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A meditation notebook – simplicity – formless meditation – actually do it.
Breath counting – persistence and gentleness – focus – when to meditate – frequently asked questions.
Sitting in a chair – checking your posture – slumping and slouching – seat too high or low – meditation resources.
A relationship with thinking – an experiment with thoughts – precision and humour – the siddha posture – not too tight and not too loose – experiment: forcing out thoughts.
Regarding thoughts as meaningless – lost in trains of thought – addiction to thought – entertainment – itches and fidgets – experiment: uninterrupted thinking – Aro classes.
You cannot force the mind – awareness of breath without counting – physical supports for sitting – too little and too much energy – meditation audio – be a resource.
Gaps between thoughts – experience without reference-points – fine points of posture – head position – head jerks – what do you lose when you are lost in thought? – Roaring Silence – Aro contacts.
Motivation – inspiration – non-doing – learning to wake up – motivation as an obstacle – hand positions – following only the out-breath – the Aro path.
Thinking is about ‘me’ – avidity, repulsion, and disregard – imaginary worlds – practical tips on posture – you do not have to believe your own thoughts – overcoming opinions as an obstacle: don’t believe the hype – meditation mentors.
Formless meditation – the spectrum of methods of shi-nè – how much to meditate – kneeling – sitting with a gomtag – forgetfulness – non-definition – letting go of identity – emptiness and form.
Meditating with emotions – expressing, repressing, and dissipating – the magician and lotus postures – sleepiness, tiredness, and restlessness – separating emotions into thought and sensation – what to do when emotions seem too strong – trèk-chod resources.
Emotions come and go – posture checklist – regard emotions impersonally – anger – fear – resources for meditating with emotions.
Desire, appreciation, and generosity are the same energy – depression – sadness – joy – ordinary heroism – the purpose of meditation – the Aro Friends programme.
Flow – lhatong – nyams – pride – singing ‘Ah’ – meditation retreats – yogic song.
Bringing awareness to all activities – blurring meditation and non-meditation – walking meditation – vajra posture – sKu-mnyé.
Finding a mix of techniques that works for you – applying the right tool for the mental weather – visualising the letter A – physical pain – caffeine and alcohol – meditation groups.
Meditation as part of a way of life – beginner’s mind – Buddhism – Aro’s uncommon perspective – embracing passionate involvement as the essence of enlightened activity – the Aro path – fare well.
Greetings. This is the first email from Aro’s internet meditation course. You have received it because someone – I hope you – subscribed you on the Aro meditation site. If you do not want it, please follow the unsubscribe link at the end of this message.
About this course
Learning to meditate is a gradual process. Each week, this course delivers an email that provides new techniques and facilitates new insights. The techniques either address particular problems that may arise when you meditate, or provide progressively more advanced methods which deepen your experience.
One advantage of this email-based meditation course is that it paces you. If you learn meditation from a book, you may be tempted to read it all in a week. You might rush through the early exercises in order to experiment with later ones. That is rather like leaping onto a 1000cc motorcycle and hoping to roar off into the sunset – before having learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels. You need substantial experience with each exercise to obtain the benefit it provides – and to prepare you for the next exercise. The earlier exercises are not mere preliminaries. They are central methods in their own right to which you will return repeatedly – no matter how advanced your practice becomes.
To make the best use of this course, do not set these emails aside, with the intention that you will get around to investigating the whole course later. Try to engage in each week’s exercises within the week that you receive the email.
A meditation notebook
It is useful to keep a meditation notebook in which to record your goals, experiences, and reflections. If you use a computer frequently, you might keep your records in a text file. Or, you may prefer to write in a paper notebook.
Either way, right now is the time to start. Create the file, or locate a pad of paper. Start with today’s date – and for your first entry, record your motivations for starting to meditate. Alternatively, if you have already been meditating for a while, write what has motivated you to start this course.
If you re-read this entry in a few weeks or months, you may discover something surprising. You may find that your motivations for continuing to meditate have shifted from your reasons for starting. As your meditation practice develops, you are likely to find that it has rewards you cannot expect at this present moment in time.
Meditation is deceptively simple. In a sense, the complete instructions are: ‘Be here—now!’
That may seem nonsensical. You could reply: “I am here, now. How could I be otherwise?” The rest of this course is devoted to explaining how you may not be fully here, now – and ways of coming back to here and now.
There is much to say about meditation – enough to fill many books. Meditation can seem complex – but that is only because the concepts we use to understand our minds are complex. During this course, you will learn how to strip away those concepts and to look at your mind directly. You will learn to experience the simplicity, clarity, and power of your own un-conceptualised mind.
Each week, you will learn more about what it means to ‘be here—now’. This week’s meditation technique is a first experiential explanation of that phrase.
This week’s meditation technique
Sit somewhere quiet. Total silence is not necessary – but music, television noise, or people talking will be distracting. Some types of meditation can be undertaken whilst listening to music – but not this method.
Sit comfortably. Sitting in a chair is fine. If you are used to sitting on a cushion on the floor—and can do so easily—that is another possibility. Sit reasonably upright, but do not strain to achieve any particular posture.
Wear loose, comfortable clothes. Loosen your belt if it is tight.
Close your eyes almost all the way, so that a little light enters but you cannot see anything clearly.
When thoughts come – let them come. When thoughts go – let them go. If you find yourself involved in a stream of thoughts, let go of your involvement with them. Keep letting go of involvement. Remain uninvolved. Just let go. Whatever happens – let it be as it is.
If you feel good – do not hold on to those positive thoughts. If you feel bad – do not reject those negative thoughts. Especially important: if you feel nothing in particular – do not drift into numbness and lack of presence.
Try this for five minutes. If you feel ambitious, try ten minutes. See how it goes.
When you have finished, write as much as you can remember about what your experience was like.
If you have not yet engaged in the exercise – please stop reading now. Come back here when you have tried the exercise. Reading what follows will colour your experience, and you will miss the opportunity to arrive at it with the freshness that is necessary.
* * *
You have made a good start. Whatever happened, whatever you felt, was your experience. You started to be here now.
These are some of the things that you may have thought after the exercise:
● That was easier than I expected
● That was a complete and utter waste of time
● I enjoyed that
● I felt stupid
● I felt relaxed
● I did not really understand what I was supposed to be doing
● It was quite pleasant
● I did not see the point of it – it seemed a useless thing to be doing
● I fell asleep
● I felt quite agitated
● What am I supposed to make of this?
Whatever you thought or felt, it was useful. It provides you with valuable insights into how you see the world. For example:
● If the exercise was more or less difficult than you thought, you can ask yourself ‘What exactly did I expect – and on what did I base my expectations?’
● If you thought it was a waste of time, you can ask yourself: ‘What are my criteria for whether time is wasted?’ If just being seems a waste of time – that idea devalues the most fundamental aspect of what you are. You might consider seriously whether you want to accept that idea.
● If you enjoyed the exercise, what was it that you enjoyed? How do you define or recognise the sensation of enjoyment? (One thing you will discover—in time—is that meditation radically broadens what you are capable of enjoying. It changes your understanding of what enjoyment is – so this is important to investigate – here and now.)
● If you felt self-conscious, you could ask yourself: ‘What does that say about me? What image do I have of myself that jars with simply sitting and being?’
● If you did not understand what you were supposed to be doing, then you probably expected to be engaged in an exercise that accorded with certain guidelines. Those guidelines might be your personal criteria with respect to the exercise ‘making sense’. You could question those guidelines, and ask yourself where they came from and when you accepted them as authoritative.
This week’s exercise is the simplest meditation technique. It is also—in some ways—the most difficult, because of its lack of structure. It is not problematic if you find it frustrating: you will be in good company. Many millions of people have found this practice difficult at first. See if you can maintain it for a week. In each of the following weeks’ emails, you will learn additional techniques which address the various difficulties that arise.
For meditation to be effective, you have to meditate every day – or at least, most days. Learning to meditate is in many ways similar to learning a musical instrument, or becoming physically fit through an exercise programme. You would not succeed with either if your commitment were no more than three hours every Sunday afternoon (and nothing during the week).
If you exercise, practice guitar, or engage in meditation a little every day – you will see gradual improvement. Try this week’s exercise for five or ten minutes a day. Only meditate longer if you are confident you can maintain longer sessions for the entire week.
The Tibetan meditation tradition is full of colourful stories of meditation masters of the past and their pithy summaries of the essence of the meditative path. One was given by the great yogi Milarépa to his beloved student Gampopa. When they parted for the last time, Milarépa told Gampopa that he had taught him everything there was to learn about meditation—except one final secret that was too precious to just give away. There was a tearful goodbye before Gampopa set off. When he had gone a little way down a hill—over a stream—and had started up the hill on the other side, he heard his teacher’s voice again. Milarépa yelled that last, most profound teaching to Gampopa across the valley:
The important thing is to actually do it.
So – actually do it. Good luck – and see you in a week.
Greetings. A week has gone by, and this is the second email in Aro’s free internet meditation course.
If you found last week’s exercise perplexingly open-ended, do not be concerned. Our main topic this week is a new meditation technique that provides more structure.
This week’s meditation technique
Sit comfortably, as before. Try remaining still, without fidgeting. Complete motionlessness is impossible. You can move if discomfort prompts – but try not to move unnecessarily.
Turn your attention to your breath. Silently count each exhalation. Count each out-breath from 1 until you reach 21. Then count your breaths backwards until you reach 1. Repeat this process for the duration of your meditation session.
Breathe normally and naturally. Do not attempt to control your breath in any way. Do not breathe any faster, slower, or deeper than usual. Simply allow breathing to happen.
You may sometimes become lost in thoughts – and suddenly notice that you have stopped counting your out-breaths. Alternatively you may forget the number you have just counted. You may forget whether you are counting forwards or backwards. You may find yourself at 27, having passed 21 without noticing. Whenever you notice that you have lost track of the technique – begin again. Return to 1 and count upward again.
Try this for ten minutes – or fifteen, if you are feeling ambitious.
When you have finished, record your impressions.
(Read this only after you have tried the new technique.)
Which did you prefer, this week’s meditation technique, or last week’s technique? Your preference is worth noting because it teaches you something about yourself as a meditator.
● If you prefer the new method – is it because it gives more structure? Or is it because you learned something new about yourself by the end of it?
● What has the new method shown you about yourself and how you function?
● If you prefer the new method – is it because it seems less threatening? Or is it because it is less abstract?
● If you prefer last week’s method – is it because it seemed less contrived and artificial? Or is it because it seemed more restful and less taxing?
● What has last week’s method shown you about yourself and how you function?
Obstacles and antidotes
Much of this course will concern problems arising for meditators – and the solutions for them. Traditionally these are called ‘obstacles’ and ‘antidotes’.
When you begin this week’s technique, you might find that you rarely get past three. This is not unusual. A universal antidote for meditation obstacles is persistence. A traditional analogy is that gently flowing water is stronger than rock. Rain may seem weak compared to granite – but in time, it can wear away mountains. Meditation proceeds mainly by slow steady persistence rather than dramatic breakthroughs. Some days will be easier than others. If you persist you will find that you lose the count less often – and that your count proceeds further before you get lost.
Do not see losing track as failure. It is easy to be self-critical, to feel that you ought to do better, even to punish yourself mentally – but that is entirely unhelpful. Meditation is not competitive. There are no standards of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ performance. It is the activity that is valuable, not the outcome.
Gentleness is one of the best antidotes in meditation. Remember this when you are frustrated. Treat yourself with respect, kindness, and friendly curiosity.
Each time you notice ‘wandering mind’ and come back to counting your breath, you experience ‘returning mind’. What happens when your mind wanders is not important. You can be happy whenever you notice it – because it provides the opportunity to experience returning.
If you find this week’s exercise difficult, try counting both in-breaths and out-breaths. This may be less difficult. (This is an example of a specific antidote—a specific solution for a specific problem.) When you feel relatively confident about counting in and out, return to counting only the exhalations.
More about counting
Try the technique for two or three days before reading on. Reflect on how counting compares with last week’s practice.
* * *
The method of counting your breaths may seem strange, mechanical, and pointless – but it has specific practical functions. Let me describe one now. (You will be using variants of this method for the next few weeks, and other functions will become apparent later.)
Counting has probably taught you something interesting about yourself: that it is quite difficult to maintain sufficient concentration to accomplish this seemingly trivial task. This opens up the question of how much concentrative ability we may have at other times in other activities. We don’t usually notice such lapses of attention and mental wandering in ordinary daily activities – but the practice of breath-counting reveals how weak concentration can be. With this technique you can develop your ability to stay with whatever you are doing and to find the presence of awareness there. This ability to focus attention carries over into all activities, including those in which sustained concentration is critical to performance.
