Tuesday, January 10, 2017
- 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. I find this a bit frightening and at least in an overall sense 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.
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.