In this article, I have given myself the unfortunate task of attempting to describe the nature of mindfulness, the practice of meditation, and some of the fruits which can arise from cultivating one’s mind. I say unfortunate, because the very words mindfulness and meditation, have in my opinion, become generalized to the point of great confusion.
To make the situation worse, and to give you a brief peak behind the curtain, I have found that words alone are inadequate to describe the various changes in conscious experience which one can expect along the path. To borrow an analogy, it is like trying to describe the taste of an apple to someone who has never eaten one. True and complete understanding can only come from taking a bite; no matter how skillfully one describes the flavours and textures.
With that being said, I firmly believe that talking and thinking about these things is a necessary waste of time. In my own case, it was necessary to spend roughly four years trying to figure out exactly what this meditation business was all about, in order to stop trying to figure everything out. In other words, I believe it is better to confuse a cause of practice for the practice itself, than to let the mind ceaselessly wander.
Finally, before we get right into it, I would like to promise you that I will do my best not to blow smoke up your ass about anything. Although the mind has come to better understand the limits of its discursive and analytical faculties, they still remain intact. I encourage no appeals to blind faith, other than the belief that mental cultivation may just be the most important project you ever come across. I might point out various paradoxes and speak of things which sound counter-intuitive, but all of these things will be grounded in the context of my own personal experience and practice.
I Am, or This Is?
Before I had any idea, even a misguided one, of what it meant to meditate or be mindful, I had an experience in my last teenage year which forced me to confront the very idea that I had a distinct and rigid idea of who I was. I would like to describe this experience with the intention of pointing to the core problem with self-perception.
My self-perception at the time, was that of an introverted, sensitive, overly-analytical, and somewhat ungainly person who had ended up in a retail sales job almost by accident. This self-perception was regularly reinforced by awkward interactions with other human beings for roughly the first two years of employment.
Some time around the two year mark, I had the experience of helping a customer who, for whatever reason, genuinely enjoyed the interaction. Further, for the first time I could remember, I also genuinely enjoyed interacting with that complete stranger (I am better now, but I used to be very misanthropic). There was no awkwardness, plenty of good natured laughter from the impromptu jokes that I was making, and had one only met me during that period, they might have even thought I was rather suave.
To make this experience even more strange, it felt effortless. Whereas I had spent two years making up for my lack of social acuity by studying body language, vocal tonality, and behavioral psychology (for my analytical mind was the only tool I used to solve my problems), I do not recall spending a single moment up in my head. Everything just flowed.
Shortly after this experience which lasted roughly 20 minutes, my analytical mind once again fired up to review what had just happened. I can still roughly recall the series of verbal thoughts which went through my head:
“Who was that person?”
*referring to me, not the customer*
“That’s not me; I’m not like that*.”
*By “that”, I am referring to the fact that I exhibited behaviors which I had never consciously observed before.*
“If that wasn’t me, who else could that possibly have been?”
“How can I say that I am not like that, if that is what I just did?”
After answering my own question, for just a moment of time, the dam broke. For the first time in my life, I saw the self-perception and conditioning process for what it was: at best incomplete, and at worst, detrimental nonsense.
I would like to say that this lead to some kind of great transformation of my life, but the only significant result was that I stopped thinking that my own bull**** ideas about myself and others were entirely true or accurate.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard P. Feynman
The mind was still deeply conditioned by past experiences, habits, beliefs, and self-perceptions. So far as I knew at the time, all that occurred is that I was in a “flow state”, or what they call in sports being “in the zone.” I carried on in a deeply neurotic and overly-analytical state for many years before finally gaining some perspective on this experience.
Suffering And The Point Of Stillness
It may come as good or bad news to you, that I had a rough time during my first few years of practice. Unfortunately, as I am told anecdotally, and as a matter of direct experience, if the mind is of a deeply analytical nature, the practice of meditation and/or mindfulness may not come naturally.
This is because, while it is possible to be mindful while the thinking process is engaged (more on that later), thinking about mindfulness is not the real practice. If that statement does not sound reasonable, I do not blame you. In my case, the discursive thinking process (the one which presents itself as I, me, mine and so forth) was so powerful that it could not see anything but itself.
