Thoughts and Feelings

A lot of people hold the assumption that the objective of meditation practice is to stop having thoughts and feelings. More specifically, that a “good” meditation session is one in which no thoughts or feelings arise. This is a mistake.

What is life? Life is what we experience. What do we experience? Thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Why try to get rid of two thirds of our life? People who have no thoughts are stupid. People who have no feelings are Vulcans.

Emotions and thoughts are not the problem, it is patterns, or rather the unthinking following of patterns, that is the problem. When you learn to experience emotions and thoughts AS emotions and thoughts, rather than getting lost in the illusory world they project — that is freedom.

At some point the meditator begins to identify that a great deal of suffering seems to come from our thoughts and feelings rather than from an external “reality”. This is a start, but we need to look deeper. How does suffering arise? Is it a “thing” that is somehow attached to certain thoughts and feelings? If not, then where does it come from?

How to See Things We Can’t See

One of the toughest challenges in any kind of learning is that we have to go from not seeing something to seeing it. We generally don’t relate to “the world” itself, but to our mental model of it (“This is a chair, a chair is for sitting in, it’s upholstered in leather, that will feel nice if I sit in it, etc.). It saves a lot of time, but also tends to exclude new possibilities.

When we encounter a situation in which our mental models don’t seem to be working — on in which our intentions aren’t matching up with results — we need to look with new eyes. That can be really hard. How can you see something that is, effectively, not even there (at least according to our current mental model). Here are some ideas to help you do this.

Do a body scan: While considering your current view of the situation, scan your body for the sensations that are present while you’re thinking about it. What tightens up? What goes numb? What do you notice, what are you ignoring? It helps to treat it as a real scan, moving your attention from the top of your head, through your body, to your feet.

Use don’t-know mind: Remind yourself that no matter how much you do know, there is a lot you don’t know about the situation. See if you can connect with a feeling of not-knowing, a kind of curious wonder — I call it “don’t-know mind” — and regard the situation with that feeling in mind.

Cut: Hold in your awareness two things: the situation as you see it, and your own emotional reaction to it. Imagine these two things as though they are linked. Then mentally take a sharp sword and cut the link. Then look again.

Do an inventory: Search parties use a grid to ensure that they search all areas, including those areas nobody thinks are important. Your “grid” can be any conceptual model of the world that is intended to describe it entirely: for example the Six Realms, 10 Non-Virtuous Actions, 7 Deadly Sins, etc. Look at the situation and ask yourself how each of the items is present in it.

Pretend you’re someone else: Simply taking a different point of view is helpful. If you’re in a dispute, try arguing the other side. Or just imagine how other people, real or imagined, might view the situation. What would Donald Duck do? If the Queen were looking at this situation, what would she see?

Ask someone else: When imagination fails, you can always just go and get someone else’s point of view by asking them.

Our patterns are not sentient, they have no real awareness, but they are a bit like mad androids in a sci-fi story. While we see things through the filter of our patterns, there is no possibility of growth. Fortunately, life has a way of surprising us into dropping our guard. These above ideas are ways you can drop your guard voluntarily, rather than waiting for surprises.

Two Wolves

An elder was talking to his grandson. “Sometimes I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart,” said the old man. “One wolf is vengeaful, angry, and violent. The other wolf is loving and compassionate.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf will win the fight, grandfather?” The old man answered: “The one I feed.”

In the intense atmosphere of retreat, normal reactions get magnified. On a recent retreat with Ken McLeod I was feeling depressed and bitchy — bitchy, because things weren’t happening the way I thought they should; depressed, because I hate being bitchy.

I went to Ken and asked him how to work with this, expecting careful instruction on how to rest with the emotions, do some special transformation practice, or use the emotions themselves as meditation objects.

Instead, he told me the story above, and then said, “Don’t feed the bitch.”

“I want to learn to meditate. Where do I start?”

Start with a teacher. A good teacher can communicate skills, clarify background information, answer questions, and help you test your understanding.

