47 - How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 1: Do Something, Don’t Just Fall Asleep

In this second episode of two on “How to Guide Your Own Meditation,” I illustrate the process by sharing four first-person narratives about meditation experiences. In each story, someone turns their attention toward their meditative experience itself, and finds a way to adjust their effort in order to improve it.

Read/listen to How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 1

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Paradox of Effort and Non-Effort in Meditation
Story One: A Scattered, Busy Mind-State
Key Points: The Scattered State and Attention to Physical Experience
Story Two: Struggling with Dullness
Key Points: The Dull State and Attention to Motivation
Story Three: I Can’t Stop Thinking About ______
Key Points: The Preoccupied State and Turning Toward Your Issues
Story Four: Trying to Recreate a Particular Experience
Key Points: Effort Versus Non-Effort and Trying Something New
Finding Yourself and Your Meditation Fascinating

 

This is the second episode of two on “How to Guide Your Own Meditation.” I’ll be continuing to talk about how mindfulness of the nature of your meditative experience – your physical and mental states, energy levels, thought patterns, etc. – is an integral part of Buddhist meditation. And how, once you’re paying attention to the kind of experience you’re having, you can learn how to adjust your effort in order to deepen your meditation.

In last week’s episode, I discussed how we sometimes get stuck in simplistic meditation instructions and therefore sell our meditation short. I talked about what it is we’re aiming for in meditation, because we have to have some idea of that in order to know what to guide our meditation towards. In this episode, I’ll illustrate further what this process is like by telling first-person narratives about meditative experiences, including descriptions of how someone’s meditation just didn’t feel quite right, and how they adjusted their body-mind in order to get more “on track.”

The Paradox of Effort and Non-Effort in Meditation

To review briefly from the last episode: Especially in Soto Zen, where we do “just sitting” meditation, people sometimes think meditation should be more or less passive. However, all the ancient Buddhist masters have encouraged us to make great effort during our meditation – even to “sit as if our hair is on fire.” It’s a paradox, but the way I look at it is we make an effort because it’s actually really difficult to “just sit” and be present with life as it is, free from any assumptions or expectations. We may think we’re doing that as we sit on the meditation seat and daydream, but we’re not.

So, we have to navigate a dynamic “middle way” between effort and letting go. Too much effort and we end up getting tied up in expectations and willfulness. Too little and we waste our time. The point of this teaching about guiding your own meditation is that, ultimately, only you know whether your making too much or too little effort, and what to do about it.

Now I’m going to tell four first-person stories about meditative experiences in order to illustrate the process of noticing when your meditation isn’t what it could be, and then exploring and experimenting until you find something that improves your situation. These stories are fictional in the sense that they’re composites of many different people’s experiences, including my own, but hopefully they’ll give you a sense of what it actually feels like to guide your own meditation. I’ll follow each story with a short commentary on the key points it illustrates.

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of all the obstacles we encounter in meditation and how to get past them! The important message of the stories is not the details of what each person discovered or what they did (although the stories may give you some ideas), but the process by which someone paid close attention to their meditative experience, identified an issue, adjusted their body-mind in response, and took note of the results.

Story One: A Scattered, Busy Mind-State

Thomas writes:

“Lately, my daily sitting has been very frustrating and unrewarding. I sit for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, but I pretty much spend that whole time thinking. I try to focus on my breath, and I manage to do that for, maybe, 5 seconds, and then I lose track of my meditation again. I think about all kinds of random stuff – things going on in my life, plots of movies, chores I need to get done – you name it, I’ve thought about it during meditation!

“The other day, though, I had something of a breakthrough. I noticed how many of my thoughts come with a gross or subtle sense of imperative – like I need to be figuring these things out, as soon as possible. Strangely, even when I was thinking about the random stuff that’s not important, I still felt a little bit like I was doing something significant – or, at least, more significant than just sitting there! When I would start to think, my body would get revved up and almost lean forward, as if I was finally getting to work on something (and there was a deadline!).

“When I noticed I felt this way about my thoughts, I almost laughed. I mean, most of my thoughts were pretty unimportant, or at the very least they weren’t so pressing that I actually had to be thinking about them during meditation! Then I decided to approach my meditation like it was relaxing in a hot tub. I invited myself to physically and mentally relax, and appreciate taking a break. I suddenly became aware of my breath in a whole new way – instead of trying to make my brain concentrate on it, I was just enjoying breathing! For a little while, I felt a new kind of relaxation and openness spread through places I hadn’t even realized were tense – my chest, face, neck… a couple minutes later, my mind was wandering again, but occasionally I’m able to apply this ‘taking a break’ technique and enjoy a few precious moments of real peace and spaciousness.”

