Saturday, December 8, 2018

Concentration Practice - Analog Clock

One version of concentration style meditation is staring at a single object.  The practice is simple - place your attention on the object.  If you find that your attention wanders, return to the object.

In this case the object is the tip of the second hand of an analog clock, which provides at least slight novelty and continuity as the hand moves around the clock.

Here is one online clock:
https://analog.onlineclock.net/

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Easy Way - Do Nothing

For those who are hard on themselves, always pushing and pulling and striving, this may be the most important aspect of the teaching.  Which is, for perhaps the first time in your life,

just stop.

Just be.

Every impulse to go off and do something else, or distract oneself, just stop.  Witness the impulses arising, but don't take the bait.  Let those things be.  Let go.  There will be plenty of time for striving later if you want.  But for now, just relax and hang out right here, right now.  Stay sensate - continuously feel the body.  Just an ordinary blob of flesh with nothing in particular to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.  If boredom arises, then experience that.  Don't push anything away with some need to distract, or to move to something "better".  Feel that need for distraction, that need for things to be some other way than they are, and return to letting everything just be as it is.  Stop fighting, stop pushing and pulling.  And then continually feel the next sensation, and the next.
Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in the mind.  It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of mind without effort.  We must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make.
- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

The essence of Zen is non-seeking ... 
"Only practice" is the best, but without any object, without trying to achieve anything.
- Taisen Deshimaru, The Ring of the Way
Both of these Zen master quotes illustrate the paradoxical nature of practice.  A kind of effort must be made to lean in the direction of mindfulness, yet ultimately through practice this leaning becomes the natural default of the mind, at which point we can completely forget ourselves and the mind can relax to an unbelievable degree.  This is like the way a trained musician or athlete works hard over the years to ultimately forget themselves, to lose themselves in the moment when they play at the highest level.

A taste of this forgetting is available in any moment, and for some people this simple understanding may end up being their method.  To let go deeply, maybe for the first time, and simply do nothing but relax and be.

The various structured methods I recommend are useful for keeping oneself aware enough to do this vital practice of letting go.  Some kind of effort in this way is typically necessary to change, to retrain the mind, to unlearn what we have unconsciously learned.  Maintaining awareness is important.  But it is also important to understand the essence of the inward journey that needs to be happening amidst the awareness, that of relaxing and letting go, and letting everything be.

Those structured methods can become a kind of trap for people that are used to striving, if they are pushing themselves too hard and beating themselves up for lapses.  But the structure is often necessary, and it's a kind of balancing act to engage with enough effort to maintain a near-continuous awareness, while simultaneously letting go enough to be deeply relaxed.

Some guidelines on this kind of relaxation from Tibetan Buddhism, Six Words of Advice by Tilopa (McLeod translation).

  • Don’t recall - Let go of what has passed
  • Don’t imagine - Let go of what may come
  • Don’t think - Let go of what is happening now
  • Don’t examine - Don’t try to figure anything out
  • Don’t control - Don’t try to make anything happen
  • Rest - Relax, right now, and rest

Alternate translation by Watts & Wayman:

No thought, no reflection, no analysis,
No cultivation, no intention;
Let it settle itself

just be

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dealing With Difficult Meditation Experiences

Mildly difficult experiences in meditation can be processed much like everything else, i.e. be curious and allow the experience to be what it is without resistance.

But some experiences may be so challenging or overwhelming that at least temporarily they cannot be dealt with by surrender.

The traditional advice is something like this:  switch to single-pointed concentration practice or loving-kindness practice, if you can.  This is often more calming.  If that isn't providing relief, then maybe stop meditating altogether.  Do some things to ground oneself:  maybe get out in some fresh air, walk around, eat some hearty food, watch a movie, etc.  Talk to people, talk to a psychologist.

Although the ideas are similar, Lost in Oblivion – An Exploration of Adverse Meditation Experiences goes into more depth, exploring many suggestions such as the following:
  • Significantly reduce your practice time
  • See a professional
  • Focus on life goals and values
  • Reduce self-focus
  • Try some different meditative approaches
  • Rotate between meditation and thinking
  • Working with a blank mind
  • Working with relaxation induced anxiety
  • Movement can be incredibly powerful
  • Practice Gratitude and other more ‘cognitive’ practices
  • Reading novels and enjoyable literature, and engagement in enjoyable hobbies
  • Join your community, and find connection
  • Be kind to yourself, don’t just sit through emotional adversity
  • Exposure and response prevention can be useful

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bilateral Breath Meditation

If you're having trouble staying aware with your breath meditation, there are simple options like counting the breaths, or using a mantra or noting practice that is synchronized with the breath.

