, by trust. I have yet to learn how to hold myself there. We are created out of nothing. Nothing is of our very essence. To experience nothing is to be on that cusp between nothing and being. But holding oneself there – that is another matter and what lies beyond this experience?

I – me

Monday, October 15th, 2007

It takes a little while to settle into meditation, even first thing in the morning before the day has begun to bring its problems and its distractions. One has to switch off the auto-pilot which got one out of bed and down the stairs and settled for meditation and become aware of exactly what one is doing – posture, breathing, directing thoughts, forming the intention. Then all the attention focused on breathing – on the breath as it comes in, on the pause, on the breath as it goes out, pause, etc. Pretty soon thoughts arise; back to attention on the breathing; a different thought; and so it goes on. Sometimes the thoughts are ideas, concepts. A new way of looking at something strikes me, a sudden insight, and I want to pursue it. This is very interesting. It could lead somewhere. Back to concentrating on breathing. This is not the time. I will come back and think about it later.Someone moves about upstairs. I should let it go, treat it as a noise just like the other inconsequential noises that occur all the time, but I cannot. I am no longer the ‘I/me’ who began to meditate but am now the father. This ‘I/me’ is inextricably involved in this relationship which the noise caused by my son getting up evokes and cannot just ‘let it go’. This ‘I/me’ is, in part, shaped and formed by this relationship, is the relationship. Another noise upstairs, wife getting up, and the husband ‘I/me’ appears. According to Mead the ‘I’ is the subjective self and the various ‘me’s’ are the social selves which arise out of the social context in which the ‘I’ finds itself at each moment. My experience is that it is not as simple as this. Each relationship is bipolar with an ‘I’ and a ‘me’, a subjective and an objective, aspect. ‘Wife’ noises call out the ‘I/husband’ who is immediately caught up in thoughts to do with that relationship. ‘Son’ noises call out the ‘I/father’. Both of these ‘I’s’ can coexist easily side by side. They are robust, formed by intimate personal relationships. In meditation, therefore, when the ‘I/husband’ is beset by thoughts worries, or anxieties it is not enough to say, ‘I must drop these thoughts and get back to focusing on breathing.’ Because the ‘I’ thinking is the ‘I/husband’ and not the ‘I’ who originally began the meditation, nor the subject the meditation is seeking to discover.We are back to anatta (no self) again. The experience of dealing with distractions in meditation is of alternating between these different ‘I’s’, those born of personal relationships and those born of fantasies and day-dreams. These latter can be just as real at times as the former. Behind all these ‘I/me’s’ there is, I hesitate to say another ‘I’, there is a subject. There is an awareness which transcends the subjective awareness of all the various ‘I/me’s’. The discovery of this awareness is the point of meditation.Where does God fit into all this? At present I am simply trying to speak from my experience. I don’t want to make any assumptions based on faith, or Scripture, or theology. It is not that these may not be valid – I hope that what I have always believed and have come to work out for myself is not wrong – but because they are assumptions. They are based on the experiences of others, often in the distant past, or on the assumptions and conclusions of others. Their claim to validity, as opposed to all the claims of all the other religions and philosophies, is open to argument, to say the least. Such arguments are often sterile and circular. The history of Christianity is littered with theological disputes which have led to factionalism, bitterness and even mass murder. So I do not know from my present experience that my beliefs and assumptions are true.Nor do I want to argue from my own memories of religious experiences in the past which, at the time, were profound. They gave an insight and an understanding which I could not otherwise have come to possess. But they are not my present experience and I cannot replicate them now. I know that it is generally accepted, though not by Forman*, that these experiences are transient and passive, but I think this is only partly true, or else it is true of particular kinds of experience only. I think one can, and should, try to understand what it is to be human and, I am assuming, this will inevitably lead to an experience of God. I am not being a Pelagianist here, not even of the ‘semi’ kind. The God of those who condemned Pelagius was believed to be wholly other and utterly transcendent. I have had no experience of this God – by definition such experience would be impossible – but I have experienced One who was wholly other but was also intimior mei meo, as Augustine puts it. Odin makes it very clear that for both Zen Buddhists and for people like Mead and Buber the human self is a nexus of relationships – with the mind, with the body, with others, with nature and, ultimately, with God. So in coming to know myself I will also come to know God.*Forman: WHAT DOES MYSTICISM HAVE TO TEACH US ABOUT CONSCIOUSNESS?,


Thursday, October 11th, 2007

I feel quieter, calmer inside. There is a deep sense of peace. No longer is there the need to entertain, or to distract myself. Noise grates and I prefer not to turn on the radio, nor do I feel the need to listen to music. One of the problems with the noises made by other people when I am meditating is that they hook the various ‘me’s’ into thinking about the relationships they represent. It is difficult letting go of these ‘me’s’, letting go of the body, letting go of everything except awareness of breathing. Underlying all these me’s – those of the present moment, those that persist in memory and those woven by fantasy – underneath all these me’s is desire (tanha), wanting this, longing for that, hungry, forever yearning and unsatisfied. Only when tanha is extinguished can I really be me – hence the need for silence and simple austerity.

