Meditation: A Different Perspective?

Full Disclosure
The following is about some lesser-appreciated aspects of meditation. In order to drive these underrated points home, I may overstate the case. For those unfamiliar with meditation, I recommend consulting a variety of sources for balance. There are tons of sources online.

Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I used to meditate, but stopped for reasons I will discuss below. Please remember this when reading this article — which actually touts the benefits of meditation. From one who stopped.

Ok, on to the article.

What is Meditation?
Let’s say one is trying to improve one’s tennis game. How is this done? First, by playing as much as possible. Second, by training. Training consists of practicing in a “sterile” setting, so one can focus on the relevant parts of the game (eg: the serve) without the many distractions of the game. The idea is that without those distractions, one can better practice a specific thing and apply the improved resulting skills to the real game. The same holds true for living.

If life’s goal is happiness, and if that can be achieved by letting go, then practicing letting go is practicing living well. How does one practice letting go? First, by letting go as much as possible in one’s daily life. Second, by training in letting go in a “sterile” enviornment. This training is called meditation.

There are different types of meditation, but I will only discuss Mindfulness (also known as Insight or Vipassna).

How to Meditate
Find a quiet place and take a position that can be comfortably maintained for the full session (that won’t lead to drowsiness/sleep). Focus fully on an object with eyes closed. This object should be something boring that’s easy to notice — the breath is a common choice. Now maintain the attitude of a detached observer watching someone else, and focus on the object. DO NOT INTERFERE WITH ANYTHING. Soon the mind will produce tons of stuff for stimulation; good, that’s the stuff to practice letting go on! Keep the same detached attitude: do not suppress, cling or react to these thoughts. Just let them be and let them go. The only goal is to observe the object, accept the distractions, let them go, and return to the object until time is up.

The Purpose
The point is not to improve concentration, but to improve letting go. Put another way, the distractions ARE the point. The object exists to lure distractions in, and provide a background against which they can be more easily detected. After all, to be distracted it helps if there’s something to be distracted FROM. Again, the meditation object is basically distraction-bait. That’s why the object shouldn’t be interesting; who’d have any trouble focusing on that?

The Goal
Meditation is just training, nothing more. It’s not an end in itself, nor is it a competition or a point of pride. It’s there to improve a key skill that can be applied to daily life. People don’t train in tennis only to forget the training during the game, so why meditate only to forget those improved skills in life? Sure, some of the effects are likely to bleed in on their own, but better results can be had by consciously applying these skills in life, by letting go, by living MEDITATIVELY.

This is where I went wrong.

I used to meditate 5 hours a day. It improved my life and I was less susceptible to negativity. However, I thought I should be immune to it, so I made the mistake of clinging to the idea of being negativity-free. This meant when negativity appeared, it was magnified: there was the negativity, and my negativity about the negativity (clinging) which was much worse than the negativity itself! Had I fully let go of everything, including this idea and my “progress” I believe all would have been well. Yet, I took pride in my “achievements” in meditation, treated it as an end in itself and identified with it and “my progress”. Keep in mind that I knew about the illusion of identification too! I was still much better off for meditating, but I also went wrong in a key way.

I stopped meditating (probably out of sheer laziness/busy-ness) and have not resumed, as I’m still debating if I want to do it formally, or if I’d rather apply my efforts to living more meditatively. Part of this is my concern about clinging again.

This was/is MY failing and not an attack on meditation; however, it does illustrate what I think is a very common pitfall, so take it as a cautionary tale. Anything can be clung to, including letting go! This is why unhappiness is very pernicious; the factors that contribute to unhappiness can encompass one’s search for happiness and undermine it from within. Be fully accepting of everything, including “failure” to accept. Or to put it another way, always have a “Beginner’s Mind”.

Sometimes, the greatest curse is to get “good” at something.

There are tons of distractions that can come up during meditation. Errant thoughts, absorption, bliss… Yes, many of the really great experiences that can arise during meditation (that some regard as the goals or hallmarks of it) should also be treated as distractions. Sure, they can provide a powerful lesson — that some of our greatest joys come from nothing — but they are also subject to clinging. Worse still, if not treated as distractions, they can be mistaken for the goal of meditation and become expectations in future sessions. Since expectation is a form of clinging, dragging it into an exercise designed to let go is a bad, bad thing.