When to meditate
Some people find it easier to meditate in the mornings, some in the evenings. A good time is when you are alert and relaxed. Choose a time that suits you, and that you can fit into your established daily routine. A regular time helps establish meditation as a positive habit.
Preview of next week
As you start sitting for longer periods—ten minutes rather than five, or fifteen rather than ten—you may find it increasingly difficult to remain comfortable. Discomfort can distract you from your meditation.
Next week’s main topic will address the question of how to sit in a way that is comfortable and also enables you to remain alert.
As you continue with meditation, you will find that you have questions that are not yet answered in the course. You may become curious about particular topics that it never covers in depth. Each week, I shall recommend resources for further investigation.
Posture: how to sit like a human
A common misconception is that you must sit on the floor in a special, difficult position to meditate. This is not the case for the techniques of this course. (The difficulty of a posture does not necessarily make it more ‘advanced’.)
Only four things matter: you must be still, comfortable, relaxed, and alert. You must be still because movements distract you from meditation. You must be comfortable because pain distracts. You must be relaxed because bodily tension produces mental tension. You must be alert because maintaining attention is central to meditation. Any position that allows all four factors is ideal.
Generally, sitting is the best position for meditation. It is difficult to maintain sufficient alertness whilst lying down. Standing still becomes uncomfortable after a few minutes. There are valuable methods for meditating whilst walking – but the method you are learning now requires physical stillness.
You may suppose that you already know how to sit – but much of this week’s email, and the next few, will explain how to sit still, comfortably, relaxedly, and alertly. That is not so easy. You may already have discovered that—after a few minutes—you get a back ache or a powerful urge to squirm. If not yet, such discomforts will arise as your meditation sessions increase in length.
Sitting is completely natural. Your body already knows how to sit perfectly – but this innate knowledge is obscured by social conditioning. In the West it is generally believed that it is most comfortable and relaxed to slump and slouch. We all learn this habit of sitting but it rapidly leads to aches and restlessness. We learn, wrongly, that it is only possible to ‘sit up straight’ by using muscular tension. These problems are reinforced by the wretched design of Western chairs, which make it virtually impossible to sit naturally.
The spine is the key to sitting. There are two factors.
1. Putting the spine in a vertical position automatically makes you alert. Slouching backward, or slumping forward, tends to make you drowsy.
2. Allowing the spine to elongate makes sitting comfortable and relaxed. Compressing the spine with muscular tension results in back, neck, or shoulder pain.
Both factors are addressed by balancing the spine within the pelvis. When the top of the spine—at the back of your neck—is directly above the tailbone, it is vertical. When it is balanced, no muscular tension is required – the spine simply assumes a vertical position. When it is out of balance, you need to contract the muscles in your front to pull it forward – or the muscles in your back to pull it back. (See figures 1-3 onthis week’s picture page.) Either contraction shortens the spine and results in tension and eventually pain.
To balance the spine within the pelvis, the pelvis must be higher than the knees. This is the critical defect of most chairs. The seat of a chair designed for human beings must slope downward from back to front. Many chairs slope upward. Even seats that appear level generally squash down in the centre when you sit on them, so that your pelvis sinks below your knees.
Sometimes I suspect that six-legged reptiles from Planet X have infiltrated the chair design industry so they will have plenty of comfortable places to sit when they take over our planet.
It is possible to sit still, comfortable, relaxed, and alert in an armchair. The key is to ensure that your spine is supported evenly along its lengthand is brought reasonably close to vertical. You may need one or more firm cushions behind your back. Stretch your legs straight out in front. However, it may be difficult to remain alert in an armchair.
Generally it is better to sit on an armless dining-table or office chair, with your back unsupported. A common description of an interested audience is of their being ‘on the edge of their seats’. When you are listening raptly to a concert or lecture, you automatically take up the natural sitting position—tall and vertical—and automatically find that sitting forward in the chair makes that possible. This effortless alertness is what we cultivate in meditation. A bored audience slumps and slouches.
With your back unconstrained by the chair, you can make tiny adjustments to find the balance point. There you can release all tension and allow your spine to elongate. At this point your head may feel as though it is floating upward (figure 4).
Since chairs are so badly designed, some modification is usually required. The angle of the seat can be corrected by putting a telephone directory under the back legs. A concave or too-low seat can be fixed by putting a firm cushion on top. A folded blanket or a stack of folded towels can also work. If you are tall, chairs are too low, so that your knees are forced above your pelvis regardless of the seat angle. You may need a telephone directory on the seat and then cushioning on top of that. A narrow foam wedge—which you will find in stores on the web—can provide both a downward slant and some added height. If the chair is too high for you, put a telephone directory under your feet.
This week’s meditation technique
Use the breath-counting method just as last week. Once every minute or two, however, take a moment to check your posture. You will often find that it has deteriorated while you were counting.
Wherever unnecessary tension has crept in – relax it. If you find you have slumped forward – sit up again. If you are slouched back – come forward. If your spine is compressed downward – release your head upward.
In your notebook, record anything you observe about your posture.
Learning how you habitually use—and misuse—your body is a process of life-long discovery. When you re-read your notes in a few months, it will be useful to remind yourself of things you may have discovered and forgotten. During periods of stress, we tend to revert to bad habits and forget new ones.
It may be striking to discover how much progress you have made by reviewing your starting point.
Obstacles and antidotes
If you consistently find yourself slumping, or slouching, you have uncovered a habit. In meditation, you can unlearn a habit by disengaging from it whenever you notice it. In this week’s practice, you have many opportunities to recognise habits and undo them. Over days and weeks, your posture will improve.
You may also find yourself noticing your posture when you are not meditating – and release unnecessary tension then as well. Eventually your whole way of being will become more comfortable. In choosing to un-learn this physical habit – you are learning to disengage from habits in general. Later in this course, you will un-learn habits that are close to the core of your being – and that will profoundly change the way you experience the world.
On a less elevated note, slumping is also caused by a seat that is too low or that does not slope downward (figure 5). If you find yourself consistently slumping, try raising or tilting your seat.
Similarly, if you find that you have to contract muscles in your lower back to pull yourself up—so that your back is bowed—your seat may be too high or too downwardly sloped (figure 6).
Do not be surprised if you find it tiring and awkward to sit upright. Because your body has adapted over a lifetime to slumping and slouching, some muscles are weak or tight that will need to strengthen and lengthen. You need to learn a new physical skill.
Sitting upright is not an extreme sport – but like any other physical activity—horse riding or cycling, for example—it can leave you tired and aching at first. Then your body adapts and it becomes much easier.
Next week, I will continue the posture discussion by explaining how to sit comfortably on the floor – as this has some advantages over sitting in a chair.
The main topic next week, however, will be ‘thinking’. You will probably have discovered that—however sincerely you intend to meditate—you spend most of your time lost in thought. Throughout this course we will be looking in greater and greater depth at our relationship with thought and what that implies for life.
On our web site, there is a page summarising the various meditation resources Aro offers.
Greetings. This week’s main topics are sitting and thinking. (If you have been engaging in the exercises, you may have noticed that these subjects are somewhat relevant to meditation.)
In meditation, you are exposed to the nature of your relationship with thought. A startling idea? It may not have occurred to you that you havea relationship with thinking.
At this early stage, you may be shocked at the torrent of thoughts which appear as you attempt to count to 21. It may seem that meditation causes you to think furiously – more than before – but this is illusory. Meditation simply allows you to see more clearly the thinking that occurs constantly. Everyday mind is abuzz with endless thoughts. (To see whether this is true, check your experience periodically through the day.)
This onslaught of thoughts – which seems to distract you from meditation – should not be discouraging. It is completely natural. It is the way your mind has been – all your life. The ordinary activity of meditation has simply revealed the ordinary mind that was already there.
Having noticed the torrential quality of thought, you will have already started to ask and answer the question: ‘What is it like to have thoughts?’ This question is central to the next several weeks. It may seem odd: you have thoughts all the time. Nothing could be more familiar – and yet, nothing is more mysterious. It is mysterious because it is only with meditation that it is possible to experience what having thoughts is like.
Asking the question: ‘What is it like to have thoughts’ implies that youare not your thoughts. Often it seems that you are your thoughts. What would you be if your thoughts, memories, impulses, hopes, and plans – were removed? Would anything be left?
As your meditation practice develops, your relationship with thoughts will change – and this will profoundly change your relationship with everything else in your life. These changes will be for the better – and will be entirely at your choice.
Notice how your experience of thought varies in meditation. Sometimes thoughts arise quickly; sometimes slowly. Sometimes thoughts are clear and distinct; at other times obscure and vague. Sometimes thoughts seem hot; at other times cool. Thoughts may be solid and heavy or light and thin. Observe these textural differences without judgment and record them in your notebook.
It is traditional to use analogies – such as ‘heavy’ or ‘cool’ – to describe qualities of thought. We must use analogies because it is highly unusual to discuss the experience of thinking – and no English vocabulary is available.
Another analogy: Thoughts are like cars on a highway. Usually, you are in a car, carried along in the flow of traffic – sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes smooth, sometimes caught in jerky stop-and-go congestion.
In meditation, you stop and exit the car. You sit on the ground on a grassy verge overlooking the highway, and watch cars go by. You are aware of the earth beneath you and the sky above you. You see cars moving past – but do not jump into any of them. Cars in a constant stream appear around a bend, hurtle past, and disappear into the distance. You remain by the side of the road, watching. There is nothing you need to do and nowhere you need to go. No car is any more significant than any other. You just enjoy the sunshine and the sensation of the immovable earth beneath you.
Check your experience over the next week: is meditation like that?
Thoughts come and go. Where do they come from? Where do they go? What happens if you try to trace them to their source or destination? Write what you discover in your notebook.
Obstacles and Antidotes
It is frustrating not to be able to count to 21—or perhaps even three—without losing track. You might feel ‘I can’t do this!’ The best antidote is humour. Not being able to count to three is actually quite amusing. Meditation is a process of self-discovery, and much of what you discover about yourself is deeply ironic. You can laugh about your peculiarities and limitations with appreciation – rather than laughing at yourself scornfully. A light touch is most helpful.
Meditation is relaxing – but an empty mind is not meditation. A drifting mind that slowly slides from thought to indistinct thought is not meditation. States of vagueness may be a pleasant respite from a busy or stressful life – but there is no insight available there. Meditation requires alertness and precision – combined with gentleness and humour.
The siddha posture
Sitting on the floor is traditional and has some advantages over sitting in a chair. If you have tried it and found that it rapidly becomes uncomfortable – there is nothing unusual about you. To sit comfortably for more than five minutes requires both physical props and some training in position. The ordinary ‘cross-legged’ sitting position (first picture on this week’s picture page) is not suitable for any form of meditation.
The practical reason to learn to sit on the floor is that a suitable chair is not always available, especially when travelling, outdoors, or at meditation centres.
More subtly, there is a special quality about it – a stability, equilibrium, or groundedness that sitting in a chair does not quite provide. Sitting on the ground is the most natural, ancient, basic, and solid way to sit. At risk of sounding mystical, it places you in contact with the elemental energy of the earth. It also gives a sense of lineage, or continuity, with great meditators of the past. It is inspiring to meditate in the same position in which the Buddhas attained enlightenment.
As in a chair – raising your pelvis above your knees is critical. This means that sitting directly on the floor will not work. Your legs can contact the floor, but you need something under your buttocks. Next week I will describe a variety of devices suitable for this purpose.
For now, you can improvise. Place a stack of telephone directories on the floor. (Ordinary cushions will not work – they gradually squash down.) This seat should be about four inches high. Fold a bath towel over several times and put it on top for padding. Fold a blanket over several times and put that in front of the seat.
There are several possible positions for sitting on the floor. It is worth trying all of them, because each works well for some people and not others. This week I will describe the ‘siddha posture’, which is the most commonly comfortable. (See the pictures.) Sit on the stack of directories and rest both your lower legs flat on the blanket – one in front of the other.
If your legs will not comfortably lie flat on the floor, do not force them. Instead, support your knees with thin cushions or folded towels. In a few weeks, as your legs get used to the position and your muscles lengthen, you may be able to remove the knee supports.
The height of your seat is critical to making the siddha posture comfortable. If you find that you have to contract your stomach muscles to pull yourself forward and upright, your seat is too low. If you find yourself tensing your lower back, the seat is too high.
After a week or two, you will know what height works for you. Then you can make or buy a long-term meditation support.
Obstacles and antidotes
The saying ‘not too tight and not too loose’ is an antidote to many problems in meditation. Meditation requires effort but should not involve physical tension or mental rigidity.
If meditating gives you a headache – it is probably the result of tension. You may be trying too hard and applying the technique too rigidly. Drop the technique for a minute or two and simply sit. Relaxing the effort to count will help relax the muscles which cause headache. Then begin again but do not push yourself so hard.