Like many beginners to meditation, I just wanted some straight-forward instructions and teachings on how to carry out the practice; spare the meta-physical nonsense. While I still think that getting lost in meta-physical nonsense is a problem for many (not to mention a big industry these days), my desire for explicit and rigid instructions quite ironically turned out to be another enormous, yet necessary waste of time.
The Only Way To Meditate
- Sit on the floor with your legs crossed, right leg over left leg. It does not matter if you have large and inflexible legs, knee/hip problems, nor even if it is highly uncommon in your culture to sit with crossed legs whatsoever. You must sit this way, or you will not be able to meditate properly.
- Forcibly sit up straight even if you have deep rooted postural problems such as hunched shoulders, forward head posture, or tight upper back muscles. Whatever you do, never, ever, ever rest your back against anything, or you will not be able to meditate properly.
- Pick up the nearest Yoga or Zazen manual, and observe that particular teacher’s opinion of the only way to hold your hands in order to let your body’s physical energies flow freely. Also pay close attention to the fact that some cultures have something against being left handed, and therefore having the left hand on top of the right hand may cause you to spontaneously morph into an Asura. Also, you will not be able to meditate properly.
- Most importantly, you are not to enjoy the meditation. Meditation is the work you do to train your awful monkey mind to sit still, even if the ligaments in your knees are on fire, and your entire body is shaking with physical tension. The moment your monkey mind starts to feel calm, peaceful, and even joyful, remember that you can become addicted to that feeling, then grab that monkey by the neck and force it to return to the breath.
While I had every intention of poking fun at orthodox attitudes towards meditation practice in the previous section, I have no intention of steering you away from them. If you naturally possess a placid mind and adequate hip mobility, then you will likely have more luck than I did in the beginning. At the same time, I am not going to say that I find it anything but ridiculous to imply that you must sit in some particular fashion in order to be mindful. So what am I getting at then?
Something which initially struck me as both mysterious and mildly annoying, is that Buddhist teachings are abound with paradoxes. Though in Zen tradition, many of these paradoxes are deliberately nonsensical, there is one statement from the Pali Cannon, Majjhima Nikaya, which has had the strange effect of making no sense at first, yet absolute sense as my mental cultivation progressed over the years:
Pali: “Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya”
English: “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to”
This quote, so far as I understand, was said to a disciple of the Buddha who asked if he could summarize all of his teachings in a single statement. Historical significance aside, it is one of the most important things I have ever heard.
The key to understanding this statement, is to observe how one relates to their own thoughts, impressions, habits, beliefs, memories, and any other mental phenomena really. Since this article is about the practice of mindfulness and/or meditation, and I do not wish to bore you with a lengthy explanation of what “clinging” actually means in Buddhist philosophy, I will try to relate some meaning by discussing my own experience of clinging to various beliefs and practices.
Effort And Patience
On the first day of practice, I tried to sit cross legged on the floor and watch my breath at the tip of the nose. For whatever reason, I was incapable of noticing the feeling of my breath entering and leaving my nose, and I spent most of my time thinking.
On the second day of practice, I tried counting each inhalation and exhalation in cycles of 1–10 (e.g. *inhale* 1, *exhale* 1, *inhale* 2, *exhale* 2…). I lost track many times, but my mind was calm and peaceful for the first time I could remember, for much of that day.
On the third day of practice, I looked forward to counting my breaths and having a peaceful mind as a result. Once again, I could not notice my breath at all, and I spent most of my time thinking obsessively.
On the 10th day of practice, for no particular reason, I decided to watch my breath based on the rising and falling of my abdomen, counting be damned. For the first time in my life (since childhood at least), I was profoundly peaceful; watching almost every breath. The 20 minute alarm I had set went off in what felt like five minutes.
On the 11th day of practice, my body was so physically tense, and my breathing so shallow, that I could not follow the breath in my abdomen. I was so furious at my inability to follow the breath, that I gave up after 8 minutes.
For many days, I did not bother to sit in meditation at all.