But it's nice to have a nonverbal technique.  Part of what we're pointing at in meditation is our fundamental experience prior to language, concepts, or narrative.  Like maybe a dog might look at the world.  A nonverbal technique can help with that.

My recommendation is to do something along the lines of lightly pressing a left finger into your left thigh as you inhale, and then release that pressure and lightly press your right finger into your right thigh as you exhale.  And continue, in an alternating, bilateral, pressing and releasing that is synced up with the breath.

That's the suggestion.  You can use your fingers, thumbs, whatever.  You can press on your body, the couch, your clasped hands, whatever.  Just a continuous pressure with the finger/thumb of one hand for the inhale, and the opposite side for the exhale.  While walking I noticed an effective way to do it was to press the first and second fingers together while alternating hands as usual.  While driving pressing thumbs on the steering wheel.  Etc.

You can also stack techniques if you need to.  Sometimes we need more to do to keep ourselves focused on the present.  So you could do this practice, paying attention to the breath with the alternating pressure, and you could add a mantra or noting practice on top of that.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Dealing With Rumination

https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/2016/06/20/stuck-in-the-aftermath-social-anxiety-and-rumination/
Rumination is when we obsess with a particular problem or anxiety, running it over and over in our minds.  Theoretically, a meditation purist might say we need to be present with that and continually notice the rumination.  That's fine if you can do it.  But sometimes the rumination may be so strong that it is neither possible nor practical to deal with it that way.  In a sense, the rumination has become pathological.

If one is constantly getting lost in the rumination despite ordinary attempts at meditation, my recommendation is to use a technique to substantially interfere with the rumination and maybe get it down to a more manageable level so that one could eventually practice with it.  In some ways we need to interrupt the rumination and get some distance from it.

This is not tremendously different from what I recommend in general, that is, to start with a technique that forces one to be aware and present, and later on (maybe much later on) laddering up into open awareness practices.

One practice for rumination, and this is an example of a fairly hard core technique, is to use noting (see elsewhere on this site) along with breath counting.  This is admittedly a lot to do, but then again we may need a lot to do to interfere with rumination.  For the breath counting I count the out-breaths to 12, and then start over at 1.

Why twelve?  On the one hand it doesn't really matter.  But there is a lot to keep track of in this practice.  We're counting, but we then go off and do a note or two, then we go back to the count.  It can be hard to stay continuous on the count at times.  So, a bit technical and insane, but to make the counting a little bit easier to keep track of, I visualize the 12 points of a clock, and I use that continually rotating directional sense to keep additional track of the number.  I do noting on the in-breath, noticing and labeling whatever arises in experience.  Typically I will make 1 to 3 notes during that time, just whatever comes up in the moment.

So noting on the in-breath, and counting on the out breath.  We combine the mindfulness of noting with maybe the stability of breath counting.  By practicing this way one can seriously interrupt the rumination process and get back to a more calm mindful mind.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Forbidden Topics

The intention here is to warn people away, although realistically the title will likely draw even more views than normal.  So be it.  But be warned.  Basically, if you are comfortable with your meditation practice and don't want to trip yourself up with expectations and so forth, bail out now.

The epitome of not talking about phenomena is perhaps Soto Zen practice where in theory they tell you absolutely nothing about practice or experiences, states, whatever.  They only teach you the position to sit in, and you sit.  No instruction about what needs to go on in your mind, or anything about various stages, meditative experiences, nothing.  And that is good in a way, because an indoctrinated mind can contract around these ideas and concepts, and that can trip some people up.

Personally, I'd say the Soto Zen approach is a bit extreme.  I think there is something to be gleaned from a bit of talk about progress, markers along the path and so forth.  These things can help keep a person going, see where you are and that progress has been made.  A form of useful feedback along the way as opposed to groping in the dark.  But some people seem to manage to beat themselves up about not having attainments, or being jealous of other's attainments, etc., so be careful.

