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.

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.

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!