It struck me this morning how natural and unforced this need for austerity is. It does not deny the goodness of the body, or the appreciation of pleasure – unlike the Christian tradition that, for many, is still in thrall to the gnostic dualism of flesh – evil and spirit – good.


Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

I discovered something today meditating in the garden after cutting the grass. I managed to achieve greater concentration for longer at a time than I had been able to previously. Distractions come. Intentions, even strong ones, and wishful determination do not bring about change in a person. Even though I want to meditate and I get frustrated and angry with myself when I cannot concentrate, I am still the same person with all the wants, feelings and desires I seem to have had forever. The fact that I am trying to meditate does not mean they have gone away and that in my meditating I am a different person. As long as I, the same person, am trying to meditate then the will to meditate is just one desire among all the others. The others will assert themselves as soon as habituation, or boredom, weakens concentration.

This afternoon concentration went well and I found that I could let the ‘person’ go. There was just awareness of breathing. Everything else, sounds, body, mind, feelings – I let them all go. For a few brief moments there was no ‘me’ just awareness of breathing. Of course I have read about anatta, and I have puzzled over it, and wondered, and thought I had understood it – but it was only an intellectual grasp of a concept. You only experience the phenomenal ‘me’ when you let it go, and you have to let it go to experience the ‘not me’. Only then is the ‘phenomenal me’ seen for what it is – as the ephemeral and insubstantial, constantly changing kaleidoscope of thoughts, feelings and emotions.


Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

It is very difficult to get a grip on this meditation thing. On one occasion it will go well and the next three or four badly. I am more and more becoming convinced that it is not just an activity among other activities, one in which you can engage and then go on to do other, very different, things. For many it is just that and I do not think it can then become anything more than a simple relaxed unwinding. Nor is it something that pervades the day, in that the morning and evening meditation produce a calming, less stressed attitude to daily events. It is not even that. It needs to go much, much deeper. It is not just a question of the effects of the morning’s mindfulness and focused awareness pervading the day, having an influence. Mindfulness itself must persist; that detached awareness and control need to apply to everything one does. I know I have read this before but the truth of it has only just struck me. It struck me yesterday afternoon walking along the field at the back. It was a glorious day, bright sun, blue sky and the singing of skylarks. Everything had such clarity and beauty – it was as though I was seeing it all for the first time. I felt as though I could stand there for hours, drinking it all in. I thought – it is easy to be mindful here, but after a while the startling clarity and newness will fade. It will become ordinary and then commonplace. My mind will look for distraction. I will want to be entertained, interested, aroused, engaged – anything to get out of this unchanging attitude. And I did just that. I came back and picked up a science fiction book and read for an hour, in spite of the little voice which kept nagging – No. No. You’ve got to stick with it.

Mindfulness is more than just being aware of what you are doing. It is being rooted. In meditation being aware is the easy part, but this only really becomes mindfulness when it connects. There is awareness of breathing; awareness of the mind skittering about and being brought back to concentration on the breathing again; awareness of the body, the stomach rising and falling, of an itch, of external noises. All these constitute awareness but it is a shallow awareness, just of the surface of things, of transient phenomena. It is possible throughout the day, more or less, to be aware like this, to cultivate the semi-detached stance of an observer at a little distance from oneself. But, just as yesterday, it palls. And there is always the centripetal force of the body drawing the mind into subjective immersion in feelings, moods and sensations. All this is the awareness of the individual apart, of an entity among other others. It is not awareness of the depths.

Being aware is like looking at the surface of the sea, seeing the dancing reflections of the sun, the rolling waves, the gulls, boats, people swimming. Then you put on polarised sunglasses and the reflections and glitter of the surface vanish and you can see into the depths, into the deep down shadows and the shallow shades of green. Mindfulness is being aware of the depths of being and the interconnectedness of all things. The problem is how to acquire and how to wear throughout the day those ‘polarised glasses’.


Monday, October 8th, 2007

Thoughts raged this morning, provoking feelings of helplessness and futility. Like a river delta my life is a series of shallow streams meandering slowly in search of the sea. If only it was channelled, it would flow with energy and purpose and, who knows, it might even get to a destination – not just come to an end, petering out into a morass at the edge of the sea. This of course is why the contemplative life, as a way of life, evolved in the first place.

