notes on meditation
I have been meditating fairly regularly since some time in the 1970s, daily during some periods of months and less regularly during some periods of years. My practice has changed, from simply repeating a mantra to a wordless technique, with eyes open, that I began several years ago. During this time I read various Tibetan and Zen works and no doubt these influenced what I did, though it is not clear to me what the links are. Around 2007 I fell in with a group of zen meditators on Bowen Island in BC. I find what I take to be the core of zen — the primacy of meditation and its paradoxical ordinariness — very congenial, and I picked up something almost wordlessly from these people. (There is an emphasis on ritual in some forms of Zen, and an importance attached to the Zen tradition even when it is simply silly, that I find less appealing.) I credit my practice with calm and cheerfulness in my life, indeed in maintaining my sanity when it has been fragile. So I have wanted to be able to say or show what I do, in case it might work for someone else. But for a long time I didn't find the right words, and in fact a couple of times verbalizing seemed to stop it working.
This is not surprising from a Zen point of view. Meditation involves avoiding verbal thought, so following a literal prescription should kill it. And the process is subtle, inherently hard to describe, though also as familiar as anything, so an even slightly misleading description could send you in the wrong direction. Partly for this reason, Zen teaching is full of metaphor, indirection, self-conscious paradox, and an individual connection between teacher and pupil.
But I seem to have something now that I can say without spoiling its effect, at any rate for me. I don't know whether the techniques are cumulative – whether you have to go through the sequence to be in a position for the last and best to work for you – or whether you can jump straight to that more effective technique. My working assumption is that you can make the jump, but just in case this is wrong I append below two earlier versions. (2012 – 2010)
now, December 2018
There is a cramped, stifling, feeling when one has not meditated well for a while. It is a mild version of the painful trapped feeling of depression. The contrary sense, of escape, is suffused with fresh air and cool focused relaxation. To me, now, it is as if some obstacle to one's brain breathing has been removed, so that breath, or oxygen-suffused blood, reaches where it was not getting before. (The Heineken theory of meditation?) I think communicating this target does a lot of the work. Images of breathing-like slow cyclic movement summon the sense for me. The best are underwater, for some reason. Look at this, and internalize it as something you can do. You can turn off the sound. (I have tried to capture it in some stories, probably not my best ones. But this seems to have some force.) I was discussing the image with someone who finds it is ruined by a horror of being underwater, so I substituted this instead.
It is three-dimensional because your attention is directed, in somewhat different ways, to points distributed in space. First there is a plane parallel to your face (so your gaze goes into it) and a little way in front. Pick two points on this plane, for example horizontally separated in front of you. Focus on them, and feel them as having a slight thickness along the towards/away axis. (I have sometimes thought of this as very gently squeezing around the points. I am not at all sure now that this adds anything helpful to taking them to have a slight “z axis” extent.)
When this is secure imagine a third point, further away. (3-4 ft, some 150 cm). It too should acquire a thickness. Cycle slowly through the nearer and further thicknesses, until each “breathes” readily. Then you can attend to the space between the nearer and the further points. It will become fresh and airy and cool, especially if you slide the nearer side towards you and back behind your eyes. Or sometimes you just feel yourself sliding into it. Hold this still.
Then sometimes it is fresh all around you. Oxygenated. You are sitting in a pool of cool. You can hold this structure still, with no cyclic or periodic pattern, which brings a sense of relief, of sinking into a location that fits you. And sometimes in the middle of life, nowhere near meditating, you can summon this three dimensional structure and hold onto it for a moment.
In a way there is another element, not part of the same structure. Somewhere on the outskirts of all this there is a presence. A point of view taking in all that is happening with you in the process. You can feel grateful to this and it is satisfying, part of the whole process, to do so. You are also offering what you are doing to it. (It does not feel to me like some individual awareness of me, but like a point of view from which some individual or collective or whatever could be aware of me.) I expect that this should be even more distinct from the centre of your attention.
That is all. It may continue to happen for hours after you have stopped sitting. Or it may fade immediately. And with luck and the right mentality you can summon it at times throughout the day, to give a little moment of clarity and calm. But still you will feel that it was worth doing, in fact something that it is important to do.