Prepare to do some shopping around for someone that “clicks”. There is no one “right” teacher, just a lot of options, some of which will work better for you than others. Most teachers teach or work with groups on some level, so the simplest thing to do is to google around for meditation classes in your area and ask if you can sit in on a class. That way you get to watch the teacher in action with different people. How does he or she treat the students? How do the students treat each other? Is there a hierarchy? Are you comfortable with what you see?

Be clear about what you are looking for, and don’t be afraid to ask how a teacher or group will fit in with your goals. Observe the teacher carefully: look at their website, their literature, their demeanor, listen to the words they use. What is being served? For example, some religiously-oriented teachers may at least in part be serving the perpetuation of their cultural traditions. This doesn’t mean they can’t help you, but in a teacher-student relationship, the progress of the student should take priority. Will it? Watch the interactions, and judge for yourself.

Many people that you meet in a particular class or center — even the teachers! — are committed to a given philosophy or school and know little or nothing about other schools and ways of doing things. Don’t fall into that trap yourself; be broad-minded, sample a lot of things, and understand at least some of the differences before making up your mind. Talk to a number of teachers and/or visit a number of groups. How are they different? How are they alike? Where do you feel comfortable, and why? If you want to grow, you need to challenge yourself, so a certain amount of discomfort is a good sign. But examine it closely. Is it just the discomfort of trying something new, or is your gut trying to tell you something’s out of balance? Follow up your hunches with careful observation, and ask a lot of questions.

Finally, it is reasonable to pay for teaching, generally at about the rate you would pay for a group class in some other discipline or for consultation with a psychotherapist (if one-on-one teaching is what you want). Although some teachers still follow the Buddhist custom of offering teaching on a donation basis, remember that “donation” does not mean “free”. If a given teacher or group IS offering teaching for free, is something else expected in return? What? Why?

Once you find a teacher that seems a good fit, commit yourself to follow his or her instructions carefully for at least a few months. It will take this long to really assess at least some of the possible long-term impacts of the practice. An on-again, off-again meditation practice doesn’t get you very far at all.

Further reading: Here is a link to an article by Ken McLeod about selecting a teacher, and here is another, longer one, that goes deeper.

Why come to class?

Recently someone asked me what the advantages of a meditation class were as compared to self-teaching. For a lot of people, the first introduction to meditation is through books, and the jump to working with a teacher and a class may not seem worth taking. Why learn from some random person at a community centre when you can get advice directly from the Dalai Lama in a book? It’s a legitimate question.

I came up with 10 answers. The first three have to do with access to a live teacher:

1. Access to a teacher means you can ask specific questions when you need to. It’s one thing to read a book, where an author has tried to anticipate your information needs; quite another to have a live person to talk to and get clarification when you need it.

2. A good teacher will spot if you’ve got something wrong.

3. Live encouragement from a teacher works better than printed encouragement from an author (or no encouragement at all).

The next three have to do with access to the others in the class:

4. Being able to meet and work with others who are in the same boat, more or less, gives a sense of support and connection. At the very least you can see that your own feelings and fears are not necessarily unique.

5. Sometimes other people in the class ask questions you didn’t know you wanted to know.

6. Practising in a group has a deepening effect on meditation…there is a kind of resonance achieved by meditating with others that you can then take back to your own personal practice. People tend to sit longer and go deeper in a group.

And the next 4 have to do with the structure of a class itself:

7. Going to a new place and meeting new people challenges some of the old habits and patterns that may hold us back.

8. Going out of your way to show up to class, even when you don’t feel like it, is a way of reifying your commitment to your meditation practice.

9. Knowing you’re going to meet with a teacher and colleagues at the end of the week helps support the discipline of a daily meditation practice.

10. The structure of the course draws you through the learning at an even pace (rather than a burst of learning over a couple of days that is never reinforced, or losing momentum after page 23 in a book).

There are probably a lot more reasons, but 10 is a nice round number.