On the 30th day of practice, I learned from my first meditation teacher (via youtube), Tan Ajahn Jayasaro, that expecting my mind to be calm and peaceful on demand, even though my personal and professional life was causing me great distress, was completely unrealistic. I also learned that it is more important to keep up the habit, than it is to worry about whether or not the meditation was peaceful and attentive. I decided to once again practice every day I could.
Many days went by, and although I did not have many deep insights, I was more often than not able to meditate each day.
During the 2nd year of practice, I learned from Tan Ajahn Brahmavamso, to treat myself as I would treat my best friend, and that it was more important for me to relax into the meditation, than it was for me to sit in an extremely uncomfortable position and force my body upright (thereby creating more physical tension). From then on, on days where I felt stressed and physically tense, I sat in a comfortable chair and spent at least half of my time relaxing my body by directing attention to each part of it, one by one.
By the 4th year of practice, I could make my mind and body peaceful almost every time I sat in the morning. A big part of that was lifestyle changes such as eating a diet which did not make me feel sick, and doing light to moderate exercise in the morning. However, it was still difficult to maintain this peace the moment my day got busy or stressful.
By the 5th year of practice, something peculiar happened. I had heard through Tan Ajahn Chah’s translated talks (link at the end of this article), that mindfulness was not something you do once or twice a day for 10–20 minutes, but something akin to breathing. One day, I decided to try to watch my breath during my whole work day. To my surprise, I spent most of my work day following the breath, yet I was still able to do my job and interact with my coworkers in a skillful way.
It is now the 6th year of practice, and while I no longer spend as much time in sitting meditation, mindfulness (or I might say preferentially, awareness) itself tends to arise and cease throughout the day. I could say much more about the difference in my mind and awareness qualitatively between the past and present, but enough has been said already. Things have changed drastically and for the better; which is sufficient encouragement to carry on the practice.
Please Note: The timeline I gave above is very approximate. My practice was very disjointed for the first two years with plenty of starts and stops. Also bear in mind that for many different periods, all I could manage was 5 minutes a day. Whatever you can manage at the time must by definition be good enough, or you will suffer.
Over time, I have come to understand why it is important not to cling to any particular style, approach, or belief about meditation. In fact, do not even cling to not clinging to anything. The primary reason I wrote that previous section was to point out that, especially in the beginning of my practice, every time I thought I had everything figured out, my practice would fall apart shortly thereafter.
For many years, I was frustrated that I could not find a single approach to meditation which worked for every stage of fatigue, stress, or emotion that I happened to possess in a particular moment of a particular day. I now see that this is rather like having a function x + y, inputting different values for x and y every day, and then getting upset because the resulting sum changes.
While it may seem like a long time to realize something pretty straight forward, I do not at all regret the time and effort I put into my practice. I am aware that there is still plenty of mental cultivation to be done, but I am not particularly bothered about that either. If there is anything I would consider clinging to at this point, it is this: Effort and patience; all the rest is bull****.
The Reason Why? Stillness.
Having spent a lot of time discussing and reflecting on the challenges I have dealt with in my practice, I would like to spend a bit of time discussing why I bothered in the first place, and why I still practice. A word which I am quite fond of for describing the overall change in the quality of my day to day conscious experience, is stillness. Like a said before, words are insufficient, and I do not mean to imply any kind of reduction in my ability to navigate social situations, determine the runtime and space complexity of software algorithms, or write this article.
This word, “stillness”, is being used as somewhat of a stand in for what they call Samadhi in the context of Theravada Buddhism; which is typically translated as “concentration”. To each there own, but the connotations I have towards the word “concentration”, implies some kind of deliberate and forceful attention. I found that translation misleading (although I do not claim to know better necessarily), and choose to take Tan Ajahn Brahmavamso’s translation of “stillness” instead.
Before I proceed, please understand that it is quite impossible to explain what stillness is like using words. Again, never forget that words can point to things and experiences, but words are not the thing nor the experience. Nevertheless, there are a few things I can say about it, which might help you connect the word with your own experience, past and present.