Different people describe what they do in shallowly different ways. These ways have a lot in common, and it may help to say what they accomplish rather than what one may do. They all involve concentration, and concentration directed at nothing. They all ask for gently returning concentration to nothing from the somethings it gravitates to. This is like a muscle, a capacity, to detach from circles of thinking and pay attention neutrally. Some of the benefits of long-term meditation surely come from developing this capacity. And a central subtlety is that what matters is turning away from other thoughts towards the empty space rather than setting that emptiness as an aim and turning towards it. In fact, the latter is usually counterproductive. So there is a danger in describing, as I am, what the nothing one returns to feels like. But here it is: it feels three-dimensional, with my location somehow within it.
A paradoxical warning. When it goes well meditation helps you feel calm and unthreatened. So you might try to direct yourself towards peace or take it as your purpose. But this gets in the way. It is a self-obstructing project. Better to think of meditation as something worth doing, and if it brings peace to you so much the better. If it brings peace to someone else that is better also. Recently I have begun to incorporate this indirectness into the structure of meditation. I spoke of a peripheral presence. Take the routine of meditation as collecting something invisible and delivering it to nowhere. Nowhere will appreciate it, and smile. That is what you are doing on earth: transmitting something to something for something.
This may seem too metaphorical or mystical or dangerously objectified. Yes, that is another danger. It is meant simply as a routine to follow that you might be glad you did.
A wild stab at what might be behind it. You want your brain to function, and activate whatever makes it heal and develop. So concentration and attention is good. But you do not want tension, and especially you do not want words. In most of human life attention is accompanied by verbality; a basic aim is to suspend this connection. So you concentrate intensely while remaining calm, on something spatial, which activates a large part of your cognition in a right/left way – the three-dimensional aspect – while breaking the tendency to follow verbal cues into meanders. Then you are unusually intense and calm, with a lot of the brain engaged, but Broca and Wernicke chained up. That allows things to happen.
Sitting in anything near to a traditional meditation position, eyes open but not looking at anything, I pay attention to the cyclic pattern of my attention, not so much the in and out of breathing as the way time breaks into intervals, each setting up the next. I think of a time-keeper behind this, and visualise this time-keeper itself in space before me. It has a three-dimensional shape that I try to grasp, and it is somewhere tangibly before me. Sometimes it is the shape of an upside-down heart, and sometimes it is the similar shape of a seated meditating figure. I hold it in my mind before me with an imagined delicate tactile pressure, and focus on its shape and location.
That's all, really. After a while something slides, as if space has been made for it, and I'm in a calmer less pressured place.
A sense that accompanies this, just before the slide: something better than me is communicating with something else better than me, and by concentrating on the timekeeper and ignoring this I am obstructing it less than usual. My sense of calm and release is just the treat given to the pet or servant who hasn't got in the way. You don't try to eavesdrop. This sense usually coincides with the timekeeper moving to a definite location, a particular distance away in a space that is and is not the physical space around me.
when none of this works Sometimes none of this happens. Less and less often for me at the moment. But it is not something to worry about. What one is doing is worthwhile, and good for one, possibly good for others. I find that thinking of it as done for others, perhaps particular others perhaps as Buddhists say "all beings" helps it be a satisfying part of one's life even when there is a lack of deeply satisfying moments. In a paradoxical way not insisting on the satisfying moments, or seizing too jubilantly on them when they happen, makes it easier for them to steal up on one. You don't scare them off so often with a look of recognition. I think this is a reason to end a meditation with a mental or physical gesture of thankfulness: it is good that this happened.
the effects You can think back to the calm moments, and the state of mind you entered, when you need to be reminded of them. Even without this, there's a calming and encouraging effect. It's more often like early morning or twilight; things stand out against their backgrounds. And it helps free you from a frenetic image of joy, which has ultimately depressing effects. I think the transfer of the glow to the rest of life is greater when the experience of meditation is not like being asleep or entranced or stoned. It is just being calm and awake, with this rare even focus. "Don't get weird" I remind myself, when my eyes cross and lose focus, and I get daydreamy. What happens then is less likely to spread into the rest of your life.