Key Points: The Scattered State and Attention to Physical Experience

Okay, Thomas’ narrative illustrates a couple key points. First, he confesses to having what is classically called a “scattered” mind-state in Buddhism – when your energy and attention is all over the place, without any particular pattern. It’s useful to be able to identify a scattered state of mind when you’re experiencing it; sometimes just recognizing it helps you be a little less caught up in all of your thoughts.

The second point is this: Mindfulness of your meditative experience requires you to tune into your physical and emotional experience as well as what’s going on in your thoughts. Meditation is an embodied activity – it’s not about putting “the body” in a particular posture and then leaving it there while we do something special with our “mind.” Ideally, we tune into our whole experience without artificially dividing ourselves up into parts like “body,” “mind,” or “feelings.” Still, if you’re someone who’s usually a little “up in your head,” so to speak, it can be helpful to deliberately turn your attention toward your physical experience.

Remember, these stories are about the process of paying close attention to your meditation and adjusting your effort; Thomas’ story is not making the point that you should relax instead of trying to concentrate! Sometimes it will be time to focus your energy and try to concentrate, while others times something else entirely will be required.

Story Two: Struggling with Dullness

Emma writes:

“Sometimes my meditation is… well… the best way to describe it might be “unfocused.” My mind doesn’t feel busy so much as it really can’t be bothered to concentrate on anything. It just wanders from thing to thing and sometimes just zones out. Occasionally I drift off, or the bell to end meditation will ring and I’ll suddenly come to my senses and realize I don’t even know what just happened for the last 20 minutes.

“Today, though, I noticed something interesting that helped me change my experience a little. Instead of judging my tendency to zone out, I tried to look at it more closely. What was going on there? Why was I tuning out my present experience even though I was choosing to spend time meditating? What popped into my head was, ‘Why should I pay attention to this? There’s nothing happening. This is boring!’ I realized I was assuming I knew exactly what the rest of my meditation was going to be like, and sitting there breathing was only interesting enough to hold my attention for a couple moments at a time. I was actually dismissing my present experience.

“As soon as I recognized this, a sincere question arose for me: ‘Is there more going on here than I think?’ I found my senses opening up to explore the present moment with curiosity. Funnily enough, everything was included in the ‘present moment’ as I did this – including my resistance to meditation and my vague embarrassment at being a poor meditator! Everything was interesting, and also, somehow, okay. It was all part of the scene, and the scene started to feel full, significant, even somehow – and I know this is weird – even animate. Instead of it just being me, and other people, stuck in our own heads, the present moment itself seemed aware and responsive. It felt intimate.

I zoned out again multiple times during the meditation session, but whenever I realized it, I was able to return to this sense of wonder for the state of things right here and now.”

Key Points: The Dull State and Attention to Motivation

The first key point in Emma’s story is her experience of the state that Buddhism calls “dullness.” Dullness doesn’t have the energy or busyness of being scattered. Instead, it’s like our brain is in a fog, and we’re prone to zoning out or even falling asleep. Periodically we wake up a little and go, “Huh? What’s going on? Oh yeah, I was meditating.” It can even feel a little bit like your mind is calm, at least relative to being scattered, but your meditation lacks focus and aliveness. It’s useful to be able to recognize a dull state of mind (and body). Sometimes you’re just sleep-deprived or exhausted for some other reason and there’s not much you can do about it, but sometimes you can find a way to wake yourself up a little bit.

The second key point is how it can be valuable to become aware of what you’re bringing to your meditation in terms of motivation, resistance, or assumptions. When you notice an obstacle, you might be able to find something within you that’s causing or contributing to it. Emma recognized how she was assuming her experience would be boring, and was consequently dismissing it and “checking out.” The ways we can interfere with our own meditation are infinite, so it’s good to approach this exploration of our own mind and motivation with a question, “What’s going on? Why am I not engaged in my meditation? What do I really want?” If we find a way to strengthen our motivation, our meditation will almost inevitably improve. Think about it: If you knew your life depended on concentrating during this very meditation period (and someone was monitoring your brain with electrodes), it’s very unlikely you’d feel dull.

