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.