In fact, there’s an amusing story about how to treat peak experiences during meditation:

One day a guy was in a group meditation session. Halfway through the meditation, he heard the most beautiful melody and felt bathed in an incredible energy. He felt himself floating out of his body and felt rapturous and blissful. After the session, he rushed to the group leader and with tears in his eyes related his experience. The leader listened patiently until the guy was done. Once the guy finished talking, the leader said: “If you keep your back straight next time, you won’t get distracted like that”, and walked away.

Further Reading

Here’s a short article on how to do mindfulness meditation. I just picked one at random, there are tons.

Entire books have been written on mindfulness meditation. Here’s a very clear one, freely available online.

I used the phrase “Beginner’s Mind”. I took that phrase from this book, also freely available online that discusses the importance of going back to the beginner’s frame of mind. I recommend you get a bit of meditation/mindfulness practice under your belt before reading this book, as I think it’s more pertinent to those who have some experience, and hence can relate.



34 thoughts on “Meditation: A Different Perspective?

  1. Brilliant, I just downloaded both books. I always thought of meditation as concentrating so much on something (whatever, pretty much) that thought disappears. Your description makes much more sense. I think I’m going to try this and see where it takes me.
    Damn I love your blog.

  2. Thank you! There are different types of meditation, and some are concentration based. What is more, a byproduct of non-attachment may be a greater tendency to achieve this absorption, but one should not rely on this. I would like to know your experiences in trying this and your opinions of those books.

  3. “If life’s goal is happiness, and if that can be achieved by letting go…” These are pretty big ifs. At least one of them. I think joy might be a significant goal but I probably distinguish that a bit from happiness. Maybe that’s mostly semantics. Is there another post where you talk about letting go being the key to achieving happiness? I’ve been reading so many of your and David Yerle’s posts it’s all getting blurry in my mind.

    1. I’m glad you brought this up. These are pretty big ifs, and not everyone would agree, which is why I decided to make them explicit at the outset.

      I’m interested in how you differentiate joy from happiness. I don’t think it’s just semantics; I’ve read of others who made that distinction.

      The article in which IIRC I go most deeply into letting go and happiness is here:

      Even then, I mention at least one key exception.

      The gist is that clinging magnifies pain. What about happiness? Implicit in that post (and I think most of the letting go = happiness assertions) is that we cling to the negative more than we do the positive and hence letting everything go yields a net gain in happiness. My experience seems to bear this out, although there is at least one caveat.

      1. Well now my very analytical mode has kicked in as compared to the basic level I operate in. I think this is going to take more thought and time than I can give it tonight and tomorrow is pretty full. Maybe Wednesday.

      1. I had hoped to get to this today but other things have taken precedence. I’ve actually been experimenting with some of your ideas on letting go. I thought it might lend some credibility to later observations or points I may make. I guess it’s not something you just get the first time around huh?Actually about five or six years ago I saw the need to let go and did it and it made a huge difference in my life and my relationships with my kids. I’m sure it’s appropriate and/or necessary at times.

        Mostly I don’t think I think much about how to be happy. I try to do what I enjoy and find happiness in that. I also try to do what I think is good for others and while that can feel meaningful or good or right it is not always happiness producing. Possibly the opposite. Kind of like what this article
        that was linked on David Yerle Writes says. I just read it and think it has some good points:

        I don’t typically feel I have time to follow the extra links. Sometimes it’s surprising where they lead.

        I do still hope to get my thoughts together on joy versus happiness. It might be appropriate to say I’m kind of Platonic in my thinking which is becoming more clear to me in light of what I see as a contrast to what I’m reading in your and David’s posts about life being absurd, no meaning, etc. The buck seems to stop at joy. Even love is in search of joy I think. Though joy can help produce love. So maybe it’s more interactional (naw?) than linear?

        But look at me. I’ve started jabbering when I thought I had nothing to say. Tends to work that way.