Story Three: I Can’t Stop Thinking About ______

Doug writes:

“I’ve had a major issue going on in my life lately and I can’t stop thinking about it during meditation. I have a problematic coworker who seems to disrespect me, and who finds ways to make that public. In meetings, she’ll insult my ideas and says things that make it pretty clear she thinks I’m incompetent or difficult. I’ve tried talking with her one-on-one and she just dismisses my concerns (and says I’m being oversensitive). Our boss does the same thing, although my other coworkers agree with me. Right now, I can’t see any way to improve the situation.

“In my meditation, I end up replaying the most recent interactions with this coworker over and over. I feel angry and frustrated, and rehearse brilliant, impassioned responses to her that will really give her a piece of my mind. Usually, my meditation feels like a waste of time – or even like it’s making the situation worse because I just spend the time brooding on my situation.

“The other day, though, I was able get a few moments of peace that were really restorative. I imagined myself face to face with this disturbing person, and then turned my awareness toward what it made me feel, right then and there, in my mind and body. I noticed anger, tension in my chest, and the inclination to form fists. But I also noticed a shakiness in my heart area… and when I explored it, I realized part of me was stinging from the rejection that was coming from this person. As if everyone has to love and respect me, or else I’ll be revealed for the fraud I am. It was kind of a surprising thought to find inside me! I mean, it sounds kind of silly when I say it out loud, but there it was, in my heart.

“Then the thought occurred to me, ‘What do I need her approval for? I’m never going to get it anyway, and I’m confident that I’m not incompetent or difficult in any of the ways she seems to think I am.’ To some extent I was able to let go of my need for my opponent’s approval, and some of the ‘charge’ around this whole situation lessened. I found myself breathing deeply, almost sighing with relief. I was able to access the stillness of meditation for the first time in a long while.”

Key Points: The Preoccupied State and Turning Toward Your Issues

The state Doug was struggling with is what I call “preoccupied.” That’s not a classical Buddhist term, though, it’s just something I came up with. (In traditional Buddhism they would probably call this being caught up in craving or aversion.) Being preoccupied is different than being scattered; when you’re scattered, you keep getting caught up in all kinds of different thoughts, while in a preoccupied state your mind gets drawn again and again to more or less the same thing. Note: Preoccupation isn’t necessarily about negative things like problems or worries; for example, I’m frequently preoccupied with projects during meditation. Whatever the obsession, however, it makes it difficult to meditate. As with scatteredness and dullness, it’s a helpful first step just to recognize what’s going on for you.

One of the other things Doug’s story illustrates is the value of turning toward problematic issues that keep arising during your meditation – at least at times. Generally speaking, meditation isn’t the time to analyze your problems and try to solve them. Letting go of thinking and simply returning to awareness of the present moment, or whatever your meditative technique is, can help you settle and get more clarity, thereby indirectly help with your daily-life issues. However, sometimes we’re so preoccupied that we really can’t meditate anyway. In this case, you might want to experiment with shining the light of your awareness on whatever it is you’re obsessed with or upset about. Sometimes the relative stillness of meditation allows you to perceive your issue in a new way, and brings about a significant shift.

Whenever I suggest this to meditators, they usually respond with a certain amount of confusion or skepticism. Am I telling them to think about stuff on the meditation seat? Well, not exactly. At least, I’m not recommending you think in the way you usually do. It’s more like you turn with curiosity toward exactly what’s going on in your body-mind right here, right now, while you hold your preoccupation in awareness. Is there anything going on in the problematic situation that you haven’t noticed before, especially in your own body-mind? Is there anything you can let go of, which would resolve some of your inner concern or conflict? I would need at least a whole episode to go into this approach to meditation (and I probably will); I know this brief paragraph doesn’t fully explain it. Suffice it to say you may want to experiment with giving yourself permission to explore an issue during meditation if arises in your awareness repeatedly or is very troubling.

Story Four: Trying to Recreate a Particular Experience

Shannon writes:

“Not that long ago, my meditation was pretty good. I would center my mind in my lower abdomen (the hara, or tanden), and hold my body perfectly still. It was like holding my body perfectly still also held my mind perfectly still – and then the most active thing going on would be my breathing. So, in a sense I would “concentrate” on my breathing, but actually it was just that my mind was so open and still, it was easy to follow my breath. I had a sense that the whole universe was, essentially, silence and stillness, like a great ocean. All the activity in the world seemed relatively small, like little waves in that ocean. Pretty cool, right?