The fact that there are topics that are traditionally not talked about, such as actual experiences or attainments, this head-in-the-sand policy has both some dogmatism to it, and some skillfulness.  The good part is that not talking about attainment avoids problems with one-upping and overclaiming and people feeling poorly about lack of attainments.  The dogmatic part derives from the fact that the old Buddhist texts prohibit a monk from talking about such things to laypeople, and that has been incorporated into even very mainstream meditation groups, to the point that many teachers aren't even aware of this material.  This dogma leads to a lack of basic awareness of what is happening, and a lack of reasonable feedback that could otherwise be conducive to progress.


Some of these things that aren't talked about would be:
  • micro-stages that one tends to experience while doing contemplative practice
  • stable, trance-like states of meditative absorption
  • macro-stages, analogous to something like years of college
  • non-experiences, gaps, or emptiness

Basic Progress


Nothing forbidden here.  You may have experienced some markers of fairly mundane meditative progress in your everyday life.  Perhaps while experiencing some kind of task or game or even while having a glass of wine, you notice that in your current experience compared to how you were in the past, you are a little bit more aware, and a little bit more relaxed.  For many, this will be the standard result from traditional meditation practices.


Micro-Stages


The micro-stages (Buddhist jargon: Progress of Insight) are a series of experiential phenomena that seem to happen to in a somewhat repeatable order to people that do contemplative practices.  Tradition breaks this down more finely, but this will be a 4 stage version.  I will emphasize that not everyone is going to experience all this stuff exactly this way, so don't worry if you don't.

These stages appear with varying depths and over various timeframes.  A person may notice a series of phenomena that arise during the course of a single sit, and eventually may notice that something very similar is happening to the background of their overall experience over many weeks and months as the underlying neurology catches up to the cutting edge in practice, and reflects that in daily life.

First Stage - Sustained


At the first stage, in my opinion not a lot is going on.  This area was not even conceived of in the micro framework until quite late in the game (i.e. the last century) by the monk Mahasi who seemed to be using it as a way of introducing some basic conceptual understandings, but I'm not sure there is much there in terms of actual phenomena.  What is there might be thought of as correlating with a kind of sustained effort, and there are some related physical phenomena that may occur particularly to newer meditators.  Namely, at this stage there can be persistent (i.e. sustained) physical sensations such as itching, or a constant pain or tension or cramping.

Second Stage - Pleasant


The second stage we might call the Pleasant stage.  You might notice various pleasant sensations, joy, brightness in the visual field.  At its best, everything can seem really good, very sixties, people with flowers in their hair, togetherness, everything can be really wonderful.  You might notice some pulsing in the forehead as the demands on your prefrontal cortex are increased.  Sometimes there may be a bit of flashing in the visual field as this happens.

It is often during this stage that people might stumble into a big spiritual experience, an opening or awakening, a glimpse.  I call this the "Big Experience", and I'll come back to it later.

Third Stage - Unsatisfactory


The third stage is the Unsatisfactory stage.  At the beginning of this stage, in the wake of the Pleasant stage, everything might be very okay, but the relaxed okayness becomes a kind of relaxed but sinking sensation.  After this transition, a series of unsatisfactory sensations might come up like fear, misery, or disgust.  For example sometimes a pang of fear can come out of nowhere.  Or a feeling like you need to get up off the cushion or you will die.  Things seem generally unpleasant or out of phase.  At the end of this stage there can be an angsty depressive feeling that many people find to be the most difficult of all the phenomena in this stage.

The general advice for this stage is to accept the phenomena, let go of your resistance, and keep meditating.  This is not a place to linger or get stuck.

Fourth Stage - Equanimity


And then this breaks open into the fourth stage, traditionally called Equanimity.  Here we come to an aware, relaxed, open, and sometimes stable state where everything is okay.  It becomes easy to meditate, and some people may even quit meditating since things seem to be going just fine.  At some points during equanimity the mind may become a little spacier and it may require some persistence to stay aware.

I don't like to look at these stages as written in stone, but similar to the meditative absorptions, it may help one to become more aware of your experience.


