Notes for talk one in the 2014 dhamma talk series
Meditate Because You Want To
Each week during the Rains Retreat Series of Talks the notes will be published. If anything is mentioned during the session that needs clarification or links for further details, then it will be easily found.
MAGAZINES are full of advice on meditation these days. Open any wellness magazine, or ‘Life’ section of a newspaper and there it will be! For those of us ‘in the trade’ the articles are weak at best – recycled blurb on lowering blood pressure or ‘learning to relax’. There’s not much real information there. And sometimes they disagree
See a Huffington Post response to TIME here. The picture of the soldiers ‘meditating’ is hilarious!
There are a number of subheadings, drifting in and out of the article, without attachment:
- Meditation is helping students
- Veterans and soldiers using meditation to cope with PTSD
- Mindfulness is transforming end-of-life care
- Mindfulness has become part of a revolution in mental health care
- Mindfulness is slowly beginning to transform the medical profession
- Athletes — from at-risk youth to NBA stars — are improving their game through meditation
The only thing they forgot to add, is that Mindful Driving means fewer oil changes.
And of course, Oprah is in on the act too.
IS this all this a bad thing?
It is natural that experienced meditators will find fault(s) with recycled articles. It is like when I wrote a blog on Astronomy, and sent it to an astronomer friend for compliments. His reply is memorable.
“DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN”
We monks are in the meditation trade and know more about it. We’re going to find it uncomfortable that meditation is stripped away from the original teachings – teachings that were directed at absolute Enlightenment, not younger looking skin. Same for the other ancient traditions.
But I would offer a healthier perspective.
It is great that everyone gets to hear about meditation.
You see, when I was young, no one had any idea about it. There was probably only one response other than a blank (non-meditative) look.
“Didn’t the Beatles do that in India?”
I clearly recall many experiences as a child, trying to meditate. Often I would get very odd experiences of disappearing into light etc… It is not unusual, and if you pursue meditation, you too will find it triggering some memories. When I tried to explain to my mother how I could turn myself cross-eyed and expand my body to fill the room, she told me I was nuts.
Actually, she said “I don’t know what you are doing, but it doesn’t sound very good,” which, all things considered, is not so bad. Plus she warned me my eyes would ‘get stuck like that’ (there is no research that backs up that little one).
Later with my father, we were travelling in our van delivering some goods, and I saw a bloke meditating on the tiny lawn in front of his house. I asked what the guy was doing. The answer I got was a classic.
“He’s wasting his time!”
Further paternal inquiries revealed the man was ‘not aware of anything’, which, he added, could be dangerous.
So it is wonderful that people today get to hear about meditation, and believe that it is a good thing. Asian societies seem to have respected this venerable tradition for many years, and not just the old people. The young in Thailand have nearly all been to meditate at some point or other. Their experiences vary.
Imagine in England, if we’d all been taken to a monastery for contemplative studies? First, even though it never happened I’d like to apologize to the monasteries anyway. I participated in the reduction of many a capable teacher to tears in my unforgiving school days. God knows what we’d have done to monks and nuns. (And that’s why He kept us away!).
The awareness of ones own mind, according to Buddhism, generates wisdom. But Buddhism does not own the idea. ‘Know Thyself‘ is written on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and has an interesting history of usage since then. Wisdom should be wise, and not Buddhist or Christian. Seems silly to say so, but this is what tends to happen to religion – it gets caught up in all kinds of petty wars of ideas. A good quality should be worth developing whoever you are.
BEYOND the pop magazines, meditation has been popping up in genuine clinical research. Look up the MBSR program – probably the longest running and best known research into mindfulness. I’d give you the link, but you’d probably only go to this website instead.
There is a lot of current research proving a large array of benefits for a meditatior, and for a meditator’s lifestyle. This is how I came up with the title for this Dhamma Talk Series. I went to hear a Tibetan Buddhist monk talking about meditation. Most of his talk was on modern research into the various benefits of doing meditation. Apparently it is good for your heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, diabetes, insulin, levels, growth hormone levels, depression, hyperactivity, perception, hypertension, stress. He also said that meditation is good for gene expression. And I spent the rest of the talk trying to imagine what that even is. (I am too polite to Phub)
During thee Q&A session I asked
“What is gene expression?”
I was given another answer that my mind has naturally selected as classy.
“I don’t know what it is, but meditation is good for it!”
Reminds of when Mohammad Ali was told he was ‘impetuous’. Quick as an Ali jab he replied
“I don’t know what impetuous is, but if it’s good, I’m it!”
I laughed, but later I did get better informed. Get this, it turns out that meditation actually is good for your gene expression.
My other question to the monk though, was a bit more dry.
“Can’t I just meditate because I like to?”