“But recently it just stopped working. I tried and tried to do the same thing – centering myself in the hara, letting go into stillness, following the breath – but after a few moments, my mind would just wander and I’d completely forget what I even intended to do. At first, I figured it was just because I was stressed, or fighting a cold, or a little disinterested in my practice. I kept trying the same approach to meditation for a couple months, sure that if I just tried harder it would start working again. It got pretty frustrating.

“Finally, one day, I gave up. I was so sick of the same thing happening over and over, I just decided to sit there and do nothing. Not try to follow my breath, or concentrate, or center myself in the hara – nothing. Suddenly, I was almost moved to tears with a sense of relief. It felt like coming home; after all that struggle, the present moment had been right here all the time! I remembered how sweet it was to just be – to let go of trying to make anything happen, stop trying to figure anything out, stop trying to be anything other than who and where I am…

“It’s not like the meditation technique I was using before was wrong – it really did help me touch stillness and let go of thinking – but it seems like I just had to change things up.”

Key Points: Effort Versus Non-Effort and Trying Something New

The first key point in Shannon’s story is the value of experimenting with the amount of conscious effort you apply in your meditation, and paying attention to the results. As I mentioned earlier, we’re trying to navigate a middle way between the extremes of willful effort (having a goal in mind and attempting to force our body-mind to move toward it) and laziness (just letting things happen and telling ourselves even daydreaming or sleeping is meditation). While deep meditation often feels effortless, we generally don’t sink right into that kind of experience as soon as we sit down on the meditation seat; it usually takes some effort to get there.

Only you know your internal experience, and if you’re honest with yourself you’ll probably know, at any given time, where you are on the spectrum between effort and non-effort. The important thing is the result of whatever you’re doing. Does meditation feel “right” or not? Now, by “right” I mean appropriate, or what actually works, as in, “That’s the right key for the door.” Another way to evaluate whether your approach to meditation needs adjustment is to ask whether it’s creating dukkha or not. Dukkha can be translated as dissatisfactoriness or stress, and the etymology of the word can be traced back to ancient India where it meant something like, “having a poor axle hole.” Imagine being rocked back and forth in a cart that has a poor axle hole, and you’ll know what Buddhists mean by dukkha – something just doesn’t feel right, or isn’t working right. It’s possible to take note of a sense of dukkha in our meditation without getting caught up in preferences or ideas about how we want our meditation to be. Actually, dukkha might be a sign that we’ve gotten caught up in preferences or ideas without even realizing it!

The second point in Shannon’s story is the importance of being willing to try something new. This doesn’t mean you should give up on an approach to meditation just because it’s hard or you don’t like it. Sometimes it pays to stick with something and keep trying. (Note that Shannon didn’t give up on her favorite technique right away.) At other times, though, it can be helpful to admit to yourself that you keep trying the same thing over and over and over, and you’re not making any headway at all. Then it’s time to explore a new approach. You can talk to a meditation teacher for suggestions, do some reading, or just create an approach of your own! Just pay attention to the results in order to know whether a particular way is beneficial for you.

Finding Yourself and Your Meditation Fascinating

Overall, perhaps the most important thing to remember in guiding your own meditation is allowing yourself to be curious – even fascinated – by your own body-mind and your meditative experience. Most meditation instruction is fairly simple and straightforward, but it’s far from simple and straightforward to be a human being. The more you explore the questions of effort, non-effort, concentration, relaxation, and who’s really in charge of your body-mind, the subtler and more complex the whole scenario of meditation – and life itself – begins to appear.

Meditation can strengthen our ability to pay close attention to our own body-mind, which allows us to learn about all kinds of cool things over a lifetime of practice: What it means to let go of troubling emotions as opposed to suppressing them; how to discover and question fundamental assumptions we make about ourselves and the world, and how to settle into a flow-state and respond to things more naturally, instead of trying to impose our will on the world. Exploring these kinds of human experience with curiosity is what my Zen teacher, Gyokuko Carlson, calls, “the habit of profound thought.”

In closing, however, let me remind you of what I said in the last episode: many – if not most – of the benefits of meditation are physical, unconscious, and subconscious. It’s entirely possible for meditation to make a big difference in your life even if you never try to consciously guide your experience. And in terms of guiding your meditation being, in and of itself, a kind of effort, there will be times when it’s best to let go of effort. Ironically, then, you may actually be guiding your own meditation when you decide it’s best for your meditation if you don’t try to guide it!

 

47 - How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 1: Do Something, Don’t Just Fall Asleep
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