Overall, self-teaching should be taking place at all times, regardless of whether you’re in a class, reading a book, or working one-on-one with a teacher. You are in charge of your meditation practice, there’s no excuse for bailing out of the driver’s seat and handing your practice over to somebody else, or a group, or an ideology.


Update: I posed this same question to some students who came up with a few responses of their own:

A good teacher will have insights into those aspects of your character that are part of your pattern and be able to create and help you to examine and start to unravel the threads and break down the pattern.

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The class meditation session is often a different experience from daily practice; the class energy can be buoying and reinforcing.

Going to class with a good teacher and practicing peers can provide a helpful reality check.
I know that it is possible to get off track with my practice, and the periodic classes are needed to redirect my efforts.

There is also the not insignificant point of meeting people and making great friends.

———–

* often someone will say something that makes several bits of information click. If you read the same material a zillion time, the words will never change to make you have that click
* a teacher re-directs you back onto the path
* a teacher customized the learning experience based on your needs
* a book can not offer pointing-out instructions!
* the path is long and lonely without sangha!
* recently I met with someone here in Montreal who was working their way through chapter 4 on their own. They felt they’d mastered the material (after a few breakdowns) and were very ready to move on to the next section, but it became apparent quickly that they had completely missed the points of the meditations/exercises! You must walk with someone who has already walked the path.
* sangha provides you with experiences you may not be feeling, or that might strike a cord in you.
* you learn sooooooo much faster with a teacher!

Eastern Robes for Westerners?

When Buddha started ordaining his followers, they wore simple robes and shaved their heads in order to symbolize letting go of their previous social ties and castes. A Brahmin and a lowly untouchable joining his community would, in theory, have the same robes and outward appearance. This was a revolutionary step when caste differences were more powerful than anything that has ever existed in Europe or America.

So the robe originally meant, “I’m nothing special, no better or worse than the others.” The construction of the robe was simple and practical, for the time and place, and has been adapted and used by Buddhist monastics ever since. In Tibet, the robes are wool instead of cotton. Most monks wear the upper robe over their left shoulder, leaving the right arm free for writing, picking things up, etc.

Here in the West, today, the robe can mean different things. One of my teachers, Catherine Jetsun Yeshe, always wears an upper robe when she teaches. I also have a dear friend who was given a robe by his teacher (also a Westerner) and told to wear it whenever he meditates. It was important to him to honour that instruction, so he does. I think in these cases the robe is a way of signalling a change in how the wearer relates to the world.

Nevertheless the adoption of Eastern monastic dress by Westerners raises many interesting questions about cross-cultural identity, institutions, and the function of monastic garb in the process of waking up. Seeing a Western person wearing robes gives me a completely different impression from that given by a Tibetan. I often have the impression that they are trying to become somebody else, whereas Tibetans seem to me to be completely at ease in robes. At least part of this is simple prejudice, coming from my own patterns.

For the most part I find that recreating setting and dress for Tibetan practices by wearing monastic robes, constructing elaborate shrines, chanting in Tibetan, etc., is not particularly helpful for most Western people. For me, and for the people I work with, plain English and ripped jeans in a community centre seem to create less confusion.

Meditate? Why on earth?

Lots of people write me saying that they don’t know anything about meditation, but would like to do it. Why on earth? Meditation is quite boring. You just sit there for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more. Usually you do nothing. Sometimes you do something, but it’s rarely interesting — paying attention to your breath, scanning your bodily sensations, and so forth. In some practices you have to do something really hard and complicated, like visualize a deity; these practices usually require a lot of repetition and consistent work over weeks or months to be effective, so they can become boring pretty quickly too (and in my experience you never get to a point where you feel you can say “I’m good at this, I can do this”). Other practices, such as Zen koans, require you to ask yourself questions which are actually unanswerable.

Meditation is actually the opposite of rewarding by the standards of any normal, sane person-on-the-street. The decision to initiate, and to sustain, a meditation practice is a very serious one. It is helpful to spend time contemplating your intention in doing so, not just at the beginning of a meditation practice, but every day.