    2. Letting go is easy to write about, but hard to do. It’s a skill that improves with practice.

      If you don’t think much about how to be happy, that may be a good thing. I read an article once that argued that some people’s search for happiness might make them unhappy. In a way, I can see that. I think happiness deserves some thought — at least by people who have trouble finding it — but for those who can get it, the best thing for them is probably to do what they’ve been doing, since it’s been working for them.

      I read the link you provided; it’s interesting, but my experience differs. I find meaning to be happiness-producing (in general), and I find happiness in helping others. I don’t have kids, so I can’t really say anything about the family part.

      I’d love to know more about your Platonism.

      I treat meaning as personal, and so would not say life is meaningless; rather, some find it meaningful and others find it meaningless. Of course, those that experience meaning may very well experience it as something external.

      The buck stopping at joy… I take a very broad view of happiness, so I may be using happiness in the sense you use joy; I definitely think it’s fundamental. However, I’ll hold off on that until I know what you mean by joy.

  4. I’m not sure why this switched to my username – I prefer Misty, which is what it did on my last comment on another post.

  5. I’m intrigued. Sorry for joining this thread so late, but you wrote how you used to meditate 5 hours a day. Was that in any organised setting? It’s just that I’ve been doing zen quite intensively this past year, so I wondered what you had been doing.

    1. Thanks for commenting, and there’s no time limit for joining threads. As far as I’m concerned, these things are open forever!

      I meditated on my own, and the 5 hours was total time (2.5 hours in the morning, 2.5 in the evening).

      I also meditated in a group at my local Buddhist Temple, and I even attended a week long silent, residential retreat there, so I did some stuff in a formal setting as well.

      How has the Zen been working out?

      1. I’m afraid the jury’s still out on that one. I’ve spent most of the year as a resident in a zen monastery with a female zen master and five nuns. One of the things I’ve found difficult is that I was not very interested in zen rituals or in becoming a nun. So I felt a bit different from the others. The good thing for me was the encounter with zen philosophy and just sitting. i don’t think I could ever have the discipline to sit for 5 hrs at home, but in a monastery, there is no other option. These days, i meditate for 30 minutes every morning. How did you find the silent retreat?

      2. A year as a resident in a Zen monastery! How did that happen?

        I have no interest in ritual either and worry that it actually hinders reception of the philosophy.

        You could probably do 5 hours at home if you set your mind to it. Keep in mind that I didn’t just jump in at once. I started with 10 minute meditations and worked my way up. Not that I’m recommending you do so; more is not necessarily better.

        I had heard about the silent retreat through my local Buddhist Temple and I found it… painful. I meditated 10 hours every day, and I was the slacker of the group! No talking, no TV, no books, no nothing. Just me and my mind.

        Naturally, with nothing better to do, my mind started dredging up all this painful stuff, and it sucked. I think I started to hit “my stride” so to speak about two days before the retreat ended; I had a really awesome experience while doing walking meditation. I can’t put it into words, but it made the entire painful retreat worthwhile.

  6. I think I can empathise with everything you write! I always liked the walking meditation. To me, the stuff I can’t put into words is the most valuable. But there’s still so many questions left. “Zen and Me” was definitely one of my reasons to start blogging. It’s really great to ‘meet’ with people who write all this great posts.

  7. There’s a 1000 questions, really. But many of them have to do with identity. I really like the buddhist idea of identity not being fixed and also your identity = pain concept. But if you really do zentraining, you might end up as ‘not being you’ any longer. You erode your identity. Does that make any sense?

    1. What do you consider identity to be? Put another way, why would eroding your identity be a problem?

      The Buddhist line of thought would be that our identity (as we normally think of it anyway) wouldn’t be so much eroded, since it was non-existent to begin with. All we’re doing is seeing what was (never) there in the first place.

  8. That makes perfect sense. And may I add that you sound like my zen master? But in meditation, sometimes you feel as if you’re teetering on the edge. I would like to know in advance what happens when I go over.

      1. I want to make sure I understood things. Your post asks what to do if things hit the fan? How do we know if the practice will “be with us” so to speak in times of severe trials?

        I may write a post to answer, because it’s a VERY good question.

      2. That is exactly what I mean. When I woke up this morning, I remembered Katagiri’s examples. If you were to write a post on that, it would be much appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s