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Zen Meditation

By Ron Martin

Part 5

Chapter 8: Practical Meditation (1)

Meditation, even at its highest level, begins with using the faculties of sight, hearing, smell, taste and feeling, so that there is a pure experience without concepts. It is not, as one psychologist claimed, simply a matter of achieving coherence (‘coherence’ is when the left and right sides of the brain function together) even though tests with the electroencephalograph have shown that this happens during meditation. This led him to the conclusion that meditation is no different to being half awake — the state we are in when we are just coming out of deep sleep but are not fully ‘ourselves’ — and yet there is a grain of truth in this.

Most of the dreams we have in deep sleep, if not all, are experiences without an ego consciousness. This is probably why sleep is so refreshing, even though some of the dreamed experiences may not be all that pleasant. If we awaken naturally (not by an alarm clock) the intermediate period can last a minute or so and our immediate reaction is akin to how a baby would view the same scene. But anyone who has truly meditated knows that it is very different to being half awake. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference is to take, as an example, a baby and a music-lover listening to a Beethoven symphony; they both hear the same sounds; neither is conscious of an ‘I’ hearing those sounds, yet would it be correct to say that they were having the same experience?

However, of greater interest to the would-be meditator than ‘scientific’ explanations of what meditation is are the practical ways of setting about it, what the experience is like and whether the benefits, if any, last beyond the session of meditation.

The first problem we encounter is that of time. Our everyday life is one of relativity and so, whatever we may think about meditation being the experience of the timeless, in practical terms it does take time. However, as mentioned in the Introduction, it is the quality of the meditative experience that matters, not the amount of time devoted to it. Initially about twenty minutes, twice daily, should suffice, although for much of these periods the mind will be wandering into thoughts about all sorts of things, instead of concentrating on the actuality of the moment. (A technique described later should help in this respect).

In theory, as the amount of leisure we have increases, so should the problem of finding time reduce but, unfortunately, the human mind does not work this way. We are so intent on escaping from reality that we create activity, or distractions, without realising why we are doing so; and although it fails to give us deep satisfaction this very dissatisfaction spurs us towards yet more escapism. Ultimately, we have to make the decision as to whether we really want to carry on in this way, or ‘sacrifice’ time in order to savour the timeless.

We also have to decide whether to meditate on all the experiences we have at a given moment or give our attention to just one of them. At a later stage it should be possible to cope with all experiences with equal facility but, initially, this presents considerable difficulty and the reason is not hard to understand. If we consider the totality of concepts we have constructed around our experiences it will be found that the great majority are concerned with vision. We have names and descriptive terms for a whole range of objects — their colours, their shapes and purposes — whereas we have far fewer concepts for touch and sound.

Taking a clock as an example; there is only one sound we hear (that of its ticking) but, if we look at it, a multitude of concepts come to mind — its size, its shape, its colour, the type of clock it is and the numbers on the dial. We are also tempted to be aware of the passage of time, whereas we are trying to savour the timeless! Not only this but the clock may be surrounded by other objects which attract our attention — that souvenir from Devon, that photograph of Aunt Agatha, those brass candlesticks and, behind them all, the pattern on the wallpaper. Close your eyes and all these vanish, leaving just the sound of the clock ticking. There could be an occasional sound of a jet airliner passing overhead, or of a bird chirping in the garden, but even these extraneous sounds have a simplicity which does not apply to actually seeing the objects making the sound. Of course, we might be able to isolate a single visionary experience by careful arrangement but, generally speaking, this is not easily done and it also constricts meditating to within a narrow set of circumstances.