Be kind to your body—make friends—do not punish it. If something hurts, rearrange your posture or seat.
This week’s meditation technique
This week, continue last week’s technique. If it is not excessively difficult, increase the duration to 15 minutes. This may be easier divided into two sessions – 7 minutes in the morning and 7 in the evening. Frequency is more important than duration.
The ‘texture’ or ‘personality’ of meditation will vary from day to day. Record what you notice in your notebook.
Try this experiment one day this week, in place of your regular meditation session. It is only useful to try it once. It should not become part of your daily meditation technique. Choose a time when you are feeling reasonably calm and relaxed. It will not be useful if you are emotionally tense.
Sit in your customary meditation position.
Whatever thoughts arise – cut them off immediately. Whatever thoughts are in your mind – force them out.
Remain without thought.
Try this for ten minutes – or for as long as you regularly meditate.
Write as much as you can about your experience in your notebook.
I am not going to tell you the purpose of this experiment at this point – because it is better that you approach it without expectations. You may however like to guess?
Thoughts, experience, and reality
Like psychoanalysis, meditation produces insights through observing thoughts – but this similarity is superficial and misleading. Psychoanalysis is concerned with the meanings of thoughts – and analyses those meanings conceptually. During meditation we adopt an unusual attitude: the meaning of thoughts is irrelevant. We do nothing with their conceptual content. We are interested in the direct experience of the thinking process, regardless of meaning.
It is not that conceptual analysis is bad, or unhelpful – but in meditation it distracts you from the meditation method. The insights discovered in meditation are primarily non-conceptual. They concern the nature of experience – and to the extent that this can be expressed, only poetry or metaphor will serve.
The counting method of meditation works by disrupting the thinking habit. Attention is divided between thinking, counting, and breathing. This gives your mind two-thirds less attention for thought.
Whatever happens in meditation—whether good or bad, ordinary or peculiar—simply experience it. Attempting to ascertain meaning is counter-productive. Do not judge thoughts, or the quality of meditation. Adopt this attitude: During meditation there are no profound or good thoughts. There are no unworthy or bad thoughts. There are no blissful or good meditation sessions. There are no boring, grumpy, miserable or bad meditation sessions. Allow good experiences to pass as they will. Allow bad experiences to persist as they will. Observe clearly the neutral experiences which you might prefer to ignore as uninteresting.
From meditation, you will learn to suspend the automatic process of interpreting and judging every moment of your experience. Going beyond interpretation, you gain the rare ability to experience reality raw – as it is, here and now.
Trains of thought
What happens when you are caught in a train of thought? Often you do not notice you are thinking until you suddenly ‘wake up’ and return to count your breaths: you are not having thoughts – thoughts are having you. Despite your best intentions to follow the method – you are captured and driven by thoughts.
See if you can observe this occurring. Ultimately, you are the locomotive of the train of thought. Sometimes you push it – sometimes you pull it after you. Sometimes it pulls you downhill as you try to tug it back. The need to lead and follow thoughts is itself a habit—an addiction. In meditation you learn to give up this addiction. The aim is not to eliminate thinking from life – but to be freed from its domination. Meditation facilitates a relaxed lucidity in comparison with which your customary state appears claustrophobic. A vast creative space appears when thinking becomes choice rather than compulsion.
Obstacles and antidotes
Sometimes—when sitting—a constant stream of urges arise: to scratch, fidget, plan work, jump up and make a telephone call, or change position. These seem compelling – but it is not difficult to sit still when watching television. The mind often behaves like a monkey – chattering inanely, jumping at random, and refusing to settle.
Meditation means going cold-turkey from our addictions to doing and thinking. Chaotic impulses are magnified by the vacuum of inactivity in meditation – prompted by boredom. (Have you noticed that meditation is sometimes boring?) In boredom, we perceive empty space as sterile, unpleasant, and threatening. To escape, we desperately stuff anything shiny and varied into the empty space to fill it. That is the function of entertainment – such as the often mindless entertainment of television. When deprived of packaged entertainment, we substitute almost anything. The most ludicrously pointless thoughts and covert activities seem preferable to just being here, now.
We wrongly suppose that meditation is boring because there is nothing to do. It is, in fact, only boring when we stuff boring thoughts into the emptiness. If you can face emptiness squarely and stare into it – you will not find boredom there. When you break through the self-imposed barrier of boredom—the terror of nothing happening—you discover the vast brilliant space of unlimited creative potential. If you are fully present in your attention – experience is never boring.
A step toward this freedom begins with itches and fidgets. If you feel real pain – move to avoid hurting yourself. In mild discomfort, no harm will come if you choose to wait 60 seconds before scratching or shifting. Maintain your breath counting. Watch your mind during the minute of resistance to your impulses. The judgements, emotional textures, memories, and reactions which arise will illuminate the nature of your compulsion in a ‘safe setting’. By choosing to break tiny compulsions you train yourself to break free from compulsion to think – and from the emotional compulsions that limit your everyday life.
This week’s meditation technique
This week continue as before. However, rather than obsessively checking your posture every minute or two, see if you can maintain a general light background bodily awareness.
Fifteen minutes meditation per day would be a good aim.
This experiment is related to last week’s. Again, it is useful only once – and only when you are feeling emotionally stable. It will occupy about an hour.
The experiment has two phases. The first is identical to last week’s:
Sit in your customary meditation position.
Whatever thoughts arise – cut them off immediately. Whatever thoughts are in your mind – force them out.
Remain without thought.
Try that for ten minutes. Take a short break to stretch your legs. Then enter the second phase:
Sit comfortably in a position you can manage for at least half an hour.
Close your eyes, or open them just enough to let in a little light.
Think continuously and actively about anything you like. Try not to allow any space at all between thoughts. If you become aware of the slightest gap in your thought process – fill it immediately and try to ensure that no further gaps occur. Fill your mind with as many thoughts as you can.
Try not to go to sleep.
Try this for at least thirty minutes. Keep it up for as long as you can.
Write as much as you can about your experience of the two phases in your notebook.
Next week I will explain the purpose of these experiments. I will also introduce a new meditation technique that works more directly with empty space.
Aro offers courses of evening classes on meditation. Each class includes a talk by the course leader, time spent practicing the exercises, and a question and answer session. It is useful to have the opportunity to hear the techniques of this internet course explained in person and to be able to ask questions. The enthusiasm of fellow students is also a great help.
If there is no suitable class in your area, contact the nearest Aroorganiser. We will schedule a class anywhere that there are several interested people.
Greetings. If you have not yet carried out the two experiments described last week—stopping thought and maintaining it continuously—now would be a good time.
Forcing the mind
You probably found the first experiment difficult. It is—in fact—impossible. No matter what you do, you cannot stop thinking by force. The attempt causes mental rebellion and even more thoughts are produced. You could try all day and it would merely worsen.
The second experiment probably seemed easy at first. Several pleasant subjects spring to mind, so you think about them. If you keep it up for long enough, however – it ceases to be easy. Thoughts no longer flow brightly – but grow increasingly flat, stale, and uninviting. Attention wanders. You want to get up and do something more interesting than sitting still with closed eyes. At some point the fabric of thought grows patchy. Gaps appear between thoughts in which nothing seems to happen. For a while you can insert new thoughts into the gaps – but eventually, moments occur in which there appears to be nothing to think about. Your mind longs to drift off to sleep – and you may have had to jerk yourself out of increasing periods of blankness.
The point of these exercises is that you cannot force the mind. Trying to stop thinking causes thoughts to proliferate. Trying to think continuously only reveals gaps.
The meditation method you are learning is called shi-nè, which means ‘remaining uninvolved’ in Tibetan. By remaining uninvolved we deprive thought of motive power.
You cannot suddenly stop a freight train by force. In shi-nè we simply cease shovelling fuel into the steam engine that drives the train of thoughts. It then coasts – and eventually slows to a halt.
This week’s meditation technique
Sit in a way that allows you to be still, comfortable, relaxed, and alert, with eyes partially open. Find the presence of awareness in the in-and-out movement of breath. When you find that you have wandered off into thought-stories – return to the presence of awareness in the movement of breath. Allow thoughts to come and to go. Allow yourself to become your breath – if that occurs. Avoid drifting into sleepy non-presence.
This new version of shi-nè is much the same method you used over the last several weeks – except that you drop the count. Counting works by breaking up the seemingly solid stream of thought – but it also breaks up the stream of just being. By now you may have enough meditation experience not to need to count to return regularly to the here-and-now.
If you find that you are lost in thought for several minutes at a stretch – return to counting for a while. If you find that you are able to maintain the count without distraction – drop it and simply allow awareness to ride the breath. In time you will learn which technique is best according to your mental state.
As you apply this new method, you may find thoughts slowing down or becoming fainter. At first, observing this usually causes thoughts to become louder and faster. ‘Oh wow—it’s working!’ – and off you go on an exciting train of thought about what that means. Although this is amusing – it can also be frustrating. Eventually the diminution of thoughts ceases to be a novelty worthy of attention – and the problem evaporates.
This week, consider sitting for twenty minutes. If you have engaged in two short periods per day – try some longer sessions, as these allow time to settle into meditation and make more progress.
If you sit on the floor, you will eventually want to make or buy a better support than the stack of telephone directories. Different supports work for different people. Try several if you can.
The simplest support is a solid block, which you can make from wood or incompressible Styrofoam. Cut it to the height you have discovered is functional. For comfort, upholster it with carpet. Thick fabric can be sewn as a cover to improve the appearance of Styrofoam – and to prevent its erosion.
A widely-used support is a firm circular cushion called a zafu available at futon shops, yoga shops, and on the web. Zafus are usually filled with kapok, a natural fibre. Kapok compresses in a few months – so if you have a choice, obtain a zafu that is initially thicker than ideal. If it eventually becomes too thin, it can plumped with extra kapok. Some zafus are filled with buckwheat, which does not compress. These maintain their height but may feel hard or lumpy. Also available is the inflatable zafu: a rubber beach ball inside a fabric zafu cover. Because you sit on air, these cannot develop lumpy hard spots. Their height is adjustable by adding more or less air. They are less stable than other zafus as you need to balance on them. Balancing helps maintain posture, however – if you slump or slouch, you start to slide off.
A gomden is a padded, fabric-covered block of hard foam about six inches high. The gomden sitting position is intermediate between the siddha posture and a chair. Typically, a chair is easy on the knees – but it may prove hard on the back. The siddha posture is easier on the back and harder on the knees. The gomden provides a good compromise. If you are tall, you will probably need a matching ‘support cushion’ to add extra height. You can also make your own gomden from foam, carpet, and fabric.
Whatever you sit upon, you may also need a zabuton – a thick cotton-filled mat that cushions your knees. Better looking and padded than a folded blanket, zabutons are often available where zafus and gomdens are sold. A sheepskin is another alternative.
Obstacles and antidotes
Two of the most common meditation difficulties are too little and too much energy. Sleepiness, vacuity, and depression result from lack of energy. Restlessness, irritability, and emotional volatility result from surplus energy. In both cases the real problem is that energy is not properly directed. When your energy is broadly diffused, going nowhere in particular, you feel vague and fuzzy. When energy is sharp and narrow – but not held steadily in the meditation technique – you flicker with random impulses.
Meditation facilitates calmness and energy simultaneously, through focused concentration – and this powerful effective focus carries over into everyday life. Over the next few weeks I will describe various antidotes to unfocussed energy which allow alert-relaxation.
When sleepy or restless – pay sharper attention. Bring effort back to the meditation technique. Maintain vigilance. This is a head-on antidote for problems of undirected energy.
Another antidote to both obstacles is simply to be aware of your state of mind. Learn to recognise energy problems as they arise. Each is accompanied by particular bodily sensations. For instance, you may experience ‘sinking’ feelings in your head or chest when your energy is diffused. Observe how these feelings come and go and how your mental state changes as they do.
Be a resource
We are all in this together. If you are finding this course useful, you can be a resource to others by recommending it. You can send them the web address to sign up: www.aromeditation.org.
Then you can be resources for each other. It is easier to learn to meditate if you have a friend learning with you. It is helpful to share experiences and to encourage each other.
People learn best in different ways. For many, listening to a teacher is more effective than reading. If you are one, our meditation audio pagemay be useful. It has recordings of talks on meditation that you can play on the web or download to an mp3 player.
Next week, I will address more directly the empty space in which thoughts appear. I will describe more antidotes for too little and too much energy, and will discuss details of posture.
Thoughts & clouds
Initially, in meditation, it seemed that the stream of thoughts was continuous. With increasing experience, thought-addiction diminishes and you begin to notice moments of ‘gap’ between thoughts. When you cease to pursue thoughts – rather than forming a continuous train, they start to appear individually as figures against a background of empty space. During the next few weeks, we will transfer attention from observing thoughts to observing the space within which they arise.