A Straightforward, Common Sense Measure of Progress



If you are getting to that last stage during your sits, the state of Equanimity, you might have some idea of how long it takes you to get to that point.  Initially, a beginner might not even get there at all.  But as you continue to practice, you might notice that if you practice 45 minutes, sometimes you get there.  With continued good practice that number should come down.  As the time to reach equanimity falls to 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, you will know you are making progress, regardless of anything else.  Your brain is making changes, it is adapting to the demands that you are placing on it.  As you continue to practice well, you are laying down neurology that will become more and more permanent.  You are changing your mind's default from monkey mind to mindful.

You might also notice, as mentioned before, that over longer periods of time something like this same progress of 4 stages is happening in the background experience of your life, but playing out over longer periods of perhaps weeks or months, even years, instead of minutes.

For some, the stages may not be as clear or specific as outlined here.  During meditation you might just notice a sense of "shifting gears" as the brain covers this apparent territory and slowly settles into mindfulness.  All of these repeatable phenomena are markers that you are getting somewhere, that you are covering some terrain, the brain is changing.

The Big Experience


Relatively early on, often at the level of the Pleasant stage, some may have a "big experience".  A big, often dramatic release into a substantially more aware, relaxed, open mind, maybe with a lot of joy, the joy of relief, the joy of completely laying down the massive burdens of life, if only for a few minutes.  The big experience is not a certainty, but also not uncommon, and although the territory can be experienced again, often the first experience will be the biggest or most dramatic event in the life of a meditator.  It is also possible to pass through this kind of area more slowly and quietly without much fanfare.  The classic big experience is probably most likely for a beginner in a setting of massed practice such as a retreat situation.

In the big experience the mind catches a glimpse of just how much baggage can be dropped, and it can be such a stark contrast to the person's normal everyday grasping mind that it is indeed perceived as a very big and dramatic experience.  It is sometimes mistaken for enlightenment, but it is indeed a taste or glimpse of that direction.

In terms of progress, if we liken the meditative path to a four year college degree, the Big Experience (or merely passing through the Pleasant stage) would be the equivalent of passing the first semester midterms.

The bigness of this experience, the drama or ecstasy, is dependent on having a "normal" attached, grasping mind.  It's big because dropping "down" into pure consciousness, letting go of so much baggage, is incredible to the normal mind.  The relief can be unimaginable.

The big experience is more likely to happen earlier in a meditator's career because as someone continues to practice the mind gets closer and closer to being completely relaxed and let go (the background of the big experience), and so there is less to let go of, less relief to be had.  At some point way down the road, this kind of massive relief is simply no longer possible - nothing can be that big of a relief anymore because the mind is already permanently relaxed to that degree.  There is no longer a big dramatic difference.

The big experience may also come about by way of psychedelics.  Some may be lucky and stumble into an experience like this, but for many, psychedelic experiences will be merely interesting and strange rather than life changing.  Meditation does make it more likely that one might access this territory under psychedelics.  Makes you luckier, you might say.  Just like the big spiritual experience, as one progresses down the meditative path, even these big psychedelic experiences will become less and less important, less dramatic.  Nothing to see - move along.

Meditative Absorptions


Some may experience states that are often referred to as states of concentration, but could also be described as states of absorption or stability.  These can be relatively strong sometimes, there is the sense of an altered state, and the stability and absorption can seem like a trance but with more clarity.  These are what Buddhists refer to as jhanas and Hindu refer to as samadhi.  Experiencing these would be a marker of progress, and there are a number of them that tend to come up, often in order.  These states are usually thought of as being connected to single pointed concentration practice, but mild versions can be reached with mindfulness when the awareness of each object in succession is both good and continuous.

The first 4 meditative absorptions are roughly related to the 4 micro-stages mentioned previously.  The absorptions are absorbed versions of the micro-stages, more or less.  The traditional descriptions are a passable guide to this kind of territory, this is a brief outline of the predominate aspects:
  • 1st - sustained attention, delight
  • 2nd - joy
  • 3rd - contentment
  • 4th - equanimity
The second 4 meditative absorptions are traditionally called formless or immaterial, because if the absorption is incredibly strong, experience of various senses and the body can fall away.  But even without extreme concentration these aspects can be noticed.  Because of the formless, faded out quality, my overall description of these are as "dark and delicate".  In a sense, these can be thought of as extensions to the 4th absorption.  The traditional descriptions are:
  • 5th - infinite space
  • 6th - "self" or consciousness
  • 7th - no-thing-ness
  • 8th - absorption without description
The formless states are extremely tranquil.  If you get to the point where you can experience these, it can be good to "steep" in these states on a regular basis.  Becoming familiar with the formless and training the neurology in this direction begins to bring an aspect of deep tranquility to your entire life.

