Meditation and the Comfort Zone

Here’s a question: Does your meditation make your comfort zone more comfortable? Or less? Which do you prefer?

Let’s unpack this. The term “comfort zone” here means the states and activities to which you are most accustomed. They are generally states in which awareness is operating at a bare minimum, and the rest of our energy is flowing into patterned, automatic behaviours.

Oddly enough, this comfort zone isn’t always comfortable. It just feels “normal” — sometimes kind of pleasant, and sometimes unpleasant.

For example, if your “normal” is “getting things done,” it can feel pleasant (“All done!”) and it can feel unpleasant (“I don’t have time for this!”). Either way, though, it feels pretty normal.

So your comfort zone is the state you tend to default to when awareness is switched off.

What’s your comfort zone? Moving through your to-do list? Chatting with friends? Being entertained by TV or a book?

So, what does this have to do with meditation? Well, good and bad news. The good news is that meditation can be used to make your comfort zone more comfortable. If you’re okay with “normal”, meditation can be helpful to relieve stress, increase focus, get more ideas, etc. — all while staying in your comfort zone.

No, wait… that’s the bad news!

OK, so here’s another possibility: build a meditation practice that supports becoming fully present in whatever you’re experiencing, moment by moment. Not to prefer one state (like calm or bliss) over another (like frustration and depression). In this kind of meditation there is no notion whatsoever of achieving calm or insight or anything at all. And if such notions arise (they do!), they are simply more phenomena to be aware of. The end goal is to wake up to your actual experience.

This kind of meditation makes your “comfort zone” less comfortable, sometimes MUCH less comfortable. You may begin to become aware of anxiety, depression, anger, and other things that you had previously been able to ignore. You may begin to become aware of things outside your comfort zone that you might like to experience. Both very inconvenient. Both potentially uncomfortable.

What do you want from meditation? What matters to you? Pleasure? Feelings of security? Getting things done? And how do you use meditation now? To feel better? To feel more secure, more stable? To be more effective in your life?

There is no “right” answer to these questions. And the answers are far, far less important than the asking of them — asking over and over again. Because things change. You change. And asking is opening… opening to your moment to moment experience.

If you’d like to learn and practice meditation in a small-group setting and you are in south-west Florida, consider this 6-week course, starting February 10: MEDITATION FOR REAL LIFE. Click here for details.

Reconnecting What?

Whenever I sit for practice, I reconnect. But with what? And what is it that reconnects?

Butt to cushion, obviously.

A few small rituals suitable to formal practice (or not):
Connect lighter with candle, incense with candle flame, perhaps open a prayer book.
This sets up a connection with something else – something called “intention.”
The movements and words automatically engender a sense of slowing down.
(In relation to what?)

Things settle.
Reconnecting with physical sensations… twitches, itches, tingles, pulses, warmth, textures, that normally go un-noticed.
They come and go. Just sensations.
(Pleasure? Pain? Who decides?)

Things settle.
Reconnecting with emotions. Ripples touch awareness: anger, contentment, confusion, boredom, love, one after another, temporarily unmoored from palisades of memory, view, opinion. Just feelings.
(Whose feelings? Who’s feeling?)

Things settle.
Reconnecting with thoughts: to find them as they are and not be lost in them. Just thoughts.

If you believe your life, this makes no sense. A waste of time.
If you doubt, doors open. Narnia will never be the same.


Franca Leeson begins a new series of classes May 14, 2014: see Meditation Class: Reconnecting for details.

Why Do You Practise?

Found in the novel Looking for Alaska by John Green. The book is unrelated to Sufism or spiritual practice, but this story popped up at a crucial time.

Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, “I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.”

Unnaming

A student brought a short story to my attention the other day, and sent me a link to it today (thanks, K!). “She Unnames Them” was written by Ursula K. LeGuin, first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1985.

I first encountered her books in the 1970s, and during my late teens and early 20s I read everything I could find of her writing, and learned a great many worthwhile things from doing so. She continues to write prolifically and it seems I have many more things to read now.

“She Unnames Them” has a lot of relevance to our practice. I found a Google Doc of it online and have made this PDF link for you to read, if you wish.

Worst Reasons to Meditate

I just received a promotional mailing from a meditation course that included a cut-and-paste of an article on the benefits of meditation. Eight of the ten “reasons to meditate” cited directly conflicted with my own experience. The article’s called “Top Reasons to Meditate”, and begins thus:

Meditation is a unique form of art wherein an individual learns to focus and concentration levels. Most people consider meditation as the best method to transform one’s personality or change one self into a good human.

Aside from the muddled writing, the second sentence feeds right into a huge issue: the perception that meditation is going to “fix” you or somehow change you into something “good”. It is not. I know lots of meditators who’ve been practising for years and they’re still jerks.

— Enhance intelligence
According to a serious research conducted, it has been proved that people who meditate possess thicker gray matter as compared to those who don’t. This contributes to the intelligence of a person.

This first reason

The second reason given is:

— Happiness guaranteed
In a study, various MRI Scans were conducted on people who meditated for a long time. The results showed that these people possess enhanced activity in the left prefrontal coretex. They also displayed suppressed activity in the right prefrontal coretex. This is a state closely associated with enhanced positive emotions. This ultimately proves that people who mediate are happier.

