December 25, 2018 § 2 Comments
After Siddhartha Gautama, who was to become the Buddha, became an ascetic, he went to Alara Kalama. Kalama taught a particular style of meditation called the “sphere of nothingness” that emphasized deep inner penetration. Gautama became so adept at this practice that Kalama asked him to take his place, but Gautama refused. For Gautama it wasn’t enough that he realized his true nature in a profound state of deep contemplation. He knew that true enlightenment had to extend to every aspect of life. So, he left Kalama and continued his search.
Today you will find many classic references to meditation as a state of “one-pointed concentration” that sounds eerily suggestive of what Gautama rejected. These instructions, it should be noted, were often written for students living in monasteries undergoing intensive training. Once they realized their true nature, the students would continue their training to actualize this realization. Fortunately, there are instructions that provide alternatives to one-pointed concentration that are more suitable to today’s lifestyle. One is described by Pema Chodron in her book, “When Things Fall Apart: heart advice for difficult times.”
In her book Pema Chodron describes Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach to meditation as one that instructs students to give 25% of their attention to the breath, “so that one was still aware of one’s surroundings and didn’t consider them an intrusion or an obstacle to meditation.” Later he asked his students to label any thoughts that arise as “thinking” but not with the aim of extinguishing thought. The attitude to cultivate, writes Pema Chodron, is “one of unconditional friendliness toward whatever arises in your mind.”
Being friendly to whatever arises in the mind is not new. It is what the Buddhist means when she asks that you give up labelling things “good or bad.” When she asks that you let thoughts arise and fall of their own accord. Or in the simple request that you first be compassionate to yourself. These are all directives to be open and inclusive to whatever is met in your mind and in your life. As so viewed, meditation becomes the practice of watching the breath amid the physical environment and the sea of thought that surrounds it.
Thought is still not followed with more thought while meditating but it is not suppressed either. And here we come across an aspect of meditation that is not often covered in meditation instructions. I’m referring to a sub-category of thought following that may be called keeping up appearances.
Each and every one of us has an ego that sees itself in a certain way and likes to be seen in a certain way, too. This is your self-image and to maintain it the ego must continually deflect awareness away from some things and towards others. In essence, the ego is saying, “I am I, and no other.” When this “I” is threatened, it will put up a fierce resistance. You may find this resistance the greatest obstacle you face to finding your true self. Yet, when it comes down to it, keeping up appearances is just another way of following thought.
The key to overcoming ego resistance is to reverse the process and turn your awareness towards whatever it is the ego doesn’t want you to look at, think or feel. That is, to become unconditionally friendly towards whatever arises in your mind.
When, for example, you feel uncomfortable, take that feeling into your meditation and look towards, not away, from whatever is making you anxious. Don’t think about it. Just turn toward it, staying with the discomfort as best as you can. Over time this simple discipline will decondition your impulse to retreat into your head and think even more convoluted thoughts to avoid the stress.
Turning toward suffering, rather than seeking relief through distraction, places you in the present moment. There you may find that you suffer less because you are no longer resisting what is by trying to replace it with what isn’t or what might have been. When you practice this way on smaller woes, you’ll be better able to face life’s bigger challenges, such as the death of a loved one or a serious illness. But don’t think that this is a way of avoiding intense emotion. Rather it is the path to an open and unresisting heart that can bear anything it meets in life.
A final note. One-pointed concentration of mind may sound sexy, but it can easily be appropriated by the ego to keep the awareness only on what it finds acceptable. Rather than dropping self, you end up keeping up appearances, instead.