Thursday, June 8, 2017

Upping Your Game

It may be, of course, that you don't need to up your game.  But odds are that you do.

The meditation game is something along the lines of mastering a combination of attention and relaxation.  Simple enough, in theory.  But as the song* goes, "with a back beat narrow and hard to master."

The mainstream advice seems to be mostly about merely having an intention to be mindful, but not much is said on exactly how to accomplish this experience of mindfulness.  It's not that they don't provide any hints, but rather that they speak in general terms and seem to eschew reliance on any kind of direct technique to accomplish the task.  It's as if it were somehow rude to suggest that one indulge in something so crass as a technique, or probably even moreso a technique that is not (god forbid) specifically mentioned in the Pali Canon.  Other, of course, than following the breath, which seems eminently allowable because Buddha specifically used awareness of the breath as an example of how to be mindful.

I once knew a particular guy that was very into meditation and Buddhism.  He had practiced daily for years, read all the books, listened to all the dharma talks, been to all the retreats, and had even taught meditation for a while at an established center.  I'm not sure exactly where he was on the path, but I do know that I turned him on to noting style, and afterwards he said that he had never been that aware in meditation before.

Okay, so maybe that last line went by kind of quickly.  Pause and consider the unbelievable magnitude of that last statement.  Let's go through it again: daily practice for a couple of decades or more, bookshelves full of dharma books, always listening to dharma talks, been to all kind of retreats, and, critically, taught lots of other people how to meditate, and yet HE HAD NEVER BEEN THAT AWARE IN MEDITATION.  What does that say about the success of the mainstream meditation community?  I mean, not that there isn't more to it than meditation, but seriously folks, c'mon.

And let me say that noting style may not be the be all and end all for everyone, but circling back to the point, this is a concrete example of how a simple technique changed one person's game, even if just for a moment.

Noting style is a kind of paint-by-numbers version of mindfulness, forcing one to do exactly what mindful people do.  Name what you are aware of, at a rate of about one "note" per second or so.  Repeat 3600 times per hour.  When first exposed to it, people often comment about the unusual degree of awareness, much like the experienced practitioner I mentioned.

But, like many things, people habituate.  They slack off.  They succumb to the learned desire to think about this or that.  Time to up your game.  You can always work on intention, attempt to increase your earnestness, your engagement, your resolve.  And that is an important factor, but generally it is not enough.

So what I'm recommending is coming up with techniques to overcome this problem.  You don't have to do it "on your own" without technique.  You don't have to just "wing it".  You can figure out a technology to get it done.

In noting practice, the first thing to recommend is noting out loud.  Most people will avoid this important step.  Noting out loud ups the ante.  Do it.  The hardest-core version I have recommended is to note out loud while writing down each brief note on paper.  I don't believe a single person I have recommended this to has actually done the practice, but trust me, I didn't recommend it without test driving it, and I can tell you it works really well.  But it seems to be something along the lines of "too much trouble".

There are any number of techniques, I have outlined a bunch of the usual suspects (and more) in Basic Meditation Styles.  But like the writing down noting technique I came up with, you can invent what works for you.  There are apps that you can use to vibrate your phone every so often, like once a minute.  For years I used an old beeper device (Motivaider) that would do that, and held it loosely in my hand while I meditated.  By doing that, it was difficult to space out for more than a few seconds.  That's the idea.

Say you're lying down on the couch watching TV.  Great time to practice, few will attempt it, fewer will succeed.  Do what you have to do.  Maybe prop up your arm and slowly wave it in front of you, obscuring your view of the TV every second or so.  Use it to remind yourself to be here now, feel the body, open your awareness to the room.  You can invent a way to stay present.

All of this may be seem a bit silly or hardcore for armchair meditators who are maybe just looking for a bit of relaxing and de-stressing.  I very much advocate relaxing and de-stressing, but I find that awareness has to take precedence.  Once you are present, you will actually be able to relax.  You will actually be aware of what is tense, and you can see if you can let go of some of that.  That's what it takes to really relax.  And it does take some work to undo decades of conditioning, the prejudice of the mind towards concepts. 

The reason I am concerned about this can also be seen in a recent Tricycle article where the writer said:
You may read that meditation enables you to tame your mind and bring it to a state of stability and peace. Despite meditating as a Buddhist for more than 40 years, I have not achieved even a glimpse of this, nor have I ever seen anyone else achieve it. Admittedly, I am not much of a practitioner ...
The article, though nice in its own way, is essentially apologetics for slacking off.  It saddens me that he's put in so much time, enough to get far more than a glimpse of stability and peace, but in some way the mainstream practices failed him.