Happiness guaranteed?? There is no guarantee of anything. Nothing. Guarantees do not exist in real life. And who is to say that the relationship between happy brain activity and meditation is causal?

— Personal Insight
Another benefit of getting deep into meditation includes an enhanced level of personal insight. You would be able to see your true self. This will be extremely beneficial for you when it comes to transforming your personality into someone who you actually are.

Problem is, that “true self” you’re going to be able to see doesn’t exist. But wait a minute… I’m going to use this to transform my personality into someone I actually am? Who was it before, and where will they go after the transformation?

— Solve Problems
With mediation it is possible for you to calm down during first few sessions. Novices usually think about the problems they face in their daily life. However, when the mind relaxes, one is able to find out solutions for even the most complicated problems that exist in his or her life.

When you start out you’ll do it wrong, but hey, your lousy efforts will still bring you benefits.

— Recover Lost Memories
When you start learning to meditate, it may take some time for your mind to calm down and adjust to the new activity. One can easily give into distractions when meditating. However, you would feel that during the initial period of adjustment, you would come to know about several long-lost memories.

Oh, GOODY. This will be better than TV.

— Minimize stress levels
According to a research performed at the University Of Massachusetts Medical School and research conducted by experts, meditation is capable of transforming brain waves in the autonomic nervous system and amygdala. This provides total control to an individual over fear and stress. Several other studies conducted in this respect have proved that people who spend quality time in meditating are calmer and more relaxed as compared to those who don’t.

TOTAL CONTROL??? If I have learned anything a tall from dharma practice, it is that there is NO SUCH THING as “total control” over anything. Not one tiny little thing, not even the next thought I will think.

— Minimize pain
Several studies have shown that meditation plays a great role in controlling chronic pain. Most of the hospitals use meditation as an integral part of program in order to help patients who have chronic pain.

See my previous comments on “control”. And what got us into this mess is the constant attempts to minimize pain. This is a classic example of “mind killing” — using a person’s delusions (the delusion that one can somehow assume control and avoid or minimize paid) in order to convince them to do what you want.

— Enlightenment
The traditional Buddhist meditation will ultimately allow you to reach the stage of enlightenment.

There is nowhere to go. Nothing to attain. Enlightenment, as so beautifully put by Te Shan, is “a post to tether donkeys”.

Bad News, Good News

“You can buy a ticket, but you can’t pick the destination.” — Ken McLeod

When beginners sit down to meditate, they generally hope for certain experiences: calm, clarity, a sense of well-being, even bliss. There are literally centuries of anecdotal evidence of this, and today we even have direct scientific evidence of the positive results of meditation. But what most people actually experience at first can be quite different from this.

Meditation is the practice of cultivating awareness. As Ken McLeod says, when you decide to become aware, you don’t get to pick what you become aware of. When we begin to notice how our minds actually work, we get the bad news: we are not nearly as consistent as we thought we were. We may see ourselves as kind and reasonable, but we notice thoughts that are cruel and capricious. We may see ourselves as strong and courageous, but we notice vulnerability and fear.

Meditation doesn’t cause these “new” thoughts and feelings to arise: it simply reveals what is already there. What’s there right now is the result of what we’ve done and experienced in the past. Of course we don’t have much influence over this — things are just unfolding according to past events and actions.

The value of meditation is not just the calm states it can sometimes produce (although those are very nice), but fact that it allows enough “space” in the mind for us to see how we’re causing needless suffering for ourselves and others. We do have influence over our future states of mind, because our future state of mind will be a result of what we choose to do from now on. If we stop letting our patterns run our life, things will change. And that’s good news.

“The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What’s going on is very important.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Working for Treats

Watch a person training a dog. When the dog does the right thing, the person says “Yes!” or “Good dog!” and gives the animal a treat. Watch a parent and child: when the child does something great, the parent smiles, and his or her body language reflects pleasure and pride. Watch a meditation class. When people report breakthrough experiences, does the teacher smile and show appreciation? When people report problems, does the teacher frown and look concerned? What kind of reports get attention? Are the students working for treats?

Some classes “treat” positive meditation experiences. But any kind of attention can be a “treat”: sometimes the sheer drama of a big problem can capture the teacher’s attention for long periods. Interestingly, the rest of the class can support this. If the class is discussion-based, as mine are, when a student reports unpleasant or frustrating experiences, other students may start offering sympathy and advice. I have noticed that some people experience this extra attention as a reward; others experience it as a punishment. Either way, the patterns are being activated and running unconsciously. Nobody benefits.

We all want to measure success. It’s natural to feel happy when people have breakthrough experiences, and to give extra attention when they are suffering. But it is a mistake to allow these responses to unconsciously influence what gets raised in class. The effect may be to create an increasing sense of fakery, or to cultivate narcissism, or to drive some students completely underground.

You may have noticed some odd behaviour on the part of teachers to avoid this. Many teachers have the same response to everything: they say something like “Yes, yes, very good,” or “Keep going,” or “Hmmm,” or just grunt in a neutral way, no matter what the student reports. But people are very observant, and will pick up the tiniest sign.