Since experiencing Reality (wholeness, or holiness) needs for its realisation timelessness and egolessness, it might be thought that listening to the ticking of a clock is hardly the best way of achieving the former. In practice, providing we concentrate on the sound of ticking as a pure experience, it is much easier than it seems in theory. By far the more difficult condition to realise is that of egolessness, because the ego is the prime source of ‘original sin’. So long as the sound appears to be coming from ‘out there’ then the delusion of a separate self continues to exist. Similarly, when we looked at the lawn, if the grass appeared to be ‘over there’ then we had a self (the subject) seeing green grass (the object) and this, as we are already aware, is the condition of duality. It is not that sound and vision should seem to come from ‘in here’ either, since this pinpoints the source of Reality as being the individual mind, which is not the case — the grass would still be there even if no-one was looking at it! However perplexing this may be no further explanation can be given, because it would be attempting to describe Absolute Reality in conceptual terms, which is impossible.

The main problem with using sound for a meditational experience is the possibility it holds of causing drowsiness, or even sleep. With our eyes closed, and the fact that meditation does produce coherence in brain activity, drowsiness is an ever present hazard. However, it should not be overlooked that tiredness is often caused by accumulated worry and stress, which may have prevented us getting refreshing sleep at night. If meditation releases the mind from these conditions then sleep is a natural consequence. Meditation cannot give us more sleep than we need but, if we are to gain real advantage from it, then sleep should be reserved for a more appropriate time.

If drowsiness is found to be a persistent problem then it may be better to use sound as the object of meditation in the morning, when we have just had a long sleep, and a visual form of meditation in the evening. It may also help if meditation is undertaken after having had a mildly stimulating drink, such as tea or coffee, but on no account should amphetamines, or other powerful drugs, be taken. For reasons that will not be examined further here it can be said that the use of powerful drugs, either to keep one awake, or to enhance awareness, is certain to result in failure; even the need for tea or coffee can be regarded as a sign of stagnation if it persists. Should this happen then one should either try a different object for meditation (e.g. one that is visual if the present one is aural) or seek guidance. Probably more people give up meditation altogether through stagnation than from any other cause.

Many statues of the Buddha depict him meditating in the lotus posture and in those countries of the Far East where meditating has been common practice for centuries even most adults can adopt this position without discomfort but, for most Westerners, accustomed to sitting in chairs, this is not so. Severe discomfort may be acceptable as a penance but it is not conducive to successful meditation. If the lotus posture cannot be adopted without it giving rise to acute backache and leg pains then it should be avoided. Some people make such a fetish of the lotus posture that they actually create problems where none exists and may make it more difficult for them to meditate. It is the state of mind that is all important, not the position of the body, and if we cannot empty our minds of thoughts (including thoughts about aches and pains) then we are not giving ourselves a chance to concentrate on a single, pure experience.

An alternative posture, suitable for the Westerner, is to sit in a comfortable chair with a cushion on one’s lap. Place both elbows on the cushion and then with lightly clasped fists put both fists over the ears, so providing a supportive triangle, which can be maintained for a long period. Perhaps the most surprising outcome of this is that it will actually amplify the sound of the clock ticking, whilst at the same time reducing the apparent directional source of the sound.

Chapter 9: Practical Meditation (2)

In our everyday life we have what one advertiser for a ‘mind training course’ described as a “grasshopper mind” — our minds flit from one thought to another in rapid succession and we have great difficulty concentrating on a given subject for more than a few seconds at a time. Even during breakfast we do not concentrate on eating, but think about what we are going to do next, or worry about problems we will face several hours hence. Try, for example, eating a bowl of cornflakes, thinking of nothing but consuming the cornflakes until the bowl is empty — which should take no more than about three minutes — and you will almost certainly find it extremely difficult, if not impossible. You have a ‘grasshopper mind’. It is not a question of failing to try hard enough, the greater the effort put into it, the harder it becomes to concentrate. If you are really determined to succeed the repeated failures may worry you so much that not only do you not enjoy your food but you get a feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness as well.

By far the greatest difficulty in meditating is this inability to concentrate for prolonged periods. Some Schools of Buddhism have a method of mind training involving counting exhalations of the breath up to ten and then repeating this over and over again, without allowing the mind to wander from the process of counting. At first, the meditator has difficulty reaching even a minute without his mind wandering. After a long time, which may be many months, he may find it possible to concentrate on counting exhalations for several minutes at a stretch, without having extraneous thoughts.