Again, this is merely a passable guide to the territory.  There are many concepts that one can become absorbed into.  To me not all of these absorptions are quite so linearly defined, but nonetheless knowledge of these characteristics may help one to be more aware of what is being experienced.

Cessations


If you keep up the good practice, get the dose high enough and long enough and get relaxed enough, at the stage of Equanimity you might eventually experience a weird little blip, a little discontinuity, a little "what was that?" moment often immediately followed by something like a flash of light and perhaps a pleasant sensation coming up through the body.  That would be a cessation, a gap, a moment when perhaps some part of the mind lets go in a more substantial way, and an important marker when it happens the first time.  If it fits that description, and maybe around that time you experience a kind of general shift towards more mindfulness, and maybe you have an exceptional few days or a couple of weeks, and you get more of those specific little blips, that would constitue the next major marker after the big experience.

A cessation is generally brief, just a moment.  It is a discontinuity, but there is enough information from the before and after of the non-experience to model it as just a moment.  But there is also the possibility of a cessation lasting for longer than a moment, say minutes.  This is more rare, but in this case one more or less "loses time".

Coming back to the typically momentary cessation, at the first occurrence, in particular referring to the overall shift that might happen, this tends to mark a kind of tipping point.  In the college model of the path, this would be the equivalent of finishing up freshman year, and in many ways this would put you on a kind of final trajectory.  This would be the most important bridge to cross and marks the tipping point as you have essentially hit escape velocity.  Again, it is vaguely plausible that some people could cross this territory without noticing, as the mind is very biased to model things as continuous.

And if you kept going, you might notice that these blips appear for a while, maybe for weeks or a couple of months, and then you might notice that they don't come up for a while, again maybe weeks or months.  You might then notice going through the stages for the second time, eventually hitting Equanimity and a second round of cessations.

At this point, two cycles in, you would be at the equivalent of finishing up sophomore year, although it becomes increasingly difficult to map beyond this point.  The first two or three cycles can be pretty solid, but additional cycles don't really map so well to linear progress anymore.  The remaining years are a continual process of opening up into new territory, polishing one's "empty mirror" and getting used to a more mindful, less attached perspective.

This cycle will continue to repeat, and if you pay attention to it, like other phenomena the cycle may speed up to a degree, and may get irregular.  If you're noticing this kind of thing, you're pretty far along.  You should have fewer and fewer questions about this stuff.  Over time, your meditation, your mind itself, will become more polished, mindfulness-wise.  Meditation will become easier, smoother, faster, more constant.  The mind becomes more open and flexible.  Mindfulness becomes your new default.



Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Getting It Done

People who practice a little bit of meditation may notice that they become somewhat more aware and relaxed.  But much more than a little bit of awareness and relaxation can be accomplished if one takes it far enough.  I wouldn't go quite so far as to promise the wonderful "ever increasing bliss" that Yogananda suggested, but there can be substantial tranquility, relief from anxiety and psychological suffering, as well as a substantially new way of looking at the world.

"Getting it done" isn't that complicated.  It is mainly about doing enough quality training to cause the mind to permanently shift, and implies a relatively serious part-time commitment to practice.  This does not necessarily mean years at a monastery, but rather points to consistent high quality daily practice.

Motivation


Just about anyone who gets much of anything accomplished in life had some kind of desire to get it done, some kind of great love, hope, or interest.  In the meditation world it is often driven by a search to solve life's many problems along with the magical promise of some kind of blissed out Buddha-like perfection.  Although fantasies like the latter should be seen as such, the practical reality of shifting the mind to a relaxed, aware, open, non-conceptual view can be a very big deal.  Most people have no idea of how many burdens they are carrying around, and how much can be let go of.  And from where I sit, this seems completely possible, it is just a matter of getting the quality and quantity of training high enough.  In my own case, the shift from relatively anxious to relatively serene was a big deal.  YMMV.