The best thing, as always, is to cultivate awareness. If I feel pleasure as a teacher at a breakthrough report, I try to be aware of the pleasure as my own reaction, not as something I need to reflect back to the student. If, as a student, I feel inhibited about raising an issue that I suspect will make me look stupid or a failure to the class, I try to be aware of my insecurity as my own reaction, and raise it anyway. And if, either as a teacher or a student, I feel discomfort at another’s suffering, I try to be aware of the discomfort as my own reaction, and refrain from acting on the impulse to “fix” the problem with sympathy or advice.

If a beam falls and nobody notices, does it change anyone’s life?

An excerpt from Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”. Sam Spade tells the story of a Mr. Flitcraft, who has a good life, but completely disappears, abandoning his wife and two small children:

“Here’s what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up–just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk along side him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his fingers–well, affectionately–when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works.

“Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

“It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had got twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon … and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Most spiritual practice begins with a shock: unmistakable evidence that an “ordinary” life, even a very good one, does not, and will never, satisfy. We all live immersed in differing degrees of denial and frustration, anesthetized (or simply deluded) by our patterns. We drift through our lives, mechanically serving the intricate medley of behaviour patterns that we call “Me”.

When the beam falls, there is an instant of awakening. What people do next varies a little, but not much. In the vast majority of cases, they go back to sleep.

I’m grateful to delanceyplace.com for bringing this into my inbox.

Working with Your Inner (and Outer) Critic

One of the best ways to avoid experience is to project material out onto others. Let’s take being critical as an example. Criticism is often a family disease, passed from generation to generation, which is why it can come up pretty sharply at this time of year.

In my case, I learned to be very sharply critical in a number of ways, including nagging, nasty jokes, “straightening people out”, and so on. When I nag my husband or kids, I sometimes have strange moments of clarity wherein I hear my mother’s rhythms and tones in my own voice. A sobering experience!

So I look inside, very carefully, when I experience the impulse to criticize. I find that internally I have a critical voice that is talking almost all the time, telling me things I should be doing to improve myself or the world. Under that, discomfort…an anxiety, a sense of things being out of control, of having the responsibility to sharply put things back into “order”. Under that, there is anger. Anger that the world is not cooperating with my need for things to be “in order”. Under that, there is fear. Fear that if things are not all “in control” I will “lose everything” and “be abandoned”. And under all of that, a sense of being vulnerable and alone.

So it is the energy of this fear that cascades upwards through my mind and finds an outlet in criticism. By allowing it to do so, I’m missing the opportunity to simply experience the fear in its true state: simply as energy. I am cultivating the habit of nagging (when has nagging ever helped?). I’m causing suffering for those around me. I am teaching my sons the habit of nagging as well, just as my own mother taught me. But worst of all I’m falling deeper asleep, even as I feel so clear and “right” about my judgments.

When people are critical, they are generally feeling that internal critical voice. This, ironically, makes them hypersensitive to criticism themselves, because anything anybody says that could be seen as criticism is amplified many times by their internal critic, and the only way to silence it is to fight back, defend ourselves and prove them wrong. None of it works. None of it relieves our suffering, it simply distracts us from the pain of feeling what is really there.

When we have a meditation practice, it’s typical to start to see all kinds of futile and hypocritical qualities in the behaviour of our friends and family. But observing the foibles of others without recognizing their resonance within ourselves can turn us cruel. So if you experience criticism, or notice the impulse in yourself to criticize, hooray! Here’s an opportunity to practice. Try to look at the pain beneath the interaction: their pain, and your own. You don’t need to fix it, or transform it, or figure it out, or do anything at all. Just acknowledge that it is there, and observe it. Feel it resonate in mind. Let it come, and then let it go, because it will. Things always come and go, that’s their nature.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen

Getting to the Good Bits

Meditation is a delicate balance. We’re in this because we want to end our suffering. That is renunciation, and is actually essential to a good practice. But when we start looking for a specific outcome, like enlightenment, balance, stability, etc., we just get even more confused. As long as “getting to the good bits” is on the agenda, we’re in our own way. Because wanting to get to the good bits IS the obstacle.

Remember that nobody, not even the Dalai Lama, not even the Buddha, has ever had any control whatsoever over the outcome of their meditation efforts.

Every time we sit down it is different. But letting go of the illusion of control and just focussing on the work causes a kind of internal release or relaxation. This experience of release is important: you don’t only renounce the mental habits that cause suffering, you also renounce misguided efforts to avoid the suffering that has already arrived.

At the beginning of learning how to meditate, one sits on a cushion, adopts the right posture, and waits for the halo to land. Then there’s this whole period of confusion and struggle when we realize the halo isn’t landing, instead it seems to be raining poop. Eventually, we give up trying to fight the poop and — well, if a halo doesn’t exactly land, at least we reach another level. We reach a level where the cushion is a refuge, even when it means feeling our pain instead of avoiding it — where we can see that sitting deepens sanity.

So forget about the good bits. I can’t guarantee you they’ll happen, and I can’t guarantee they’ll not happen. It’s what IS happening that is important.