One should not be too dismissive of this method, because it has been shown to work, but it is like the toad telling the centipede that he will be able to run if he concentrates, first on moving one leg, then another, until he gets all going in the correct order, without the legs getting in the way of each other. No wonder this method takes a long time to master, because it is asking the mind to train the mind.

The problem of concentration in meditation arises because we lose sight of what meditation actually is. To understand this in greater detail we need to return to the matter of a pure experience. Pure experience is pure experience no matter what form it takes. If, whilst eating the cornflakes, we are thinking about the train we have to catch to get to work, then that thought is as much a pure experience as that of eating — we know we are thinking about the train! It is because we believe that we ought to choose one experience from another, and call one ‘pure’ and the other ‘not pure’, that we give ourselves the problem of concentration in meditation. We may well have the ticking of a clock as the initial object, but we delude ourselves if we believe that this is the only pure experience we should have. The mind is a marvellous instrument and can accommodate an infinite variety of experiences, all at the same time. An experienced meditator would have no difficulty meditating in a tube train.

We must examine further this apparent contradiction. In the first instance it was suggested that we give our attention to the ticking of a clock, in order to exclude extraneous thoughts — indeed, the very choice of sound was dictated by the fact that we have far more concepts associated with vision than with sound. But then it was said that, even if we have these extraneous thoughts (experiences) as well we should not worry about them but accept them, also, as being pure. So why bother to meditate? If all experiences are pure, anyway, then our everyday life is composed of nothing else but pure experiences! Yes — and No!

The experience is pure provided there is no ‘I’ having that experience. The very moment the ego intrudes there is a subject having an experience and an object being experienced, a condition of duality that is unreal. But the ego cannot be excluded by intention, because the very act of intending the exclusion serves only to strengthen the ego — the belief that ‘I’ can choose ‘my’ experiences. All we need to understand is that we should be aware of experiences, without clinging to or rejecting any of them. To refuse to do even this until everything is explained is to be like the centipede, paralysed in the ditch because it wanted to understand every detail of walking before moving even one leg. Meditation is no more than a device for pointing our minds in the right direction; the rest must be left to ‘God’.

Since meditation is an experience of the timeless moment — the Here and Now — it is not surprising that we lose all consciousness of time (even if we are listening to the ticking of a clock) but what may come as a surprise is that, if there was a decision to allow twenty minutes for the session, we open our eyes when twenty minutes has elapsed (or thereabouts). Why is this? Is it because our unconscious mind has been logging all those seconds as they ticked by? The psychologist would probably give this as an explanation. Yet it still happens if we use a sound other than one with a regular beat. But, if we can ride a bicycle without knowing how we do it, why should this mystify us? Does the dog marvel at the way its tail wags when it is pleased, or droops when it is sad, and would the psychologist say that it was the dog’s unconscious mind that caused these actions? If the unconscious mind is the ‘storehouse’ of previously conscious experiences then the dog would, at some stage, have been conscious of its tail wagging, or drooping, for these actions to be controlled by the unconscious mind; so can we accept this as a plausible explanation?

The point this is leading up to is that there are no grounds for fearing that, if we experience timelessness with our eyes closed, we shall not be able to come out of the meditation without help from someone else (or an alarm clock). Meditation is most emphatically not a trance-like state to be in. On the contrary, it is a heightened awareness of the everyday world, but not as an observer or listener, we are that world!

At its most intense level it is a state of wholeness (holiness) which reveals the source of all things; it is Mind that is greater than our minds; it is Self that is greater than ourselves. And yet, there is no difference between our minds and Mind, or between ourselves and Self! It is One without distinction, and yet it contains all the myriad of forms in the Universe. The One is eternal and yet every part of it is subject to coming into being, decaying and passing out of existence! The Tao Te Ching expresses it thus:

The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be defined is not the unchanging Name,
Non-existence is called the mother of all things.
From eternal non-existence, therefore, we serenely observe the mysterious beginning of the Universe;
From eternal existence we clearly see the apparent distinctions.
These two are the same in source and become different when manifested.
This sameness is called profundity.
Infinite profundity is the gate whence comes the beginning of all parts of the Universe.