For many people, reading books and watching videos can be inspiring, so dig in, but just make sure that you are actually doing the practice.  If you want to get it done, it's not so much about some kind of conceptual understanding, it is about training the mind.

Dedication


Like many other things in life, getting it done tends to require a daily practice, very similar to something like playing a musical instrument.  Imagine learning to write extremely well with your other hand, for example.  That's going to take a lot of consistent, conscious practice, but it's very doable.  It's like that.  Establish a daily practice routine, a time and a place, and stick to it.  I used to keep a notebook where every line was a date, how long I practiced, and a word or two that summarized the main sensations of that session.  If I missed a day, that meant I skipped a line, and I didn't like to see blank lines in the notebook, which for me happened several days a year.

All Day Awareness


A short (30 minute) daily practice, if extremely high quality, can do some amazing things.  But the effect can be greater if one's mindset is to be repeatedly aware of mindfulness throughout the day, rather than just an isolated block once a day.  Minds naturally fall out of mindfulness, but the idea is to be enough of a mindfulness enthusiast that you come up with creative ways of bringing yourself back to the present moment throughout the day.  Noting out loud in the car on the way to work, practicing in the shower, on breaks, washing dishes, etc.  Spending a minute here and there while watching TV with the full awareness that you are in fact in a room watching images on a screen, without getting lost in the narrative.  Coming up with certain events that trigger mindfulness, for example, maybe whenever you walk through a doorway.  Maybe use reminders, like signs that says "aware, relaxed, open" taped to your computer monitor, in the bathroom, on top of the TV, above the kitchen sink, etc.  Set a timer to go off every hour or something (the possible benefit of living in earshot of an old fashioned clock tower or mantel clock).  Invent ways to get it done.

Quality


It is important to stress the importance of the quality of practice, quality being something like the percentage of time one is actually aware of being aware.  There is the practical sense that intention is important, and practice time is important, but it's really important to get the quality aspect down.  Practice makes permanent.  So what are you practicing?  What are you actually getting done in terms of this percentage-of-time-aware metric?  How many quality hours are you piling up?  The path to quality is often going to be the more structured methods that require you to maintain this kind of awareness.  I recommend noting, breath counting, mantra, and combinations of those.  If those aren't your thing, maybe try to at least occasionally check in with a structured method to see exactly how you're doing.  Feedback is extremely important in learning, and many people aren't aware of how often they are losing their mindfulness.

Continuity


The longer you can stay with this kind of meta-awareness we're referring to, the better.  Longer stretches of continuous mindfulness tend to be a marker of progress, so be aware of how you are doing on the continuity scale.

Tight But Loose


It needs to be emphasized that ultimately, with the structured styles, only a small amount, maybe about 5% of one's attention should be on the structure - the note, counting or mantra itself.  Most of the attention, eventually, should be on the actual object in awareness - the seeing, hearing and feeling.  One has to adjust to circumstances, tailoring one's awareness to the relative ease or difficulty that presents itself.  These structures are tools, and it's not about the tool, it's about the work you do with the tool, and that work is the mindfulness itself.

Attention at the Edge


One small key might be to notice some things around the "edge" of your experience.  At first a person may notice a kind of binary quality to meditative awareness.  Either they are aware and present, or oops, they are lost.  It may seem very black and white, but try to start to notice the edges of that.  Notice when you are losing it, and note "losing it".  Or maybe you notice "boredom", and that's a cue to reinvigorate your structured practice.  Or maybe you could notice the underlying desire to go think about that thing you've been wanting to think about, and note: "desire".  Being aware that the quality of your awareness has changed, that you have lost some clarity and are getting fuzzier or sleepier, this can be noticed and you can take appropriate measures.

In everyday life, I notice that the times that the mind tends to start to run off is when there is some kind of slowdown or break in the action.  While watching TV, you may have to pay attention to some exposition to catch the plot, but then there is a break when there is a transition with some purely visual footage to set up something like a new location.  The mind immediately notices that there is more room to go off and think and off it goes.  You can notice this at times, that desire to "fill that space", the desire to think and the movement towards that.