where next? That's as far as I've got, and it is enough to mean a lot to me. How much more can one do? I simply do not know. I do think that many meditation techniques encourage impossible aspirations of super-human wisdom. I am suspicious of the very idea of enlightenment. I would suggest that some of these unrealistic expectations come from the difficulty of describing to someone a very subtle result which they will value greatly if they achieve it, but which they cannot easily conceptualise beforehand. So the tradition allows people to have the clumsy ambitions and then at some stage, if it is honest, says "well, now you can almost see how it's not really like that." There is a certain grimness to the manner of some zen adepts. Might it be that having got a certain way they are sure there must be further to go, and they know that some claim to have gone further. But they find themselves frustratingly fixated on something that never happens. As I said, I just don't know. But I am sure that my progress is pretty small, and also sure that it is a big mistake not to value every small drop of clarity
Bodhidarma, the first Patriarch of Chán, visited the Emperor Wu, a fervent patron of Buddhism. The emperor asked Bodhidharma, "What is the highest meaning of noble truth?" Bodhidharma answered, "There is no noble truth." The emperor then asked Bodhidharma, "Who is standing before me?" Bodhidharma answered, "I don't know." The emperor then asked Bodhidharma, "How much karmic merit have I earned by ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?" Bodhidharma answered, "None."
From then on, the emperor refused to listen to whatever Bodhidharma had to say.
stage 1: the box I begin my meditation by thinking of the space in front of me and focusing on an area of it a metre or so ahead. I imagine a transparent box located there, a fairly small object, slightly glowing. It is important to think of it in three dimensions; it really is out there, that far away, not just an imagined shape blocking my visual field the way an object at that location would. It's transparent, anyway, not blocking anything. The 3-D feeling is like looking through a stereoscope or making one of those repetitive pattern pictures leap into depth. Then I hold the box at that distance. The holding is an imagining that goes with the three dimensionality. It is like imagining holding two magnets and bringing the opposite poles together. (I'd suggest getting two magnets and doing this, to know the feeling.) But it is the box I am holding in some mental grasp, firmly but lightly, with a slight pressure towards myself.
The box is empty. There is nothing I am aware of inside it, though I am aware that there may be things I am not aware of inside it. In particular there are no words, no thoughts, there. But there can be thoughts outside it, and when I find myself thinking I move them to one side or below. I even encourage them; I will continue with a line of thought that has begun, keeping it out of the box, as a way of keeping the box empty. (Very empty, but transparent.) But I keep up the concentration required to hold the box in place, and returning to it regularly and evenly keeps me in the 'holding' mentality.
stage 2: sliding I now do one of two things, depending on which seems to be happening on its own. I can move the box towards me, as it were right up to my face. That is the direction of motion, but not what happens. What happens is that as I slowly and with a rhythm that is like slow breathing press the box of nothing towards me, eventually I slide within it. It's like a change of focus more than a movement, and its a kind of a slide, not easy to describe, but it comes with a feeling of relief. Before it happens there is a sense of 'almost, soon, on the edge', and holding on to this feeling is as helpful as the pressure.
The other possibility is that I become aware of another box, much nearer to me and in fact nearer than I can see, behind my eyes, and this box waits and fuses with the other. Either way, I find myself within the nothing. And it is very still there, quiet. The first time it happened I felt it was a very cold place, the stillness like cross country skiing in the woods on a calm cold day. Now it no longer feels so strange, it just appears as somewhere I have wanted to be, together with a worry about sliding out. Usually it does not last, and I go back in the process. But once it has happened I feel some basic aim has been met, and I will not be thinking that the meditation time was at all wasted.
stage 3: the box breathes Something I can sometimes do from quite early on, but not at the very beginning, is to think of my breathing as defining intervals of time, and then to hold a continuity from one to another by the presence of the box. There is a zen technique of counting breaths, which I have not gained much from all by itself: this ties that technique to another continuity-maker, the continuing presence of the box. (I suspect that there is something essential about how meditation works here, with the extending and smoothing out of the linked intervals of consciousness. But that is speculation, and I am not going to do the work to make it responsible speculation.) After I have done this for a while, suddenly it is the box that is doing my breathing, or somehow doing it together with my regular breathing. The box now is big, and it as if the space around me is breathing, and marking out time. Not as calm as the target of stage 2, even exciting, but also a feeling of its being right, something one was aiming at without knowing exactly what. When this happens it is usually after one or two of the stage two slides. I don't know if this has to be so.