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.

Do You Want To?

Almost nobody begins a meditation practice for reasons that will permit them to continue once they hit the wall.

If you meditate because you believe yourself to be special, your reward will be to discover that you are nothing special at all.

If you meditate because you believe it will bring you peace, your reward will be to have your understanding of the nature of peace shattered.

If you meditate because you think it will help you manage your life, your reward will be to discover you have no control over anything whatsoever.

Still want to practice? Most do not.

Below is a lengthy quote from an article by Ken McLeod. He begins the section with a Nasrudin story:

One day, while staying at a friend’s house, Nasrudin peered over the wall into the neighbor’s yard and saw the most wonderful garden he had ever seen. He noticed an old man patiently weeding a flower-bed and asked,

“This is a beautiful garden. I’d like to have one just like it. How do you make a garden like this?”

“Twenty years hard work.”

“Never mind,” said Nasrudin.

And then he continues:

“You say you want to be awake and present in your life, but you practice only occasionally, and even then, for relatively short periods. Maybe you do practice regularly, but your practice only goes so far, stopping at a wall that you can sense but can’t name. What stops you? Are you willing to touch that wall, touch it and go into it? Are you willing to be present in any and every experience that arises, whether it be anger, shame, love, success, heartbreak, victory, insult or failure? What do you actually want from your practice?…

“Willingness means you practice living in the world of immediate experience, the world in which there is no time, the world in which you cannot trade or share a single thing with anyone, the world in which not a single person, not even you, exists, the world that is what you experience right now. It also means ‘twenty years hard work.’”
— Ken McLeod, in “Three Questions”, and article on the Unfettered Mind website

Thank you, Ken, for (much more than) twenty years hard work.

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.

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.

Distracting Thoughts

sodo“All you have to do is decide that wherever you are is the best place there is. Once you start comparing one place to another, there’s no end to it.” — Sodo Yokoyama

The late Zen teacher Sodo Yokoyama gave a clear summary of his teaching in a letter to a friend in 1977. This is taken from longer excerpt in the excellent book, Living and Dying in Zazen by Arthur Braverman, which I recommend with enthusiasm. “Zazen” means “just sitting”, and is a Zen word for meditation. “Satori” means a sudden flash of awareness or awakeness; a brief experience of Enlightenment.

“My teacher, the late Sawaki Roshi, often made the following self-evaluation: ‘I am an eternally deluded person. No one is as deluded as I am. I am deluded with gold trimmings. How clear it is to me when I do zazen!’

“What a strange thing this zazen is. When we practice it, distracting ideas, irrelevant thoughts — in short, delusions, which ordinary people are made of, suddenly seem to feel an irresistible temptation to arise and appear on the surface. Then there is a desire to drive these thoughts away, in irresistible desire to which our complete effort is added. Those who don’t do zazen know nothing about this. Why is it that when we practice, deluded thoughts continue to surface one after the other? The reason, which we learn from Zazen, is that each one of us, from prince to beggar, is an ordinary (deluded) person. The attempt to drive these deluded thoughts away — delusion being so much nonsense (interfering with the happiness of oneself and others) — is also something brought home to us through zazen. We tentatively call this zazen that guides us in this way, ‘Buddha’.

“According to this teaching, simply the awareness that you are deluded, which comes from practising zazen, makes you, in reality, a Buddha. It’s zazen that teaches us that we too are deluded, and hence delivers us from this delusion. When we actually practice zazen and look carefully at all the deluded ideas that keep popping up, we realize how ordinary we are and how little we have to be proud of or to brag about; nothing to do other than quietly hide away. This is, after all, what we truly are.

“Satori is being enlightened to the fact that we are deluded. There is then the desire, however small, to stop these deluded acts. That is how ordinary people are saved by zazen. So we realize, beyond a doubt, our ordinariness through our zazen practice, and any departure from zazen (Buddha) will give rise to the inability to deal with these delusions and hence we will lose our way. We can say that the world has gone astray because it can’t deal with its delusions…All the troubles in this world, political, economic and so forth, are created from situations in which the awareness of one’s ordinariness is absent.

“Sawaki Roshi said, ‘Those who are unaware of their ordinariness are from a religious point of view shallow and comical.’

“The devil — that is, illusion — when seen as the devil, can no longer exhibit its powers, and disappears of its own accord.

“Shakyamuni was enlightened beyond all doubt to the fact that he was an ordinary person and became a Buddha. Then he began to live the life of a Buddha. When you realize your ordinariness, you are a Buddha, and when you are a Buddha, no matter how many distracting ideas and irrelevant thoughts appear they are no match for a Buddha and hence no longer remain obstacles. Delusions that no longer obstruct us are called fantasies. The Buddha way — the way of peace — is turning of delusion into fantasies.” — Sodo Yokoyama 1907-1980

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

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.

“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.

————–

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!