The Dogmatic Approach


"It is not a matter of good or bad, convenient or inconvenient.  You just do it without question.  That way your mind is free."
-Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

The dogmatic approach is to take a structured method and just dogmatically follow it.  Kind of silly in a way, this method is to literally follow the method, but it needs to be said.  Many people take a laid back, laissez-faire approach to meditation.  They're chilling out, relaxing, and, while that's fine in its own way, they may be spacing out left and right, very much like they do off the cushion.  The structured styles exist because there is a real need for them, because our minds have been conditioned to go off and think about those things, and to be very attached to that.  We're like addicts in that way.

A Hindu teacher once remarked on a practice seen in many Asian street markets where people buy cups of raw rice and other products.  The vendors have a practice where they continually and repetitively count out loud each cup during the whole process of scooping it up, transferring it, putting it in a bag, so the counting would sound something like "one, one, one, one, two, two, two, two" etc.  It's a practical way of keeping the transaction honest, but it's borne out of the human tendency to space out.  It's necessary.  At some level it might look silly, but it needs to be done, it's the only way to be sure when you have small measuring cups and no scale.

So the dogmatic approach is like this.  It is based on the understanding, in a ten steps kind of way, that we are otherwise powerless against the tendency to space out.  And one remedy is to make this dogmatic agreement with yourself, that similar to the vendors, you will count every breath, or that you will note once per second, or whatever your technique requires.  So you agree to note 3600, yes 3600 times in one hour.  That you have no choice in the matter.  You've signed up for boot camp.  Just do it and stop complaining about it.  Stop imagining that there is some other choice or that you can just wing it without technique.

Someone who wants to be a professional jazz musician doesn't have some kind of choice about whether they practice scales or not.  And even for a die hard musician, some of that might be tedious from time to time.  But they do it because they want to get to the end goal, to play jazz.  A guitarist is not born with the ability to play through a scale with 64th note triplets with perfect alternate picking technique.  It takes a lot of dogmatic practice, and they don't get to just lazily pick a few notes and then space out for a minute.  They stay focused on the task for minutes at a time, continuously.  And over time it indeed changes them into a person who can play 64th note triplets with alternate picking technique.

So "you" give up, you surrender to this process.  That's kind of useful in itself, as part of the path.  The way that your mind has been living life for how ever many years you have been alive, you are going to abandon those habits and become a slave to these methods that are going to interrupt and interfere with those habits.  Again, useful in itself.  You are just going to sit and do this possibly insane sounding practice, and you probably won't like it at first (because the mind wants to do what it's always done), but that's it, you just do it.  No sneaking off for a few seconds here and there, no buts, no thinking "I'll just wing it", you just do the freaking practice.  The practice that forces you to stay continually aware of your awareness.

It is possible to do this.  If you wanted to, you could count 3600 little spoonfuls of something in a hour, at the rate of one per second.  It's entirely possible, and counting out loud is one way you would be able to do it without losing count.

And Yet Let Go


Although dogmatic practice is goal oriented in this way, it's equally important to emphasize the idea that you don't beat yourself up about the lapses that absolutely will occur.  If you slip, you slip, and you just smile at yourself and go right back into the practice.  Don't stress yourself out with it.  You'll need to get up to speed with a new practice, learn a bit, get adjusted to the process, it will take time.  Some people might even panic or worry a bit, but just keep it simple, relax, and just do it.  At first, it will be hard, but eventually it will become easier, as it becomes second nature.  Find a way to do it in a relaxed way, even if you're learning.  Find a way to be okay with it.  And as it becomes easier, you can focus more on that relaxation aspect.  When you've got the awareness of awareness going, within that you can relax.  Notice whatever physical, emotional, or mental tension there is.  Let it be there.  Don't fight it.  If you can let go of some of that, great.  If you can't let go of it, great, just let it be there.  Feel your resistance to that tension, let it be there.  If you can let go of some of that, great.  If you can't let go of it, great, just let it be there.  Repeat ad infinitum.