This space is initially only visible as brief moments of ‘gap’ or silence. With continuing practice, gaps lengthen. The nature of the spacebecomes increasingly visible. It becomes evident that this creative space—from which thoughts arise—is always present. Even when thoughts appear continuously you will be aware of the space within which they occur.
With practice, you find yourself in increasing periods of non-thought or empty space. If you maintain alertness, you are not non-existent or unconscious in that space – but simply stripped bare of referential coordinates. There is no past or future history – or geography of circumstance. You find that without thought, you are still fully present – but you are no one in particular. Even: no thing in particular – you simply are – here, now, without definition. You may experience this as liberating and exhilarating – or as vaguely vertiginous, slightly alarming, or peculiarly familiar and natural. There is a profound intimacy in this nakedness, in which you discover the nature of reality – when all the details of life story disappear.
Awareness is like the sky. Thoughts are like clouds. At times – dark thunderheads roil the sky. At times – high, white, calm clouds drift across the sky. At times – the empty sky is brilliantly blue. Whatever appears in the sky – its nature is unchanged. Above the clouds, there is always vastness – and clouds do not appear other than in the sky.
Mind is like the ocean. Whether the surface is turbulent with massive waves – or glassy and reflects the empty sky – beneath there are thousands of fathoms of still water.
Posture: fine points
The term ‘posture’ is misleading if it suggests an ideal model to which you should conform. If you are still, comfortable, relaxed, and alert – your posture is ideal. When you are not, these recommendations may help.
To be perfectly motionless is neither possible nor desirable. Attempting it leads to rigidity, discomfort, and tension. ‘Still’ means that you are not deliberately doing anything with your body. If you leave it alone, it remains in regular slight motion of its own accord. Breathing entails motion. Your body continually automatically re-balances itself to compensate.
Your head is a heavy weight that sits at the top of your spine. Earlier I explained that the spine needs to be balanced in the pelvis. You might think of the experience of balancing a pencil on your fingertip. As long as it is nearly vertical, you need to make only tiny motions to keep it that way. If it starts to fall over, you need a large corrective motion. Now imagine attaching a large, asymmetrical weight to the top end of the pencil. Balancing is much more difficult. So the large, asymmetrical weight of your head plays a big rôle in your spinal balance.
To find the right head position, tuck the chin back slightly toward your neck and down slightly toward your chest. This allows the muscles of the back of the neck to relax. If you touch the back of your neck, you should feel that the curve there has largely flattened out. You should feel the top back of your head reaching upward.
Allowing your head to droop too far forward interferes with alertness and tends to put you to sleep. Pulling the head too far back promotes restless thought. If you find you have too little or too much energy, check your head position.
Relax your face. Emotions cause facial tension: for example, worry tightens the brows. Less well known is that tension in particular parts of the face also causes the corresponding emotions. Deliberately unfurrowing your brow releases worry. When you are despondent, smiling actually can make you happier.
Relax your jaw. Relax your tongue. Let it rest lightly against the gum of your upper jaw. Your teeth should be slightly parted. Your lips can be lightly touching or slightly opened.
The direction of your gaze, and how much light enters, affects mental activity. Generally, angle your gaze downward in the direction of the tip of your nose. Open your eyes just enough that some light enters but your eyelashes prevent you from seeing anything clearly. If you have too little energy, raise your gaze or open your eyes a little more. If you have too much, lower your gaze or close your eyes further.
Subtle differences in posture may have significant effects on your mental and emotional state. Observing these over a period of weeks, months, and years – you gradually learn which postural changes to make in order to affect your mind and heart as you wish.
If you have difficulty attaining stillness, comfort, relaxation, and alertness – advice from an expert can help. A meditation teacher can work with you to diagnose problems and find a way of sitting that works for you. Even if your posture works well for you, a teacher may offer subtle, helpful insights into the mind-body connection.
You can adjust your energy level up or down by sharp head motions. (Please do not employ these antidotes if you have any problem with your head, neck, or back.)
Drowsiness, vagueness, or depression may be overcome by fully relaxing the muscles at the back of the neck, so your chin falls to your chest – and then suddenly jerking your head all the way back. Repeat this exercise three times with a brief pause between.
Similarly, excess energy may be overcome by fully relaxing the muscles at the front of your neck, so your head falls loosely backward – and then suddenly jerking your head all the way forward. Again, repeat thrice.
Use discretion: too sharp a jerk might hurt your neck, and an insufficiently decisive movement may have little effect.
When your mouth is unpleasantly dry, close it. If it fills with saliva, open it partially. Breathing through your mouth will dry it.
This week’s meditation technique
Continue the practice of following the breath from last week.
Transfer your attention from observing thoughts to observing the space within which thoughts arise.
Return to counting only when you repeatedly find yourself lost in long trains of thought.
Aim for twenty minutes a day.
A question to ponder
What do you lose when you are lost in thought?
Next week’s main topic is motivation: where it originates, why it is important, and what to do when it is lacking.
This course is based on the book Roaring Silence, written by Aro Lamas. Roaring Silence covers the same material in greater depth. For example, it expands considerably on the analogies of sky and ocean. Beyond that, its main topic is the implications of meditation for life. This email course, focussed on technique, barely discusses that critical subject. Ourweb page for the book has a summary and links to Amazon.
Loss of motivation is a common obstacle. When you first begin to meditate, it is new, strange, and exciting – and promises extraordinary benefits. Later, meditation may seem an unpleasant chore, a waste of time, or even a selfish indulgence.
The primary antidote is inspiration – and this may be found in several places. Reading books about meditation, and its benefits for life, can re-inspire you. (Our web site has a page that recommends books from several traditions and perspectives.) The enthusiasm of other meditators—for example, in a class or weekly sitting group—can be infectious. Accomplished meditators—who exemplify the transformations meditation offers—may also inspire you. These sources help you understand how meditation produces its benefits. Testing that understanding in daily practice leads gradually to confidence that meditation functions pragmatically.
In reality, motivation inevitably fluctuates. Unavoidably, meditation is sometimes attractive, easy, and productive – and at other times proves difficult and unrewarding. The real problem arises if, when you do not feel motivated, you do not meditate. Then you do not see the benefits of meditation, and find even less motivation – and you may abandon meditation altogether. It is important, therefore, to sit even when you do not feel like it. As with athletic training, consistent effort over long periods brings results – even though at times it seems you are going backward. This discipline carries over into all areas of life. Sticking with meditation trains you to persist in long-term tasks.
Ultimately, dedication is found in your own life. Review your meditation notebook – particularly the entry from Week 1 in which you set down your reasons for starting to meditate. Do you still have those goals? Reflect on your life. What is most important to you? You have limited time to live. If you put off meditation now because it is frustrating – when will you ever begin? Meditation is hard – but life without meditation is also hard. If you have come this far in the course, perhaps you have started to see that life without meditation seems rather two-dimensional, constricted, and monotonous in comparison.
It is oddly easy—when meditating—to think ‘I will do it more seriously next time – this time is not the real meditation, so I can just go through the motions’. We are not endowed with ‘temporary trial lives’ that we can repeat once we have got the hang of it. This moment—each moment—is as real as your life will ever be. Do not waste it.
Meditate whole-heartedly. Throw yourself into it. Do not hold back. Effort generates its own energy. Become passionate. A meditation master once said: ‘Meditate as if your hair is on fire.’
There is a Tibetan saying: ‘Meditation – isn’t. Getting used to – is.’ Meditation is a mode of non-doing. Meditation is a mode in which we get used to just being. It is difficult – because it is usual to spend all our lives doing things. Normally ‘not doing anything’ implies ‘not doing anything useful’. ‘Not doing anything’ relates to watching television; daydreaming; or absently flipping through catalogues.
In meditation, we train ourselves in actually not doing anything. We have no goals, no expectations. We allow whatever happens, to happen. We leave it alone. We are alert and experience it fully, but without classification, judgement, or comment. We are present – in the present. We let go of elaborate plans for unlikely future scenarios and anguished memories of past events that will not recur.
Then we can be where, when, who, and what we already are. We can enjoy the simplicity of being here, now.
I introduced this phrase in Week 1 – perhaps it means more to you now?
Non-doing in meditation does not suggest you should do any less than you have been in life. Meditation does not imply withdrawal from the world – except during the brief time each day you sit.
With experience in meditation it becomes apparent that in everyday life we have generally only ever been half-aware. We have been sleep-walking through life. Now you are learning to wake up – to experience life fully as it unfolds.
Obstacles and antidotes
Having read about the possibility of dwelling in the gap between thoughts, you may be tempted to grab at gaps as they pass. This does not work. Gaps are produced by non-doing. Grasping obscures them. Gaps appear when there is no thought – but thoughts are not the enemy. There is nothing wrong with thinking, and attempting to force thoughts out, merely multiplies them. In time you will simultaneously experience thoughts and the empty space in which they appear.
Paradoxically, strong motivation may also be an obstacle. Motivation is necessary to bring us to the cushion each day – but there it must stop. You must let go of desire for progress during the meditation period itself. Like all other thoughts and feelings, it is a distraction from just being if you hold onto it.
If you feel despair at lack of progress in meditation – put aside your goal. It is the obstacle. Instead, enjoy the experience of meditation – of just being – without expectations. Savour ordinary mental presence; forget about extraordinary anything. Extraordinary experiences are not the goal of meditation. They arise only capriciously.
If meditation seems like a chore – acknowledge that. It does not help to pretend you enjoy it when you do not. The aim of meditation is to make the rest of life more enjoyable. Sometimes meditation itself is enjoyable and sometimes it is not. However, it need never be a chore, because there is nothing to do. Simply rest your mind.
There are two hand positions used in our style of meditation.
The simpler one is to rest your hands on your thighs, palms down (see this week’s picture page). In this position, your upper arms should hang freely, straight down from your shoulders, with no effort to pull them forward or back. The tendency is to place your hands too far forward on your thighs, which pulls your whole body forward into a slump.
The other position places both hands in your lap, palms up, one in the other, with your thumbs barely touching. For this position, you should allow your shoulders to float outward, backward, and downward. That opens the chest and prevents contraction and—again—slumping. This position takes some getting used to. I recommend making the effort because it is traditionally best for shi-nè. The palms-down position is best for a different meditation method I will describe in a few weeks.
Thoughts are always about some situation – remembered, elsewhere, or imagined. Yet most thoughts are – directly or indirectly – really about ‘me’. They are based on an underlying attitude of ‘I like this – I want to grab onto it’; ‘I don’t like that – I want to make it go away’; or ‘I don’t care about this. I will not waste my time on it – because it does not matter to me’. These three may be called avidity, repulsion, and disregard.
When we use thoughts to trick ourselves into imagining we are in a distant situation, we fall prey to avidity, repulsion, or disregard. We imagine we must act out in this imaginary world. We think about what to say or do there. The imaginary effects—good or bad—of our imaginary actions prompt another round of imagination. Without avidity, repulsion, or disregard, thoughts lose much of their power to distract us.
Thoughts are just thoughts. However compelling they seem at the time, they are completely insubstantial. They evaporate without leaving a trace. Thoughts are like clouds. From a distance they can appear solid and imposing – but close-up they are nothing but thin swirling fog. Meditation allows us to see thoughts close-up – and with practice, we find less and less there.
This week’s meditation technique
As with last week, follow your out-breath. If you find you are often lost in thoughts, pay attention to both the in-breath and out-breath. If thoughts are particularly distracting, return—temporarily—to counting.
When you find that you are thinking – notice with bare attention whether the thought involves avidity, repulsion, or disregard. Allow the thought to drop, and resume your out-breath as its time comes.
The purpose of this technique is to see how many thoughts are about ‘me’ and ‘my’ relationship with other people and circumstances.
Often we relate with avidity, repulsion, and disregard to thoughts themselves – as well as to what these thoughts are about.
‘Bare attention’ means: do not go beyond simply noticing. Particularly, do not judge thoughts as good or bad according to whether they fit these patterns. Do not judge yourself according to how successful you are at noticing. Such judgements are themselves simply repulsion and avidity. Do not analyse thoughts with other thoughts. That may be a strategy for disregarding your actual present situation.
Posture: practical tips
It is not natural for humans to maintain a fixed sitting position for long periods. It makes our bodies tired and sore. Though it grows easier with time, it is useful to be able to meditate for a longer period than you can manage comfortably in a single position.
By switching among several positions during a long session, you can sit for longer. Sitting on the floor is usually harder on the knees—and sitting in a chair is harder on the back. If you alternate between the two – as your knees or back become uncomfortable – you may be able to sit two or three times as long.
In the next two emails in this series, I will introduce several additional meditation postures. It is useful to learn as many as possible so you can rotate them, easing different parts of your body with each. Each position also has particular advantages that make it useful in particular circumstances.