I don’t sit on the meditation cushion to lower my cholesterol. I do it because I love to. I have done meditation, and felt it. It is a beautiful thing. Even the ‘bad’ meditations, are cathartic. It takes patience and it takes some dedication. And it takes hours of sitting with the mind dry as a crisp, refusing to return any kind of solace. It takes retreats where you sit starting at a spot on the floor for days on end, too mentally beat to even pray for something interesting to come up. And regular practise, day in day out. Sitting on the cushion. Walking the meditation path. It is work as hard as it is joyous.
Yes, in my courses we never charge money. So I don’t have to sell it to anyone. I can tell you the truth. Meditation is not for everyone. It is not a magic bullet. Truth is, many people will try it, but not that many will pursue it rigorously. In that, it is the same as most skills – shot putting, golf, singing, or fixing your own car. Probably, you won’t go all the way with it.
I can say I have seen a few people for whom meditation is not really suitable. Mostly when you have mental trauma, it is better to take up something more directed and physical like yoga, Qi Gong, or even just physical exercise. This is especially true when the root problem is depression.
One guy came to see me once suffering from a nervous breakdown. He’d been over stressed at Med. school, and his whole body was shaking. He could hardly eat. A year training in Thai boxing sorted him out. He needed to get out of his head and into his body.
On the other hand, even if it is not for everyone, it is for anyone. You don’t need to be a certain type. You don’t need some karmically gifted mind that immediately changes into pure light when you sit on a square mat. You don’t even need yoga pants. Anyone can do it, and the more you do it, the better you become. 10 000 hours in anything skillful is supposed to be the crossover point from amateur to the real artisan.
Personally meditation was always difficult for me. I have lots of endurance though. And bit by bit, it heals. You just have to learn to let it work, and to be patient. It changes from being an attainment on the cushion. It becomes a companion – a ‘refuge’. A point in the mind where you know you belong. Meditation then stays with you through all activities and the distinction between meditation time and ordinary living becomes quite vague.
MEDITATE BECAUSE YOU WANT TO
But this simple advice to put aside the clinical research and meditate just for the joy of it gets easily lost even with the ‘experts’. It gets wrapped up in all kinds of ideas and opinions. Meditators split into schools and lineages. And it can get confusing.
This was noted in ancient texts too. It is said that there can only be one Buddha in the world at a time – because if there were two the world would shatter under the weight of their goodness; and also because their followers would fight with each other. Whose enlightenment is more perfect?
Modern Buddhist schools too, tend to be a bit superior to each other. Among the monks this usually boils down to the rules and regulations. The truth is that our code of conduct, the Vinaya, is very ancient and much of it is not really relevant to the modern day. It’s just that no one has the authority to change it.
One time I stayed with some One-meal-a-day monks. I am happy to follow their system. I don’t like to eat too much either – though more due to putting on weight than some ancient rule.
In the morning, when we can eat and drink what we like, I put milk in my coffee. One of the monks came up to me and said,
“That’s your meal that is.”
I was a little forlorn! Really, just putting milk in my coffee is counted as a meal?! I didn’t argue about it, and would have been happy to follow their rules. It just didn’t seem quite the point though. Our meditation is a cultivation of wakefulness (to be discussed in the next talk). The more you do this, the more the path seems evident. And as wisdom arises we know that Enlightenment is not just for the one-meal-a-day monks. There’s no St Peter on the gates to Nirvana counting how many meal tickets you have used up.
So I put sugar in my coffee too, and counted it as dessert!
The rules, the rites, the rituals, are all there to help you. They give a form and a direction. But they are not the goal. True, the Arahants of old, in the Buddha’s time, continued to follow the Vinaya after they reached the end of their practise. They did so for the maintenance of the teaching and the inspiration of those who were just getting started. It is easy to forget to enjoy meditation, to take pleasure in the cultivation of mindful consciousness, and get caught up in all too human battles.
SO it boils down to this – meditate because it is beautiful. Mindfulness and wakefulenss are beautiful qualities that transform you. Compassion, Loving kindness, Forgiveness, Patience and Resolution are all good qualities to develop too. They are not Buddhist or Christian. They don’t belong to any one group. They are simply self evident as worthy qualities. So what are you doing to evolve them? When we ask this kind of question we need no further convincing. Meditate because it is cultivating beautiful qualities. After all, you will spend more time with yourself than anyone else. Make yourself a good place to be.
Research mentioned : people who do exercise and see it as fun, will eat fewer calories than people who do exercise and see it as work. The lesson? Meditate because you love to, and not because of some health benefit.
The video of the talk will be posted up somewhere, but not in the near future.
Thanks to DMG for the facilities – it is a real privilege to be able to gather in this space.