I'm not one for Buddhist dogma, but I'm willing to bring up a couple of quotes such as Buddha's last words, to "strive diligently".  Or when describing the removal of distracting thoughts, "with teeth clenched ... he should beat down, constrain, and crush mind with mind".  That's one intense dude.

This kind of effort must eventually be let go of like everything else, but for most people that will be a few years down the road.  For example, musically, you have to learn your scales and modes and arpeggios and chords and songs and solos and fingerings, and get to the point where all the movements are second nature, before you can really lay back and improvise at a high level.  It takes time and hard practice, and imagining that is going to happen without real effort is insanity.

I have indeed seen one clear example of an advanced practitioner who got there with a very technique based effort, who was at a point where he really needed to let go and just be.  But in my experience, he was the exception.  In stark contrast, the overwhelming number of people I run into have the opposite problem.

If you want to "get it done", it can be done.  Figure out a technique that will get you, and keep you, aware, relaxed, and open, and do that for an hour a day.

*Doors: Texas Radio and The Big Beat

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

It's not about thinking with your eyes closed

Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed. - Sam Harris
"Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed"
- Sam Harris

I would add that sitting on a cushion at a retreat for 60 hours a week is not necessarily meditation, although it could be.

It depends on what is going on internally.

I've heard examples of modern meditation teachers recommending that their students actively think and analyze on the cushion.  At some level I find this frightening and I would tend to disagree.  I think this is quite possibly pointing in the wrong direction, that it may be training people to strengthen and practice their attachment and prejudice towards thought, something that instead needs to be un-done, un-learned.

On the other hand, it is possible to some extent for a person to be relatively unattached to their thinking, to merely observe the thoughts that arise, and that indeed can be a part of meditation practice, but notice this is not the same as the recommended steering and analyzing and grasping, but rather a mindful witnessing of what is.

In part this has resulted from a seemingly well intended political correctness about thought in meditation, at least among the consensus meditation community.  Once upon a time, a few decades ago, no-thought was used prominently as a pointer, and it remains an excellent pointer if understood correctly.  The danger is that some people would assume there should be an aversion to thought and would therefore resist thought.  The largely modern western groups reacted to this by pretty much abolishing talk of no-thought.  But grasping and resistance were never part of the practice.  Being mindfully aware and relaxed and open, and leaning in the direction of the non-conceptual, abandoning whatever grasping and resistance that can be abandoned, surrendering to the moment, that is the practice.

The practice is a letting go of what can be let go of, not of shunning or resisting thought.

In my experience, there is grasping with every thought, at least on the cushion.  On the cushion, everything is taken care of, there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.  Thoughts in that situation, although natural at some level, reflect a degree of dissatisfaction with the present moment.  But the experience of thoughts subsiding, relaxing down to the level of a few proto-thoughts, is a sign that you are on the right track.  Although perhaps an advanced practice, one simply watches these arising and lets go of them as they are seen.

Part of the political correctness stems from the misunderstanding of the no-thought pointer.  But there are a couple of other pieces to the puzzle.  For example, there is a general recommendation to "investigate" experience, and Buddha himself clearly does a bit of thinking and analyzing.  My take would be that sure, you can do some of that, but I would recommend doing it off the cushion.  I would recommend staying away from discursive analysis on the cushion and instead emphasize "feeling" your experience.  What does your experience really feel like?  What does that fear or that tension in the body really feel like?  What happens when we stop resisting that?  We're living in a world of people that are out of touch with their bodies and feelings, like brains on a popsicle stick.  We need to practice the non-verbal.  We need to practice just being.

Similarly, the western Buddhist experience has been substantially blended with psychology over the past few decades.  This may not be a bad thing.  But again, when I hear someone at a dharma talk saying that they plan to spend their next retreat "meditating" on their relationship with their partner, my heart falls a bit.  Who knows, maybe what that person needs is a lot of psychological think time.  But I wouldn't call it meditation.  I do recommend psychological work, I think everyone is on a spectrum of neurosis, but again I would recommend that work be done off the cushion.

Time on the cushion is precious time, it is an opportunity to practice being aware and letting go.  Grasping at stories is not that.  And as my guitar teacher put it, practice makes permanent.  You practice sloppy, your playing will be sloppy.  Guaranteed.  Practice being aware and letting go, abandon whatever you can.

Another Reason for Noting Practice

The article, "Things You Can Do to Cheer Up, According to Neuroscience", in the segment "He-Who-Actually-Must-Be-Named", explains that:

“To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here's the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.”
This is the essence of noting practice, to continuously describe what is more or less predominate in awareness.