Lean into the Sensate


Another great pointer is to lean in the direction of the basic senses, seeing, hearing, and feeling.  All you have to do is continually check in with basic sensory stuff.  What am I seeing?  What am I hearing?  What am I feeling?  With no conceptual elaboration, no stories, no spin.  Just the sensate experience.  Your techniques should lead you to a continual nonverbal answering of those questions.  In a way it couldn't be easier: just what is here, right here, right now, seeing, hearing, feeling.  All we have to do is set up a bit of structure to keep us from running off into daydreams, and we can just sit and be and watch.

Examples of Structured Styles


  • Noting
  • Breath Counting
  • Mantra
  • Noting with breath counting
  • Noting, timed with breath
  • Breath counting with mantra

Support


Local meditation groups and teachers can be helpful, often giving people more motivation to practice well.  These are almost always going to be promoting a non-structured, mainstream style, but you can meditate any way you want.

There are a couple of online communities that are well oriented to the approach of actually getting it done.  A person who really wants to get it done might consider joining these communities and possibly keeping an online practice journal for feedback.
  • Dharma Overground is the biggest, this is a typical "wild west" kind of internet forum
  • Awake Network is a very small and protected community
  • Many traditional Buddhist or other forums
For many people psychological work with therapists and groups, bodywork, yoga, etc. might fall into this category, and has the potential to reduce suffering.

Gadgets


Whatever gadget or technique that works for you, use it.  Here are a couple of ideas.

I'm not super into smart phones and their apps, but I understand that the Insight Timer is relatively popular meditation app, and there are many, many others.

When I was getting it done I often used a device (the Motivaider) that was essentially a modified beeper that vibrated every so often.  I had it set to the minimum, one minute.  I would hold it loosely (so I would notice it more easily) in my left hand, and I logged probably over 1000 hours with it.  They also have a mobile app.

Gadgets might also encompass guided meditations, ambient music, supplements, whatever might help to keep you mindful and relaxed.

Walking meditation is another possible "trick".  The Theravada community spends maybe half their meditation time walking, and neurologically speaking, that kind of exercise helps with learning.  And we are trying to learn.

Non-Dual Teachings


Another approach, or supplement, would be to check out the people who are doing talks where they are pointing very directly at or from an enlightened perspective.  This would be the realm of Advaita/Non-duality/Dzogchen.  There are more of these teachers now than one could count, but a couple of the more famous would be Adyashanti and Eckhart Tolle, for whom there are innumerable Youtube videos.  These can sometimes be helpful, teaching something about the direction to lean towards.

Traditional dharma talks might also be helpful and motivating, there is a huge repository at dharmaseed, for example.

Head-Butting Your Worldview


Another supplemental approach would be to do a kind of intellectual inquiry, digging straight into the concepts and seriously confronting one's entrenched views about the world.  A good example would be the book Gateless Gatecrashers (pdf, also available in print).  They have a website, Liberation Unleashed, with forums where people work on this kind of stuff, and like the meditation forums above, you could start a personal thread to directly engage with people on your journey.

The classic Alan Watts "The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are"  might be an additional example.

Effort vs. No Effort

 

Many would place me in the "effort" camp of meditation.  There is some of that.  But I believe the dichotomy of effort vs. no-effort is solved, like most things, by understanding that both things are happening, both things are required.  One has to simultaneously remain aware (effort, at times) in order to notice the grasping and resistance that can be let go of (no-effort).  So I recommend some kind of structure in addition to a basic intent to be aware, and I recommend letting go of everything that can be let go of.  And letting go of the structure is fine.  Just be realistic about how mindful you actually are, and return to structure when you need to.

Feel Your Way Into It


Don't beat yourself up about this.  These structured techniques are just tools, use them, and relax while you're using them.  You're just doing the equivalent of counting cups of rice, it doesn't have to be stress inducing, far to the contrary, it can be relaxing.  Counting a cup of rice isn't hard, but it does mean you don't get to go off and think about that thing.  That's the job you signed up for.

Maybe I should end by making the point that this is ultimately or eventually something that you very much have to feel your way into.  Feel the sensations, feel the emotions, feel the grasping and resistance, feel the breath.  And relax, relax, relax wherever you can.  Counting the breath, for example, is not about the counting.  It's not about controlling the breath.  It's about using the counting as a tool so you can feel the breath continuously, until you are just watching it happen, until you are just being, effortlessly experiencing an animal that happens to be breathing.

Best of luck to you.

Next: Mahasi Noting Style

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