The siddha position—and some others—are asymmetrical. With these it is important to alternate which leg is in front. Otherwise in time you will become asymmetrical. Alternating your legs during a session is another way to relieve physical pressure.
When you change position, do so mindfully. Do not stop meditating, change position, and resume meditation. Make your movements slow and deliberate. Be aware of your bodily sensations as you rearrange. The process is part of your meditation – not an interruption of it.
During a long session—if your legs need a rest—you can adopt the rest position for a couple of minutes. This position allows your legs to stretch and relax while you remain on your cushion with an elongated spine, helping maintain meditative awareness. Draw your legs up, knees together, clasp your knees with your wrists, and interlace your fingers.
Don’t believe the hype
See if you can notice—sometimes when you are not meditating—the ways in which thoughts are based on avidity, repulsion, or disregard. The three patterns often collapse of their own accord once you have noticed them. Without avidity, repulsion, and disregard, we may see the world as it is, rather than as it relates to our projects.
Thinking is not ‘bad’. It is often indispensable in practical understanding – producing brilliant creative works and profound abstractions. Yet it is odd how often people have strong opinions concerning situations about which they know little, which they have not experienced, and which do not affect them. Knee-jerk responses of avidity, repulsion, and disregard – blur our vision. We cannot see the world clearly when we filter it through ‘what’s in it for me?’. When we cannot see clearly, we cannot act effectively – and we cannot appreciate things as they actually are.
During meditation, we regard thoughts as meaningless gabble, like radio advertisements in unknown foreign languages.
Experiencing thoughts as insubstantial in meditation opens up a possibility in the rest of your life: you do not have to believe your own thoughts. Adopting this attitude provides the possibility of freedom from enslavement to thoughts – and from compulsively acting on what they tell you.
It is not helpful to question all thoughts intellectually. That could lead to paranoia. It is preferable to regard thoughts as we would regard advertisements. When we hear ‘Galacto Toothpaste makes your smile seven times brighter’ – argument is as unnecessary as making the purchase.
Obstacles and antidotes
Opinions—negative or positive—about oneself are a common obstacle. The antidote: don’t believe the hype.
Most meditators sometimes feel ‘I can’t do this, because I am not smart enough / not spiritual enough / not disciplined enough / too emotional / too intellectual / too old / whatever’. Untrue. Anyone can meditate – because meditation is non-doing. It requires no particular skill – and therefore has no prerequisites. All it requires is persistence.
When discouraged or doubtful concerning meditation – recall the experience of recognising wandering mind and returning to awareness of breath. That is the essence of meditation. If you have experienced ‘returning’—even once—you can trust that meditation is possible for you.
If meditation goes smoothly for a while – you may also feel ‘This is great – I am great – I’m far ahead of those other people – soon I will achieve great things and everyone will notice how special I am and will be impressed and respectful’.
The antidote is to realise that the path to enlightenment is both lengthy and well-worn. Countless people have gone before us, beaten a track, and left sign-posts. Sometimes they may be seen ahead in the distance waving encouragingly. Progress along the path is great, but it does not make anyone special – because anyone can do it, and a great many have.
It is no coincidence that thoughts distract us. It is no coincidence that they sound like advertisements – when we listen carefully. It is almost conspiratorial. What are we trying to mask with these thoughts?
This week’s meditation technique
Find the presence of awareness to be without focus. If you drift from presence of awareness, return – without comment or judgement. If mental events manifest – remain uninvolved. Let go and let be.
This is called ‘formless meditation’. At this stage, we no longer focus on breath. This is the technique of no-technique. With sufficient experience in returning it becomes possible to return – simply by noticing that we are elsewhere. There is no need to apply artificial methods. Having returned – we may, for a time, remain without distraction. We are aware in awareness itself, without attending to anything in particular.
Please try this week’s technique at least once before reading further.
* * *
All the techniques we have explored so far in this course are variants of the method called shi-nè, ‘peacefully remaining’.
● Counting both in-breaths and out-breaths
● Counting out-breaths only
● Following both in- and out-breaths with attention
● Following out-breaths only
● Formless meditation: remaining present without technique
These vary according to how forcefully the method intrudes on the stream of awareness. Counting is the most heavy-handed method – this week’s technique is the most subtle.
If you refer to the first email in this course, you will find that you have already engaged in formless meditation. As I mentioned at the time, this is the most difficult form of shi-nè. Nevertheless—coming to it with no expectations—you may have had glimpses of what is possible. Re-read your meditation notebook entries from that time and see how your experience has changed. You will probably feel encouraged by the progress you have made in the past two months.
Formless meditation can be elusive. The instructions amount to no more than ‘ be here—now’. It may take a few more months before you feel confident in practising this regularly. Try repeatedly this week. If you find yourself completely lost in thought, return to a less subtle technique until your mind steadies.
It is worth persevering – because formless meditation provides the most complete experience of peaceful remaining. We no longer have the breath as a distraction – no longer employ it as a crutch – and can no longer use it as entertainment. We are left with nothing to do and nothing to hold onto. We choose to let go, and find ourselves in empty space.
How much to meditate
Generally, formless meditation is not practical without regular experience of meditation sessions of at least half an hour. It may take as much as an hour of patient shi-nè before wild thoughts settle out and your mind clarifies.
I have repeatedly increased the recommended sitting period. You may wonder if this will end. How much is enough?
That depends on your individual capacity, circumstances, and inspiration. Therefore any recommendations are merely general guidelines.
In half an hour your mind can settle in a way that is rarely possible in five minutes. Equally, there are insights to be discovered in an hour that are rarely found in thirty minutes periods. In a few weeks I will introduce ‘retreats’ in which you meditate with others for several hours a day. That facilitates transformations which rarely occur in daily practice.
If this seems an unreasonable time commitment – consider the time required to learn a musical instrument or become skilled in a sport. The practice time necessary is quite comparable.
It is possible for almost everyone to find 30-60 minutes a day for meditation – if necessary, by decreasing time devoted to activities to which we are less committed. If you are ‘too busy to meditate’ – investigate whether that busyness might be a strategy for avoiding seeing something that might confront you if you stopped doing for a few minutes.
Regardless of how long you sit regularly – it is useful, occasionally, to meditate for a substantially longer period. You may find an hour – or two – or three – on a weekend.
It is difficult to sit more than an hour continuously. If you can dedicate a longer period to meditation, break it into sessions of 30-60 minutes sitting meditation separated by rests of 10-15 minutes. During the rests, stretch your legs and engage in quiet, reflective activity, such as writing in your meditation notebook or taking a short walk.
Kneeling is an alternative to sitting that works well for some people – but not at all for others. To decrease the pressure on your knees, you need to raise and support your buttocks. You can place a zafu between your legs, sandwiched between your legs and buttocks, or edge-wise. Alternatively, you can use a ‘seiza bench’—often available where zafus are sold, and on the web. These support kneeling by providing a low seat underneath which your legs can rest freely. Either way, padding under your knees—a sheepskin or zabuton—is also essential.
Another sitting position is one in which you are supported by a gomtag. This position can be comfortable for several hours. Because the gomtag supports the back and knees, the knees can be above the hips – and you need not raise your pelvis. Gomtags can be purchased on the web. (They may be sold as ‘meditation straps’. ‘Yoga straps’ are not the same – and are unsuitable.) Alternatively, you can also sew your own from several layers of strong, thick fabric. The total length of the strap (before you sew the circle closed) should be twice the distance from the middle of your chest to your outstretched finger tips. The strap should be as wide as your hand is wide (including your thumb).
Obstacles and antidotes
Forgetfulness becomes an increasing danger as the technique becomes more subtle. It can be surprisingly difficult to remember how to meditate. It is easy to omit important aspects; or, to approximate the technique. This results in merely sitting and thinking, whilst considering yourself to be meditating. When you realise you have lost the method – simply review the instructions.
It is easy to forget that you are meditating. If you meditate regularly, the method becomes automatic – but this risks going through the motionswithout returning to keen awareness. Avoid meditating on autopilot.
It is easy to forget why you are meditating. If you meditate often, it is easy to allow yourself to be distracted by fantasies– on the grounds that ‘I meditate plenty; I want to enjoy this story’. Review your motivation. Make an agreement with yourself to return to the fantasy – after the end of your meditation session.
Journey into vastness
What follows may sound ‘spacey’ or downright crazy. It can only be understood once you have had substantial experience of the gap between thoughts. If it reads as nonsense now – set it aside, and concentrate on the ‘nuts and bolts’ aspects of meditation. Often, this material suddenly makes sense weeks or months after reading it.
Last week’s practice—on avidity, repulsion, and disregard—may have revealed how many thoughts are about ‘me’. At the same time, shi-nè reveals that ‘I’ am not my thoughts – because awareness persists during the gaps between them. We see that thoughts come from nowhere and return to nothing. It becomes apparent that ‘I’ am not the origin or master of ‘my’ thoughts – they continue when ‘I’ refrain from acting to produce them. In fact, there is nothing personal about most thoughts. Though largely about ‘me’, they could be about any ‘me’ – countless other people have had nearly identical thoughts about themselves in similar situations.
We use thoughts to keep a grip on who we are and how we relate to our world. We want to experience ourselves as a solid, enduring, separate, continuous, well-defined ‘self’. ‘I think, therefore I am.’ We use thoughts to create strategies for justifying and aggrandising our selves, for armouring our selves against threats – and for shutting out anything that is irrelevant to our selves. These are avidity, repulsion, and disregard. They harden our identity, separating our selves from others.
In shi-nè—especially formless shi-nè—we get used to being insubstantial, transitory, indistinct, discontinuous, and undefined. Without thoughts propping it up – the boundary between ‘me’ and ‘everything and everyone else’ collapses.
This can be disconcerting. We fear letting go of our separate, well-defined identity—even for a moment—because we imagine our lives would spiral out of control. It might seem that if we let go of our grip on ‘who I am’, ‘I’ would fall apart altogether, and we would not be able to function in everyday life. We pull back from the precipice of non-definition toward safe and familiar patterns to avoid disintegration.
When this space of non-self provokes apprehensiveness – a combination of gentleness and determination are required. (I will say more about working with fear in meditation in a couple of weeks.)
It is helpful to know that those who have explored non-definition find that there is nothing in it to fear. It does not lead to the inability to function in daily life. On the contrary, when we are less driven by thoughts—which are not truly ours in any case—we can act more spontaneously, authentically, and effectively. Life can flow from awareness rather than from fixed ideas. We do not lose our ‘selves’ – we discover that the solid, enduring, separate, continuous, defined self was an illusion all along – built of insubstantial thoughts.
Letting go of identity and allowing our boundaries to dissolve can be exhilarating rather than disconcerting. We realise that we have lived our lives in tiny dark prison cells called ‘me’ – which we built to insulate us from the world.
When we allow the walls to collapse – we step out into the vast, brilliant, open space of Reality, as it is.
Formless meditation is the pinnacle of shi-nè – but it is not the final destination of meditation. In future weeks we will explore other methods.
You have been meditating long enough now, that you may have started to experience strong emotions during meditation. This is a sign of progress – but it may not be pleasant. The next section of the course is devoted to methods for working with such feelings.
Greetings. This week, and the next two, we will explore emotions in meditation.
Meditation can be relaxing – but it also reveals what is – which includes the full range of emotions. That is a sign of progress. You have penetrated superficial thoughts.
Some traditions see emotions as obstacles – and therefore provide antidotes. Others—including Aro—welcome the opportunity to embrace emotions within meditation. Strong emotions make meditation more difficult – but also more powerful. They naturally have a strong concentrating effect, so working with them accelerates progress.
Learning a better way to relate to emotions in meditation can transform our experience of everyday life. That ‘better way’ is to view emotions in the context of shi-nè.
This week’s meditation method
Practice shi-nè according to whichever technique is suitable to your mind-state: counting, awareness of breath, or formlessly. When a thought arises—rather than immediately dropping it—observe for a moment the emotional texture or ‘charge’ that accompanies it. When you return to presence, maintain awareness of any continuing bodily sensations that accompanied the emotion. For example, if there was an undertone of anger in the thought, you may experience heat and pressure in the chest or forehead. Fear may be accompanied by nausea.
Shi-nè is taught as the first meditation method in Aro because others techniques depend on viewing situations from the standpoint of emptiness – the open space that shi-nè reveals. Shi-nè is also taught first because it is possible to apply it in some form in almost any situation. Other meditation methods we teach only apply under certain circumstances.
This week’s method is useful only when you have emotions strong enough to feel in the body as physical sensations. However, attempting it can also uncover buried feelings. For that reason, please avoid this method if seriously depressed, or suffering from other mental dysfunction.