Stillness is a quality which I am quite certain that you have experienced from time to time, most likely during childhood. Sports men and women, have likely had the experience of being “in the zone”, where conscious experience has the quality of being both absolutely focused on the game, while at the same time possessing a quality of effortlessness, and perhaps the momentary stifling of all inner chatter. Until I tore several back muscles, my favorite leisure activity was power lifting, almost entirely because of the feeling of peace and focus which I had just before heavy deadlift.
Those who find themselves grappling with difficult and abstract problems such as writing software or solving complex mathematical equations, may have also had the experience of being in a “flow state.” In my experience, this is characterized by being absolutely absorbed in one task after another, with various solutions almost effortlessly popping into consciousness.
I have not spent a great deal of time in artistic pursuits myself, but my guess is that such states are also familiar to those in the middle of a great jam session, or absorbed in the painting of a beautiful image.
Hopefully, personal interests aside, you were able to connect some kind of experience in the past with a feeling of cessation towards self-consciousness, while at the same time being absolutely conscious of the present moment and whatever activity is taking place therein. With that being said, if you can think of such a moment, please do not then assume that it is exactly what I am talking about when I say stillness.
If you must ask why, the best I could say is that stillness is a change in the quality of conscious experience, as opposed to a change in the content of thought. Formulating thoughts, particularly desires about changes in quality of conscious experience, will tend to stir up the mind and make the situation worse.
Recall my earlier reflections on meditation practice, where every time that I felt stillness for a moment, few hours, or even a day, it would eventually cease and I would become upset about that.
I call that “one step forward and two steps back.”
Whether or not you were able to connect to such an experience, the one thing I will ask you to take on faith (until it can be proved or disproved through direct experience), is that the things you will gain from cultivating mindfulness are well and truly priceless. Stillness is but one of these treasures, and I believe it to be particularly useful for the profoundly agitated, anxious, ambitious, and analytical mind so commonly conditioned by western society and education.
I feel the need to point out that I do not consider myself to be exceptional at cultivating stillness. I did not intend to write this article to market myself as some kind of expert in the subject, but rather to reflect on some experiences and insights along the path.
I would like to finish this article by mentioning some of my teachers, with the intention of sharing some useful resources, and to give credit where it is due. However, I do not think it is so important to find the perfect teacher, than it is to do your own practice.
Please note that as of writing this, I have never met any of these individuals in person, but have collectively listened to several thousand hours of their teachings via Youtube, Podcast, MP3, and so forth.
Samuel B. Harris: I have to credit Sam as being the sole reason that I decided to look into the practice of meditation. Being a deeply critical thinker by nature, I was surprised to hear that one of the most famously anti-religious thinkers of this age, was an avid supporter of meditation practice.
Tan Ajahn Jayasaro: Ajahn Jayasaro, one of the many western disciples of the late Tan Ajahn Chah, was my first introduction to the ideas of the Theravada Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism. His discourses on sila (morality and conduct), virya (effort), khanti (patient endurance), and his very embodiment of samma vaca (wise/right speech), are to this day, priceless to me.
Tan Ajahn Brahmavamso (a.k.a. Ajahn Brahm): Ajahn Brahm, for whatever reason (perhaps something to do with the fact that he was originally a Cambridge educated theoretical physicist), was the missing link in my practice of sitting meditation. For meditators of any level, I highly recommend his Friday Night Guided Meditations. His talks are great too.
Tan Ajahn Amaro: Ajahn Amaro, another highly educated Englishman, seems to reflect many of my own traits, such as a deeply analytical mind, strong desire to be good at everything, and a very large nose. Whether or not you share any of those qualities, you will at least enjoy his recitations of translated talks by Tan Ajahn Chah. I would also like to highlight his discourse on addiction, which I listen to several times a year.
Jiddu Krishnamurti: Having only come across his works in the past year (as of writing this in 2020), I was completely blown away with his ability to directly expound the problem of human suffering without appealing to any particular tradition. It does appear to me the in the sea of self-deluded yogis and spiritual practitioners of past and present, that Krishnamurti was genuinely enlightened.
Tan Ajahn Pasanno: Ajahn Pasanno is to philosophical discourses, what Bob Marley is to music. Relax, there is nothing to worry about.