Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why Meditate?

From Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
Morning and afternoon meditation were a constant in our lives at Naropa University this summer. Coming to this as I did from having meditated "off and on" for roughly 40 years, the regularity (in the past I might have said "rigidity") of the Naropa schedule was challenging at first. It quickly became a comfort, however, like a base, a simple practice to return to from wherever I went spinning off.

Shambhala Sun,
Sept. 2010
One of our first readings was Matthieu Ricard's "Why Meditate?" (2010), which I read several times during the course of the semester, each time understanding it differently. By the end of the semester, I had come to appreciate meditation in a way I never had before. Ricard described its centrality with straightforward and powerful words: “If we want to observe the subtlest mechanisms of our mental functioning and have an effect on them, we absolutely must refine our powers of looking inward” and “… cultivate a way of being that is not subject to the patterns of habitual thinking” (pp. 41 and 86).

More simply put, daily practice on the cushion is necessary to sharpen the ability to notice. And noticing is the foundation of all learning, insight and wisdom. So, for example, meditation helped me better notice myself reacting in habitual ways in day-to-day activities. I noticed my thoughts while washing the dishes. I saw subtle complaints, clinging to opinions, nostalgic reminiscing, and many others. This "just noticing" allows for questioning, looking deeper into those habitual thought patterns, for "just noticing" what hides beneath the surface of things that “get me,” or take me off to the past, or into the future.

Refining my attention and practicing mindfulness enabled me to see that even within the impulse I have to help, to inform, to counsel and to solve problems (in other words, the impulse to teach and to counsel my clients) is a subtle aggression, a desire to make problems go away. This came as a real surprise. But noticing it allowed me to consider refining my approach to teaching and to counseling, to "cultivate a way of being that is not subject to the patterns of habitual thinking" (Ricard, 2010, p. 86). Sometimes problems will not go away...

And Ricard pointed out something else just as foundational about meditation -- that while we can read the words of scholars and practitioners who have devoted their lives to “observing the automatic, mechanical patterns of thought and the nature of consciousness,” ... “we cannot merely rely on their words to free ourselves ... We must discover for ourselves the value of the methods these wise people taught and confirm for ourselves the conclusions they reached. This is not purely an intellectual process. Long study of our own experience is needed to rediscover their answers and integrate them into ourselves on a deep level” (pp. 86-87). In other words, you can't think your way to everything.

My Naropa journal came to contain many examples of my noticing that it wasn't all about thinking, that things happened in the gap, in the space between thoughts, and while I wasn't thinking:
I notice coincidence, repetition, and synergy here. For example, I hear "Heart Sutra" three times over the course of two days, so I Google, 'Heart Sutra commentary,' and up comes an amazing talk by Dr. John Crook, whom I've never heard of, posted on a UK site called Western Chan Fellowship, equally unknown to me. I read a little and then I leave it alone. I read more and then I leave it alone. It takes two days to finish it. I don't think about it. I am very present while I am reading. I feel my breathing slowing down, I feel my shoulders relaxing, my back straightening, at times I feel filled with energy, other times I am more empty and open. Some of his words trigger memories. There is recognition at times. And then there is ‘I don’t know.’ Then there is Richard (our instructor) saying, "you have to find out what is there before you worry about the fact that it's not there.” The Heart Sutra is about not here, not there, not anywhere. I don't want to think about it, I just want to hear it. Today I heard (noticed) this:
‘The essential feature of this approach is to realize that it is based in meditation. Thought can raise innumerable objections and create endless metaphysical speculation. The Buddha is speaking out of his enlightenment. He is sharing it, transmitting it. To receive it one has to follow the same path’ (Crook, 1992, part 2, para. 13).
I can't think my way to this (Personal Journal Entry, July 9, 2011).
Even more to the point:
We repeated the same improv performances in Presence class today three times, focusing on the same element each time. I got bored (predictably). The third time, Lee (our instructor) added an audience, and suggested that "we" get out of the way this time ("I've done every thing I know how to do in this role with this element"). She was right. Wow.
The element was fire. I may have undervalued and diminished it's power in my life somehow. But it is there. My performance of fire came from somewhere other than thinking it up. Lee would say, it came from nothing, from space, from the ground. I discovered three things about fire by thoroughly being fire for that third time, for those six minutes.
1. It is explosive. It uses things up. It takes one thing, combines it with another, and transforms both through explosion. Nothing is the same after fire touches it. 
2. It is passionate. It is heat, lust and desire. It consumes and exhausts in its uncontrolled raging energy. 
3. But harnessed, it radiates warmth, life-giving energy and the spark that starts things growing and changing. 
It relates the things it consumes to each other. It joins them in energetic exchange. Fire only exists through connections: fire connects the earth element of fuel and the heaven element of air. It is the dynamic connection between heaven and earth. Its hard to imagine that I am or even have that connection inside me. But I was fire today. I have fire and can call upon and use its energy (Personal Journal Entry, July 4, 2011).
Given my careers in academe and in law, where logical thought is so highly valued, Crook's and Ricard's words, and my experiences with the Naropa summer learning intensive, are stunning confirmation of the importance of intuitive understanding. The Heart Sutra presents a very esoteric understanding of the nature of reality, and it’s pretty hard for me to grasp, but I'm convinced I won't get there by just thinking my way to it. “This approach is … based in meditation. Thought can raise innumerable objections and create endless metaphysical speculation..." (emphasis mine).


So, it's trusting more than just that part of my being that is analytical and strictly logical. It's about giving a say to Jill Bolte Taylor's, "Stroke of Insight." Theoretically, I get this. But where the rubber meets the road, it is not easy to trust beyond what you're comfortable trusting.

That's when it's back to the basics. Seeing how dramatic a difference being present makes, and how effectively meditation is sharpening my ability to see things I simply have not seen any other way, I am very reassured. Maintaining a regular meditation practice is absolutely essential to this seeing. Trust in the process is essential.

And today I read, by a sad coincidence perhaps, that Dr. John Crook died on Saturday, the last day of our semester. I am learning to bow to and trust those who teach. They know what they're talking about.

Crook, J. (1992, November). The heart sutra - A commentary - Dharma talk by John Crook. Western Chan Fellowship. Retrieved July 9, 2011, from
Ricard, M. (2010, September). Why meditate? (How to meditate). Shambhala Sun. Retrieved July 23, 2011, from
Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey.

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