Typically, we express, repress, or dissipate strong emotions. These are the strategies of avidity, repulsion, and disregard. We may expressemotions by acting on them – but that often results in trouble for ourselves or others. We may repress them by denying or burying them. Unfortunately, keeping emotions buried is unpleasant and tiring – and hidden emotions may grow monstrous in the dark. They can burst out at awkward times. We may dissipate emotions by busying ourselves with distracting activities into which we can channel the unwanted energy. Careers, hobbies, entertainments, and ‘good works’ may all be dissipations – although of course they have other functions. Dissipation is the least harmful of the three options – but it wastes our lives by diverting us from the authentic actions we would take if we were willing to face our emotions. Often inauthentic activity wastes other people’s time as well.
There is a fourth possibility: to experience our emotions fully without acting on them. Although difficult at first, this alternative spares ourselves and others the consequences of desperate, harmful actions, the psychological damage of emotional repression, and the waste and interference of dissipation.
This week’s meditation method trains us to simply be with emotions – not expressing, repressing, or dissipating them. We develop this capacity during meditation, when we do not have to act and are not constantly provoked by others’ actions. With experience, we can apply the method in difficult life situations.
Sitting with emotions can be painful. It must be approached with strength and gentleness. We do not allow our emotions to run us, or to run us off the meditation cushion – but we do not become hostile either. The method is to regard emotions with respectful interest. We neither slam the door in their face, nor invite them in for tea and a cosy chat. Whether we like or dislike them, we allow them to be as they are—at least for the duration of the meditation session.
By allowing emotions—without commentary—we see them clearly. Emotions consist of thoughts plus bodily energy. This meditation method separates the two. We let the thoughts go – but we remain aware of the physical sensation. In the gaps between thoughts then, the feeling begins—of itself—to assume its natural form.
The magician position is the same as the siddha position, except that the foot of the outer leg is drawn up onto the inner leg’s calf. This improves the balance and stability of the posture. It is more stable—and feels more symmetric—but requires greater flexibility. Once you are comfortable with the siddha position, try the magician position occasionally and gently. Gradually it will become easy.
The lotus position is the ‘iconic’ symbol for meditation. However, is not the only ‘proper’ position, or even the best. For certain meditation methods it is essential. For shi-nè, all the positions I have described are equal. The lotus position does have one practical advantage. You can sit comfortably in the position on a flat surface—if you can be comfortable in it at all—which means that you do not need a support. You can therefore meditate anywhere at any time.
The lotus position requires great flexibility in the hips. If you are not sufficiently flexible, it can lead to serious injury. Forcing yourself into the position may be only slightly painful – but maintaining it against resistance for a long meditation session leads to knee surgery. You can approach the lotus position safely using a specific series of stretching exercises. Consult a yoga teacher if you want to learn them.
Obstacles and antidotes
Feeling tired or sleepy when meditating is common. That may be because you are, in fact, tired or sleepy – but not always. Notice how you feel ten minutes after the end of your meditation session. If you remain tired or sleepy – the feeling was genuine. Meditation has simply revealed what was there.
You may discover, however, that you feel energetic again. In that case, it may seem that meditation has been making you tired and sleepy. In reality, this damping of energy is an ‘escape clause’ that enables you to avoid unpleasant or frightening emotions that might arise in meditation. That could be a feeling or thought. It could also be the threatening state of no-thought.
If you are genuinely tired, rest. If you find you are dulling yourself as an avoidance mechanism, rouse your energy and silently confront what you have been avoiding.
Restless energy can also be avoidance. Obsessive planning or fantasies can hold off unwanted feelings – or emptiness. Stirring up one emotion may be a way to avoid feeling another. In such cases, redirect the energy into the meditation technique. Employ the energy to nourish precision and diligence. Turn your ambition to returning more often to the presence of awareness – and to remaining longer.
The insane ape
When emotions are separated into thought and sensation, they simplify and clarify. The sensation may remain intense, but it feels clear. What was a boiling cauldron of bile, transforms into a cool, clear, free-flowing waterfall—still volatile but no longer toxic. With practice, that energy may be positively harnessed.
Emotions become problematic when they are driven into complexity and conflict with one another through thinking. In the Tibetan tradition, it is said that to be at the mercy of conflicting emotions is like being a horse ridden by an insane ape. The ape demands you turn left, raking your flanks with its spurs – whilst also forcing you right, jerking the metal bit in your bleeding mouth.
We become our own insane riders when we judge emotions: ‘I shouldn’t want to hurt my spouse whom I love’ or ‘I shouldn’t feel miserable because I am well-off’ or ‘I ought to want to see him more often’ or ‘I am a spiritual person so I should not want so many things – so much’. In mediation, we lessen inner conflict by dropping such thoughts and returning to simple awareness. We allow chaos and confusion – but we do not add to it by trying to fix it.
Greetings. How has your last week of meditation been?
You may have found that the new technique seemed to make everything worse. If so – it is because meditation has brought hidden emotions to the surface. In the short term, that might seem undesirable – but it is only when you see emotions clearly that you can live congruently. It is better to know your feelings than to be ridden by them unconsciously.
In shi-nè we see that thoughts come and go. The same is true of emotions – although they generally persist longer.
Emotions are intolerable when they seem to persist indefinitely. When gripped by hopeless desire or depression, it seems that we will always feel that way. This illusion is reinforced by our refusal to allow emotions to be as they are. Because we express, repress, or dissipate emotions, we do not experience them passing on their own. Few emotions, in fact, are strong enough to last more than a few hours in meditation. When allowed, they eventually exhaust themselves. One reason it is valuable to practice occasionally for periods of more than an hour is to watch emotions arise, strut about furiously, and then subside into nothingness.
It is because diverse emotions come and go, that they conflict. It is because they come and go, that acting upon transient emotions causes trouble. If we could depend on loving or hating something indefinitely – it might be different. Drastic actions to acquire or eradicate might function – but we regret hurtful statements when anger has passed. We often find that our lust for a new pair of boots fades some time after purchase.
During a long meditation session – particularly when you are tired and achy – it can be useful to perform a quick mental scan of your body to check and freshen your sitting position. Traditionally meditators memorise a seven-point checklist that goes something like this:
1. My legs are relaxed and comfortable.
2. My spine is upright and elongated. My chest is open, my belly soft, and my back strong.
3. My shoulders are released backward—not hunched forward—and are even with each other.
4. My upper arms fall vertically from my shoulders. My hands are relaxed and comfortable.
5. My head floats upward from my spine. My chin is slightly tucked toward my chest, so that the back of my neck relaxes and straightens out.
6. My tongue is relaxed and lightly touches my hard pallet, with my lips and teeth slightly open.
7. My eyes are slightly opened and my gaze is angled diagonally downward.
Each point is the antidote to a physical difficulty. However, what is most important to remember is the overall principle: any still, comfortable, relaxed, and alert posture is ideal for meditation.
This week’s meditation technique
This week and next, continue the method of last week. Practice shi-nè; be aware of the charge on thoughts; transfer attention to bodily sensations when you find emotions.
Regard emotions impersonally. ‘I am angry’ equates ‘me’ with ‘anger’, and I become my emotion. Anger has me – rather than my having it. ‘Anger is happening now’ sounds odd – but is more accurate. When we see that emotions rise and fall in the empty space of awareness they no longer rule us. Attend to this space in which emotions occur. It becomes evident that we contain—and are larger than—our emotions.
With all emotions, the method is similar – but more can be said of each emotion in particular.
Thoughts of self-justification and blame usually accompany anger. We actively persuade ourselves that we are entirely in the right – and the person with whom we are angry, is entirely wrong. That intensifies the emotion. Letting go of those thoughts in meditation allows anger to begin to subside. It may also reveal that neither party was entirely right or wrong.
Blaming depends on seeing the parties as solid, clear-cut ‘selves’ with well-defined, consistent intentions. Meditation reveals that our own thoughts, emotions, motivations, and plans change constantly and are—in a sense—impersonal rather than created by ourselves. The same is true for everyone else – including those who harm us. They are driven by the insane ape of incoherent emotion and the insistent advertising slogans of thought.
Recognising this – there is no longer any basis for hatred. Hatred is anger prompting the desire to cause harm. There is no point harming a horse ridden by an insane ape – or even in harming the ape. Recognising this – it gradually becomes possible to forgive everyone for everything.
Horses ridden by insane apes remain dangerous. Forgiveness does not imply that we allow ourselves to be trampled. Forgiving harm done does not imply that it was justifiable – only that we have the skill to avoid churning up our own emotions by endlessly reminding ourselves of the injustice.
When hatred is dissolved, we can employ anger to concentrate—to see situations clearly—and to act to prevent harm to ourselves, rather than to cause harm to the other.
Anger often masks fear. Sometimes we deliberately make ourselves angry to avoid feeling the underlying fear. When angry—in meditation and at other times—be alert for signs of fear. If it is the cause of anger, it is best to observe the root fear directly.
Obstacles and antidotes
Frustration, irritation, and impatience are weak forms of the same energy as anger.
These are an obstacle when you think that meditation should be going faster than it is. When nothing happens and you feel it is past time for results, annoyance at meditation or at yourself might tempt you to stop meditating.
Re-configure impatience as determination. Rather than pushing away the source of irritation – fierce energy can overcome obstacles. When meditation has become routine, frustration may help you see yourself practising on autopilot. Then you can resolve to sharpen your technique.
Antidotes become obstacles when over-employed. The complementary danger is becoming obsessed with precision and with returning ever more quickly from distraction. Gentleness in meditation consists in not trying to measure up to an arbitrary standard of perfect technique. The fear that ‘I am not good enough’ underlies this obstacle. Ask yourself: Where did this standard come from? What is the root of that fear?
After you break through the barrier of superficial thoughts, fear may replace boredom as a primary obstacle. Like boredom, fear is an officious signpost: ‘Do not look here – on pain of discovering who you are!’ The antidote is the same: stare into the fear – find that this ‘obstacle’ is an open door – and walk through it.
Fear in meditation may be the ‘ordinary’ fear of unfortunate future events; fear of emptiness; or fear of emotions.
Ordinary fear prompts obsessive, unhelpful visualisation of what may go wrong. The antidote is to remind yourself that it is not happening now. Return to the present. That includes the sick feeling – but not the imagined bad situation.
When ordinary fear is examined – it often transpires that we are more afraid of how we will feel if the bad event occurs, than of the event itself. It is useful to see this: correctly identifying the object of fear is half way to overcoming it.
Fear prompts avidity, repulsion, and disregard. Fear of loss leads to clinging and hoarding. Fear of being harmed leads to pre-emptive aggression. Fear of emptiness prompts us to construct our own prison cells. We build walls to enclose a tiny safe territory and keep ourselves from straying into the vast unknown. Fear of emotions leads to hiding them from ourselves and others.
We may falsely suppose that we have—within ourselves—a bottomless well of fear and rage; insecurity and neediness; loneliness and compulsion; anxiety and suspicion; and, confusion and depression. We fear that if we open the lid, these will boil out and overwhelm us. We see this problem as irresolvable – so that it is best to suppress, freeze, or ignore negative feelings. Unfortunately, that cuts off our wellspring of energy and leaves us half-alive.
Let disowned emotions gradually rise to the surface in meditation. Be gentle: do not dive down looking for them – nor drag them up—but allow them to emerge in their own time. This takes months or years – but in time you will find the bottom.
Meditation provides a space to approach difficult emotions gradually and learn that they cannot control you. You can, after all, stop at any time. As buried thoughts and feelings surface, regard them impersonally, without pushing or pulling at them. Be curious about each emotion: what would it be like to experience it fully? If you allow intense emotional sensations to ‘do their worst’ – you will find that they cannot harm you. Discovering this counteracts fear. Eventually nothing remains lurking in the depths which can dismay you.
Desire, appreciation, and generosity
Ravenous neediness is indiscriminate. We try to grab and consume everything to which we feel attracted. We view the world as defective in failing to provide what we want. We cannot be satisfied. We do not appreciate simple, subtle, tranquil pleasures. We want more of everything – all of the time. We try to fill emptiness by cramming in everything we can reach. Since emptiness is infinitely vast, this will never work.
In the radical aloneness of meditation, we discover our adequacy. We begin to find complete satisfaction in the enjoyment of the colour of a rug, the sound of a door closing, or the sensation of the floor against a foot. At such times, nothing seems missing or wrong. Gradually we can extend this feeling of sufficiency throughout life.
‘Avidity, repulsion, and disregard’ are often translated ‘attraction, aversion, and indifference’. However, to feel attracted is not itself a problem. Inevitably we like some things far more than others. In meditation, we separate the energy of appreciation from the accompanying thoughts. When this occurs we do not have to act on the mental advertising slogans that command us to acquire everything they claim is desirable. Freed from compulsion to consume – we can simply enjoy sensory pleasure and beauty. We can choose intelligently whether or not we act on impulses. We can select on the basis of what benefits ourselves and others, rather than how strongly we happen to feel in the moment.