There needs to be a framework which includes those things that are conducive to meditation and contemplation, and which excludes those which are not. The stark beauty and simplicity of monastic art and architecture, an icon, a cloister, a Zen garden, are like the surface of a clear, still pool of unimaginable depth. If the water is disturbed only the surface can be seen, but when it is still and silent one can gaze into the depths. When one emerges it is as though the cataracts which covered the eyes of the senses and the mind had been removed and people and the world are seen with a clarity and a beauty that is breathtaking.

In contrast, the garish colours and discordant noises, the vapid laughter and effusive gushings, the hurt, and the anger, and the bitterness of ordinary life lead either to a numbing hopelessness, or a self-destructive anger. It is a hedonistic world of the senses and it is a despairing world of anguish and suffering. It is a world of the blind who do not know that they are blind, who do not know or understand who they are, or where they are going, or even that there is a destination. In this aimless existence many are would-be escapists, some into the vicarious lives of soap-opera characters, some into the insensibility of drug addiction; others pursue money, or pleasure,or power. In spite of this there is so much warmth and humanity. There is love and self-sacrifice. There is a general unarticulated hunger for the Truth, if only one knew what it was.

Simple Awareness

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

I am still a beginner at meditation. Some days it goes well, others, like today, badly. The nagging question at the back of my mind is this question of concentration on simple awareness, nothing more. There is a feeling that I should be doing something, praying perhaps, otherwise I will not get anywhere. I do not believe this is true, nevertheless the nagging doubt is there. There is also the temptation to deal with this rationally, by thinking it through. There is plenty in my reading to persuade me otherwise. Yesterday I came across this in Nishitani:

Our ability to perceive reality means that reality realises (actualises) itself in us; that this in turn is the only way that we can realise (appropriate through understanding) the fact that reality is so realising itself in us; and that in so doing the self-realisation of reality takes itself place.
(Religion and Nothingness p. 5)

It is a hard and difficult struggle getting there – it may, perhaps, be the most difficult thing I have ever done. Meditation is like trying to balance on a knife edge. Once one is out of the mind and focused on the simple awareness of breathing there is the danger of habituation. There is very little new sensory input and so the body and then breathing, gradually disappear. I notice tension round my eyes, a sign that I have begun to think. Back to concentration on counting breaths again – and so the cycle goes on, back and forwards. Yesterday and the day before I managed to hold the concentration on counting the breaths quite well. Today I did not manage it at all. It struck me that this problem I have of making sense with simple awareness is similar to that of wrestling with koans. There is no rational answer. Insight, enlightenment, satori, or whatever, will only come when one has broken through that barrier.


Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

Meditation went much better this morning. The usual problem of constant distractions and then, in desperation, I remembered that counting the breaths rather than a mantra is advised by many. It had never appealed to me before, striking me as too cold, methodical and impersonal – the mantra, after all, had meaning although one did not attend to the meaning. The trouble with the mantra is that it is easy to habituate and then you are no better off than before. So I started counting. It worked very well. It kept my attention focused on the breathing and the fact that it was a sequential progression meant that one was less likely to habituate.

Just simply being aware does seem rather a waste of time, especially if what you want to do is pray. Perhaps you want to cry ‘out of the depths’ of anguish, or simply be still in the presence of love, or sing praises filled with awe and wonder. At these times sitting still, leaving thoughts and feelings on one side to simply be aware goes against the grain. But then, on another day there will be no exultant feelings, no tortured anguish, just a dull apathy, heavy with boredom. And you wonder where all the fine thoughts and feelings have gone. Even the pain of suffering almost seems more bearable than this tedium. But you make the effort and you concentrate on counting the breaths and simply being aware.

Later, when you allow yourself to think discursively again, you realise that meditation has distanced you from your thoughts and feelings; that however exhilarating or agonising these feelings were they were not permanent. The only thing you can be absolutely sure of is that they will change and that you have no control over them. Yesterday you may have felt touched by the infinite love at the heart of being, today you may be dull and weepy, tomorrow you may be wracked by suffering. Nothing is fixed, or certain, or permanent. There are no guarantees about the future. It is then that you begin to realise the importance of simple awareness in meditation.

The fact that it distances you from your thoughts and feelings and that it gives you a perspective from which to be aware of them so that you are not caught up in them is immensely valuable. You are no longer their prisoner, one day up, the next day down. You have begun to find the still point.

The various me’s, or selves, are very real. Those of the past – the child of a mother and father, the friend, the lover, the victim etc., are not dead. They reside in memory and it only takes some little trigger – a scent, a sound, a snatch of music – and their powerful feelings and emotions become real and alive again in the present. Once more we are caught up in the world of this former me and the memory is always tinged with sadness. If it was a happy time there is sorrow that it is no more. If it was a sad and bitter time the memory of it floods into the present. Thoughts of, ‘If only…’ and, ‘What if…’ cloud the mind. The past can weigh heavily, a burden that encumbers the present. The secret is to let it go. Only this now is real.