And the Buddhist scriptures express it thus:

There is, O Bhikkhus, an Unborn, a Not-become, a Not-made, a Not-compounded. If there were not, O Bhikkhus, this Un-born, Not-become, Not-made, Not-compounded, there could not be any escape from what is born, become, made and compounded.
But since, O Bhikkhus, there is this Unborn, therefore is made known an escape from what is born, become, made and compounded.

Now, perhaps, it can be appreciated why the One cannot be explained, but has to be experienced! If attention is given to all the points mentioned, particularly the one concerning the need to be aware of experiences, without clinging to, or rejecting, any of them, then meditation should present few difficulties. But, there is one problem which is so important that it merits special consideration. Consider, for a moment, the reasons why we might want to take up meditation; perhaps it is because we want peace of mind, or perhaps it is because we want to be better able to cope with the problems of everyday life. But all these are self-ish.

The very desire to meditate is, itself, an obstacle to successful meditation! What is more, we shall have an urge to monitor the progress in meditation as it proceeds, day by day and week by week, by repeatedly asking ourselves, “Am I getting peace of mind” and, “Am I coping better with everyday problems” and so on, and this merely strengthens the ego concept. The result could well be that meditation does not have any beneficial effects at all and so would be a waste of time. And even if, during meditation, we had a joyful experience, it would not last, because the moment the session is over the monitoring would begin again. Yet without the desire to meditate we would not meditate at all, and without being aware of its benefits we would not continue!

So, what is to be done? Well, firstly we must accept that these desires are inevitable, since it is true that without them we would not start meditating, nor would we continue with it unless there was some appreciation of its benefits. But because these desires are inevitable it is illogical to feel guilty about them. A more positive response would be to recognise that there are two extremes. On the one hand the absorption in meditation can be so intense that there is no awareness of a self having peace of mind and communion with the Infinite and that this is carried over into everyday life, so that it amounts to a life of unbroken meditation. The lives of some Buddhist monks appear to be like this. On the other hand, our attitude can be so self-ish that meditation could do more harm than good. These extremes are probably very rare and most of us come somewhere in between.

One way to ease the situation is to make sure that we are in the right mood before commencing meditation. We are unlikely to be in the right mood if we have been watching an hour of wrestling on television, or we decide to make a short session of it so as to leave us time to get to the betting shop before it closes. The benefits of meditation are not like water, dispensed from a tap, which we can turn on and off as we please, but are bound up with a whole range of attitudes and behaviour, inter-linked in a complex manner. A shepherd on a Scottish croft, leading a simple life, does not have the same influences to bear on him as someone living in an industrialised urban community — indeed, his everyday life is, itself, very close to the meditational experience. He would, quite naturally, be in the right mood to commence meditation at any time. But, for most of us, the right mood is more difficult to acquire and so a certain amount of preparation is necessary except, perhaps, for an early morning session, since sleep is an excellent preparation for meditation — even if a nightmare was experienced during the night. (A nightmare is to be expected if meditation has begun scything its way through psychological repressions).

How we prepare depends on individual temperaments and interests and so there can be no firm rules. In the case of a music lover a record of deeply religious music (religious in the widest sense) could be played beforehand. A lover of poetry might choose to read some poems that give him a similar response; whereas an amateur gardener might prefer to spend a little while in the garden, contemplating the flowers and the trees. (“One is nearer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on Earth”).

Of almost universal use as a means of preparing for a session of meditation are readings from the Buddhist scriptures, although only a small proportion are suitable for this specific purpose. Some of the extracts given in a later chapter may be helpful in this respect, although they have been included primarily to strike a chord of recognition in those who have read this far.

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