Having seen our own neediness clearly, we see it in others. Naturally, we then wish to share enjoyment with them. This is ‘active compassion’ or ‘generosity’.
Although it may seem otherwise, depression generally does not just happen – it is something we do. Depression is a way of attenuating emotions we are unwilling to face. Rage, fear, and sadness are the most common targets. We clamp down on them and squeeze the energy out of them.
Unfortunately it is not possible to suppress negative feelings without also suppressing those that are positive. When we armour our hearts against pain, we also defend them from enjoyment. Killing anger or sorrow also turns us into emotional zombies.
In the downward spiral of depression, we try to use thought to address emotional pain – but this can never work. Thinking only addresses the circumstances that brought about the pain – it does not confront the pain itself. We just find thoughts running around in circles—slower and slower—as we deplete our energy. We fuzz into a state of bewilderment and—eventually—oblivious torpor.
We attempt to avoid pain by avoiding life. To shut down the bodily sensations of emotions, we must also shut down our other senses. In depression, colours wash out – everything turns grey. Music becomes mere sound. Everything tastes like cardboard.
Perversely, we may cherish some forms of pain because they confirm our identity and provide meaning. ‘I hurt, therefore I am.’ We may seek our pain to be validated and wear it proudly as a mark of worth.
Meditating with depression is difficult. We seem to have too little energy to sit and apply the technique. Shi-nè may be counter-productive: the quiet space it reveals is superficially similar to the lobotomised quiet of depression, and we may confuse the two. The method of separating thoughts from feelings does not directly apply: depression does not feel like anything—unless you count cold grey fog as ‘something’.
Depression seems endless as we approach paralysis. To address depression you must be willing to allow change; to let go of your identity as a depressed person; and to let in a little of the pain you are holding at bay. It is helpful to recognise that depression is not intrinsically a condition of too little energy but of too much. The energy of suppressed emotions is never actually destroyed – merely distanced.
The only way out of depression is to reawaken the ability to feel. The best method is to open to the senses. Be receptive to sights, sounds, textures, fragrances, and tastes. Allow yourself to uncoil gradually in sensory enjoyment. This involves overcoming inertia and the depressive damping of sensation. Physical exercise is especially useful. It breaks the slow, weak loops of depressive thought and opens you outward – thereby replenishing energy.
The value of meditation for depression is in helping uncover what is suppressed. Meditative alertness cuts the fog. It then enables you to apply the technique of separating the painful emotions that arise from their accompanying thoughts. To do this requires courage. If you have previously used the technique to transform anger or desire, you know that the pain will abate. If not, opening to pain requires a leap of faith.
Meditation allows us to strip off layers of armour – gently. Only by facing negative emotions can we relate to them intelligently – by releasing them from the straightjacket of conceptuality.
Greater willingness to feel emotionally negative gives us greater capacity to feel positivity.
Enormous creative energy is freed when we cease to employ energy against ourselves in the suppression of natural feelings.
Sadness may be confused with depression – but they are different. Sadness is the natural response to loss – our own or others’. Unlike depression, sadness is a distinct sensation—an ache just below the ribcage—but this does not sap your energy.
Sadness is the slowest and often quietest of emotions—making it superficially similar to depression. To relate intelligently to sadness you must take the time to open to it. Depression results from refusing to experience sadness and going about your life as though it were not there. Failure to experience sadness accurately—skipping over details—can also result in its becoming a habit or solidified pattern. Just knowing that you are sad—and resigning yourself to it—is not the same as allowing it.
To be willing to experience sadness is a radical act. It is an expression of caring for loss – either our own, or others’. Voluntary vulnerability betokens an open heart. Openness to sadness—and recognition that it is as conceptually impersonal as all emotions—opens us to the suffering of others. Naturally we desire others to be free of it. This is active compassion.
Surprisingly, we are as unwilling—or more unwilling—to experience joy as we are to experience emotional negativity. We may allow ourselves to feel joy only when external conditions are exceptionally positive. To feel joy for no reason could seem precarious – as if it could lead to irresponsibility.
Meditation often uncovers joy hidden beneath other feelings. They may emerge together. It is not usual to feel sadness and joy simultaneously – but this becomes more common with experience of meditation. You may find yourself crying and laughing at the same time.
Sourceless joy is so rarely allowed that seeing it in you, may make others uncomfortable. Do not rush to squelch it for their convenience. That will do them no favours. Your joy—on the other hand—might wake them up.
With sufficient practice of allowing feelings, we become fully familiar with our habitual emotional patterns. They lose their power. Our illusions about ourselves die of hunger – because we stop feeding them with the energy of our emotional involvement. Gradually we unmask. We strip off the armour of identity we girded on in fear of revealing and experiencing what we are. Freed from emotional conflicts, our motivations simplify and our communication and activity become straightforward and direct.
Allowing feelings allows them to deepen. Eventually we experience all human qualities within ourselves. Then we know what it is simply to be – without reference to the personal history we once used to define ourselves.
At this point we discover ordinary heroism. We come to live with courage, gentleness, dignity, curiosity, humour, grace, honesty, spontaneity, commitment, appreciation, and authenticity.
Greetings. This week’s email concerns the meditation method called lhatong. Because it is subtle, we will approach it via a more common experience— flow—to which lhatong bears a resemblance.
‘Flow’ is a state familiar to many musicians and athletes. It is sometimes called ‘being in the zone’. Flow is experienced by everyone – but may not be noticed. Typically it occurs in an activity that is difficult – but which you have practiced so extensively that you have become proficient.
● a heightened and narrowed state of attention, so that you are aware of nothing outside the action;
● an absence of self-consciousness (‘losing your self in the music’);
● a sense of the merging of action and awareness, with the loss of distinction between the actor and the action;
● the feeling that the action is effortless, even when objectively it involves great exertion;
● absence of thought combined with presence of awareness;
● confidence, or absence of worry about losing control; and
● transformed perception of time, so that a moment may seem to last minutes, or hours pass like minutes.
Scientific studies have demonstrated that flow can result in dramatically improved practical performance. It is also enormously enjoyable – and people are happy roughly in proportion to the amount of flow they experience.
For most people—unfortunately—flow is transitory, infrequent, and unpredictable.
Just as non-thought cannot by produced by force – you cannot force flow. Non-thought is produced by patiently repeated, gentle non-doing. Flow is produced by patiently repeated, vigorous doing. You may discover flow when playing guitar, skiing, making love, or even playing a video game.
The good news is that shi-nè increases the frequency with which you experience flow – and makes it easier to remain in flow longer. This is because thinking about what you are doing immediately ends the flow experience. As long as you allow your fingers to play guitar by themselves, the music flows. The moment you think ‘wow, this is great’ or ‘the next bit is complicated’ – it falls apart. In fact, flow occurs when we allow action rather than acting deliberately. Action in flow is neither voluntary nor involuntary: it is choiceless but mindful.
Lhatong (pronounced lah-tong) is a state similar to flow, but found in meditation.
They differ in that:
● lhatong involves panoramic awareness of the physical and mental environment – rather than the narrowed focus of flow;
● you practice lhatong while sitting still – so there is no physical activity;
● lhatong allows thought where flow allows action.
They are similar in that both involve:
● absence of self-consciousness, or a merging of identity with the unfolding events;
● absence of deliberate action;
● effortlessness, confidence, and enjoyment.
Lhatong differs from ordinary thinking in that thought spontaneously appears in empty space. Ordinarily thoughts appear in ‘the mind’ of a thinker who produces them. In the lhatong experience – there appears to be no thinker. There is no one to interfere with thoughts – and no one to be distracted by them. They simply flow of their own accord.
Lhatong may occur unpredictably during shi-nè. It is also possible to encourage lhatong using a specific technique.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that most techniques other than shi-nè are applicable only in certain situations.
The technique for lhatong strictly applies only when your mind has settled sufficiently in formless shi-nè that no thoughts have appeared for several full minutes. Typically this occurs only after you have been practicing for at least an hour a day for several months – often several years. However, you can experiment with this technique any time your meditation is calm and relaxed, thoughts are slow and faint, and you are aware of gaps between them.
The technique is to alter your posture – in order to open yourself to the world. The world then provokes thoughts – which you allow to flow.
In the fully-opened lhatong posture:
● Your eyes are completely open and you gaze straight ahead.
● You raise your chin slightly to allow the raised gaze.
● You place your hands palms-down on your thighs, rather than palms-up in your lap (see the hand pictures from week 8).
The more open your posture – the more thoughts are likely to permit distraction. So experiment with opening your eyes gradually – then raising your gaze – then your chin – and then repositioning your hands.
Do not allow your gaze to wander. The doing of eye movements breaks lhatong.
Obstacles and antidotes: Nyams
A ‘nyam’ is any unusual experience that occurs in meditation. The states of non-thought, and of thoughts flowing spontaneously in empty space, are nyams. Other nyams include non-ordinary perception—what might be described as ‘hallucinations’ in other contexts—and various ‘altered states’. Nyams can be ecstatic, weird, or dreadful.
Nyams can be an obstacle if you react to their intensity with avidity, repulsion, or disregard. Grasping at blissful nyams risks turning you into a ‘seeker after nyams’ rather than a meditator. Nyams are not the goal of meditation – and like non-thought and flow they vanish if you pursue them. Fleeing, disrupting, or screening out confusing or frightening nyams shuts you off from the next stage of your natural spiritual development.
The antidote—as in all else—is to allow nyams to be as they are. Do not attempt to either produce or impede them. Experience them fully—enjoy them fleetingly and lightly when you can—and let them pass.
Nyams usually occur only when you have been meditating intensively for months. They are a sign of progress on the path – but they are not progress in themselves.
Nyams can be an obstacle if you take pride in them. Especially dangerous is mistaking them for ‘enlightenment’ or proof of great spiritual accomplishment. The antidote is the knowledge that nyams occur eventually for all persistent meditators. The types and frequency vary from person to person – but there is no significance to this.
This week’s meditation technique
Practice shi-nè according to whichever technique seems appropriate for your mind-state.
If you find yourself undistracted and can maintain formless shi-nè – apply the lhatong technique.
If you find yourself distracted – sing the sound ‘Ah’—as follows.
Open your eyes fully. Fill your lungs by breathing first into your belly and then continuing to fill your chest. Sing ‘Ah’ at a comfortable deep pitch. Allow the sound to continue to the end of your breath – to attenuate gradually – and to disappear into silence. Repeat the sound with each out-breath. Continue until you no longer feel distracted – or for up to five minutes. Then resume shi-nè.
Allow your sense of being to be flooded by sound. Find the presence of your awareness in the experience of sound. Allow the distinction between yourself and sound to collapse.
Singing ‘Ah’ may allow the flow or lhatong experience. If you review the characteristics of flow – you may be able to see why.
Singing ‘Ah’ relaxes vocal energy. The resonance permeates being and dispels tensions created in attempts to establish concrete definitions of what you are.
Breathing first into your belly is a way of taking a full breath. Many of us habitually breath only into our chests because we habitually contract our stomach muscles unnecessarily. It may feel odd at first – but relaxing the belly to breathe fully has many benefits in life as well as in meditation.
The alternating conditions of sound and silence are analogous to the alternation of thought and non-thought – lhatong and shi-nè – form and emptiness. Listen to the stillness after the sound vanishes.
‘Ah’ is the sound of the Tibetan letter A – which has special significance in the Aro tradition. ‘A-ro’ means ‘the taste of the letter A’ in Tibetan. This week’s meditation technique may allow you to discover that taste.
Greetings. The purpose of meditation is not to take a daily break from our lives. The purpose is to transform our experience of life so that we would never wish to take a break from it. This week’s email explains methods for extending meditative awareness from silent sitting into action.
Meditation in action
Shi-nè requires non-doing – but the implication of meditation for life is not passivity or inaction. From meditation we learn awareness, focus, enjoyment, flow, and spaciousness. We extend—into life—freedom from judgemental thinking and freedom from emotional conflict. This facilitates a lightness of being which allows us to live with grace, courage, inspiration, persistence, and confidence.
The essence of shi-nè is to return from distraction and to remain with the presence of awareness. The essence of meditation in everyday life is the same: to bring awareness to all activities.
The easiest place to begin is with bodily awareness. It is impossible to feel your body unless you are here, now.
The easiest time to start is as you finish sitting meditation. Let go of the sharp division between meditating and non-meditating. Emerge from meditation gradually and smoothly. Stand up slowly, paying attention to movements and sensations. Massage any pain or stiffness, and continue to find the presence of awareness in whatever sensation arises.
See how long you can maintain awareness as you begin your next activity. If possible – choose something solitary and non-verbal, such as cooking, cleaning, or physical exercise. Activities involving words are more likely to distract you from awareness.
Walking meditation is a bridge between formal sitting meditation and informal meditation in everyday activities. It is also useful if you want to meditate for long periods continuously. Alternating sitting and walking provides a way to relieve the stress on your body without ever leaving meditation entirely. Walking also serves as an antidote to both the tiredness and restlessness that can obstruct shi-nè.
Walking meditation is easiest in a quiet place without distractions or obstacles. An empty room large enough to walk in circles is suitable. Even better – an unobstructed natural setting such as a park. Walking meditation is valuable but more difficult in an urban setting.
Walk with your eyes looking downwards at about 45 degrees – but keep your head upright. Allow your gaze to move smoothly over the ground, rather than jumping from one point to the next. This is much easier if you allow your eyes to relax and defocus, so that your vision is slightly blurred.
Be aware of each part of your foot as it presses the ground in succession. Be aware of sensations: of your trousers brushing your legs, of the rhythmic contractions of leg muscles, of the slight brush of air against your skin.
This is easier if you walk at about half the normal speed.
When you find that you are distracted by thinking – return to find the presence of awareness in sensations.
Pay no particular attention to the objects around you – but be aware of your body moving through space. As a variation – feel that you are motionless and that space is gliding past you.
Try this for fifteen minutes every time you meditate this week. That is enough to get the flavour. With experience, you can engage in walking meditation for periods of seconds to hours – and any time you need to walk.
Meditation in everyday life
The method of informal meditation in everyday life is simply to be with your action – rather than distracted by thoughts and feelings about something else. This does not mean avoiding thinking. It means using thought when it is actually useful – and allowing useless thoughts to drop away. It means remaining aware that you are thinking – as you think.
It is easiest at first to let unnecessary thoughts go by returning to bodily awareness. This is possible in any situation. Be aware of breath. Be aware of sensations. Recall that you have a body – which seems to disappear when staring for hours at a screen, for example. Scan your body from foot to head—are you contracting any muscles unnecessarily? Needless muscular tension and needless mental tension reinforce each other. Let both go.
During the day, it is often possible to enter the momentary spaces between activities, in which we can stop – to let go and let be. This momentary practice—at bus stops, walking to a shop, or lying in the bath—infuses our experience with openness.
Allow the world to remind you to return to awareness. Open to your senses. Whenever you see a vivid colour or hear a distinctive sound – allow its presence. Experience and enjoy food – rather than chewing mechanically and thinking about work. Enjoy washing dishes, a chore many dislike – but which becomes pleasurable in the state of flow. When exercising, be with your body and breath. Wearing an iPod when running—or watching television at the gym—is counter-productive.
Observe the pointless doing that arises from nervous compulsion – the fear of emptiness. Take time to just be in stillness instead. Allow effective action to arise spontaneously from that space.
Obstacles and antidotes: vajra posture
This strenuous exercise can have fatal consequences. Please do not attempt it if you have any doubt about your physical fitness – and certainly not if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, or are pregnant or menstruating.
First, see this week’s picture page.
Squat down on tip-toe. The balls of your feet should be touching. Your heels should be touching. Balance yourself by touching the ground in front of you with your fingertips.
Place your hands palms-down on your knees. Straighten your arms to push your knees downward a little. Spread your knees apart and straighten your back.
When you feel balanced – raise your hands above your head. Place the palms of your hands firmly together about an inch above your head. Your fingers should point directly upward.
Simultaneously attempt to push your hands up, and your elbows back – without separating your hands, or allowing your hands to rise further above your head. These two movements should be matched in effort so that they counteract each other – i.e. your hands and arms do not move. Keep your hands pointing straight upward. Increase the effort until your arms begin to judder.
Now raise yourself until your legs form the same angle as your arms. Remain in that position until you collapse and fall back flat on the floor – with your arms at your sides. Remain in that posture until breathing and heart rate have returned to normal—not more than four minutes, or you may lose the resulting sense of alertness and freshness.
Throughout this exercise – just let go and let be. When you sit up again – continue with meditation. Repeat this practice as many times as feels comfortable.
This exercise is called the ‘vajra’ or ‘thunderbolt’ posture. Its principle is to cause total exhaustion extremely quickly. When totally exhausted – it is difficult to think. Vajra posture helps find the condition of no-thought. Because exhaustion is reached extremely quickly – recovery is also rapid. Vajra posture leaves you feeling energised, clear, and refreshed. Therefore it is valuable as an antidote both to racing thoughts and lethargy.
The book Roaring Silence explains vajra posture in considerably more detail – discussing both its esoteric aspects and practical antidotes to difficulties with it.
A bag of tricks
You have now learned many meditation techniques – main methods, variations, and antidotes to obstacles.
You will have found some of these more useful than others. People differ, and—with experience—you will find a mix of techniques that works. You will learn how and when to apply different methods, according to the ‘mental weather’ you experience during each meditation session. This deepening process of self-discovery continues for years.
Choose one or two primary shi-nè techniques as the foundation of practice. You can start each session with one technique—awareness of breath for instance—then move to alternatives according to your mind-state or current meditation goals. You might shift from breath awareness to formless meditation—if undistracted—or sing ‘Ah’ if you wish to developing skill in finding the presence of awareness in the dimension of sound. You can adjust your posture according to your energy level – or apply the antidote of head-jerks (see week 7). When strong emotions arise, apply the method of awareness of the corresponding physical feeling (week 11). You will learn how much to exert yourself – how to maintain the balance of gentleness and dedication.
The techniques you learn form a ‘bag of tricks’ or ‘tool kit’ from which you can pull particular methods as circumstances dictate.
The Tibetan meditation tradition teaches a vast array of extraordinary methods which are valuable in particular situations. For example:
● methods which can only be practiced alone; methods which require a large group;
● methods which require the strength and flexibility of a competition gymnast; methods which—though physical exercises—were devised by an elderly cripple for his own use;
● methods which can be completed in five seconds or less; methods which must be practiced twenty-four hours a day for many weeks continuously;
● methods which require mountains, running water, fire, or wind;
● methods which can only be employed on a cloudless day; methods which can only be employed in total darkness;
● methods employed in sleep (yes, this is possible);
● and, a great many others.
Shi-nè and lhatong together comprise a complete path – so nothing else is necessary. These other methods serve to greatly accelerate your progress with shi-nè and lhatong.
As your tool box expands beyond the basics – the advice of a qualified teacher becomes increasingly important. There is a danger, on the one hand, of skipping from one method to another whenever you encounter difficulties – or seeking entertainment. On the other hand you may get stuck in a rut with a comfortable method – when you would make faster progress by moving on to a method that is more challenging. This can be difficult to judge accurately yourself. An experienced teacher can work with you to find the best combination of methods for your current interests, circumstances, and skills.
Obstacles and antidotes
This method counters distraction by providing a focus.
Close your eyes and visualise the Tibetan letter A as shown onthis week’s picture page. It is luminous and composed of light. It appears in space in front of you. Find its position by extending your arm 45 degrees up and ahead of you and visualising the letter A at the distance of your fist. The A may appear about the size of your fist – but allow it to be whatever size it spontaneously takes. Hold your arm out until the visualisation becomes reasonably stable. Lower your arm and continue to find the presence of your awareness in the appearance of the A.
If you find the shape of the A strange or complex – draw it on paper several times before starting your meditation. That will help you remember it. The more often you practice drawing and visualising the A, the easier it will become.
You may find that the A moves about at first. Do not worry – just let it settle down on its own.
Focus sharply at first, but then relax your focus. Excessive effort may lead to unhelpful tension. If the A is not particularly vivid – just allow it to be a vague presence.
This week, try this visualisation for three five-minute intervals within each sitting session. That will be sufficient to learn it thoroughly. Later, you can apply it at any time you find yourself distracted.
Pain is a distraction – so it is usually best to eliminate it when possible during meditation. That is not always possible – as when pain or discomfort is caused by injury or disease.
Physical pain can actually be helpful in meditation. Pain forces us to focus on it, which leads the mind away from thinking into sensation. It provides a simple, unambiguous opportunity to accept the world as it is. ‘Accepting’ does not mean ‘liking’. It means that—just for now—we will not try to change it.
Typically we resist pain so strongly that we do not really know what it is like. Be curious. You may be surprised by what you find if you sit with it for half an hour. Concepts about pain distort the experience. Often the true nature of a pain is quite different from what we imagine we have been feeling.
Often resistance produces tension which prolongs and intensifies pain. When we accept the sensation and allow our thoughts to drop, we relax. Often it becomes apparent that what we have been fighting, is actually fear that the pain will last forever – or anger that we have been hurt.
When we relax into physical pain and experience it accurately, we can—if the pain is not too intense—find calm and equanimity. This insight can be extended to emotional pain – and from meditation into everyday life.
Experiments with energy
Caffeine and alcohol can be useful antidotes to energy problems in meditation. (If for health or other reasons you avoid them – there is no need to try these exercises.)
Caffeine not only wakes you up – in moderation it can help focus. Too much prompts jumbled, racing thoughts. Alcohol in moderation stills thoughts, cuts distraction, and relaxes obsessive and ambitious emotions. Too much produces stupor. This illustrates a general principle: the antidotes for too little energy may produce too much, and vice versa – so be careful in their application.
Take a glass and an opened bottle of good red wine with you to your evening meditation. Apply your usual meditation technique, but take a sip every minute or so. As you start to feel the effects, slow down. While maintaining the technique, observe without comment the sensations in your body. Observe the quality of your mind as you continue to take occasional sips. How does your experience of meditation change as you gradually feel increasing effects of the alcohol? Do not consume so much that it becomes difficult to maintain the technique.
Record what you have learned in your meditation notebook.
You can do the same experiment with coffee in the morning.
These experiments should not replace your usual meditation technique – but unlike some earlier experiments, they can be useful repeatedly.
Greetings. This is the last week of the course.
Ways of life
You may have read the past 16 emails with interest – but not yet started meditating. You may have meditated every day. You may have started meditating – become discouraged – and stopped. You may have meditated some weeks and not others.
If you have read this far – meditation has been part of your way of life for three months—even if only as a concept. Since the course ends here – this is the time to think seriously about what rôle you want meditation to play in your life.
Meditation is a tool which can change your way of life—without necessarily changing visible characteristics of your job, family, or daily routine—by changing your experience. How you choose to use meditation is closely connected to how you wish to live.
If you have not been meditating regularly – the complexity of the ‘toolkit’ provided by the past 16 emails may seem overwhelming. Concepts about meditation may now be an obstacle to actually meditating. Since meditation is a path beyond concepts – each time we sit down and begin, we must set them aside. We return to ‘beginner’s mind’, in which everything is possible—because we have no limiting preconceptions—and everything is simple.
It is hard to start meditating—if you have never attempted it before. It is hard—if after you have begun—you let your practice lapse. Let go of the weight of mixed feelings about meditation. Return to the simple instructions of week 1 or 2 – and just sit. Forget about progress. If you can meditate every day for a week – you are likely to see the world differently. It is like beginning an exercise programme when you are badly out of shape. It may feel wretched at first—and have no discernable benefits—but when you exercise regularly it becomes enjoyable. And – there is no way to become fit other than to exercise. There is no way to free your mind from neediness, aggravation, and confusion other than to meditate.
Your relationship with meditation will change over months and years. Simply continuing will gradually produce deeper understanding. Periodically you will experience entirely new ways in which meditation transforms your life. With meditation—in both the long and short term—the extent of the effect is proportional to the exertion of effort. The more you meditate—and the more dedicated your practice—the more you will feel the results.
What you have previously heard about Buddhism may seem mostly irrelevant to you—if your chosen way of life involves love, career, family, creativity, or other passionate involvements in the world. Yet Buddhism contains many varied viewpoints and approaches.
Aro presents Buddhism as—simply—the unfolding implications of what is discovered in meditation – implications for passionately involved ways of life. Our essay ‘An uncommon perspective’ describes Aro’s unusual approach.
Buddhism is most commonly taught from a perspective which emphasises renunciation. Some Buddhist paths advocate withdrawal from the complexity and difficulties of ordinary life—abstaining from sense pleasures and emotional ties—ideally to become a monk or nun.
Aro’s approach—which is equally traditional—emphasises embracing passionate involvement as the essence of enlightened activity. Aro presents Buddhism as tools for creating ways of life that are vigorous, delight-filled, and liberating. We seek not to retreat from the world but to dance wholeheartedly with modern life – whether Western or Eastern.
Essential Buddhism does not belong to a specific culture even though it originated in the East. The nature of Mind addressed by essential Buddhism goes beneath ‘cultural software’ to the very ‘operating system’ of humanity – so it is as applicable now in the West as it was 2000 years ago in India.
The Aro path offers a structure for life-long learning. It provides a series of ‘phases’ which allow gradually increasing involvement as meditation and Buddhism become increasingly important in your way of life.