Sunday, June 28, 2009

You Cannot Suck At Meditation

You Cannot Suck at Meditation

I meet people all the time who claim to be bad at meditation. Many even claim that they can’t meditate. They tell me that they tried in the past and couldn’t “get there” or “clear their minds”. They would like to meditate, but they just suck at it. These folks are wrong. You cannot be bad at meditation. Barring serious mental illness* everyone can meditate.

The problem can be summed up as expectation and tenacity. The expectation of what is supposed to occur in meditation is often a lot grander than what actually happens. People expect that they will sit down; the mind will quickly quiet and stay perfectly still for the length of the session. They will feel a calming peace that they have never felt before and be at one with everything. Needless to say, these expectations are unrealistic, especially when the subject is willing to give all of three sessions worth of effort towards the goal before declaring that they cannot meditate. This lack of tenacity is even worse than the unrealistic expectation.

Part of the reason that people throw in the towel so quickly is that during their first few sessions, they are surprised at how little control they have over their mind. Most people feel like they have a good handle on themselves; they are successful, smart, and healthy and generally feel in control of their lives. It can be a pretty big shock to find out that they cannot focus on one thing exclusively even for one minute. Something seemingly so easy and so basic as directing your own thoughts should not be this hard. They judge themselves and feel embarrassed at their lack of control and quickly abandon the practice.

The first thing to do when undertaking meditation is abandon any lust of result. You should expect to be distracted almost constantly. In fact, if you are keeping a regular practice of meditating every day, you should expect nothing but distraction for at least six months!

You sit and focus on breath, or mantra, or yantra, or whatever and a thought of food arises in the mindstream. You start thinking about dinner. Which gets you thinking about the time, and how much time as passed so far. You realize that you have lost focus…

This is the crucial moment. When you recognize that you are distracted the natural reaction is to berate yourself because you stopped meditating. The secret is this: you did’nt stop meditating. You recognized your distraction: that is meditation. If you can than return to the focus without judgment you will continue to meditate properly. If you willingly continue to be distracted knowing that you are distracted; now you have stopped meditating.

If you spend your whole life experiencing nothing in your meditation sessions other than being distracted and returning to the focus of the meditation, you will have accomplished quite a lot. You will master your own thought process. I cannot stress enough what a wonderful feat this is. Almost everything that people do, say, and think is just a mechanical reaction. How you were raised, what you ate for breakfast, what traffic was like, what genes you inherited, how you are dressed, these all impact every moment and push us one way or the other. If you can recognize the mind being distracted by habitual pattern in meditation, you will learn to recognize these patterns in the heat of everyday life. The next time someone pushes your buttons and you start to react, you will probably catch yourself and be able to react from a place of real thought rather than habit, because you know how to recognize attachment and distraction. Good job!

Of course, most people will eventually experience more than just this process during the course of their meditative journey. You may see visions, you may feel bliss, you may feel the barriers of the self melt away. All of this is what Tibetans call Nyams, which I translate as weird shit that happens during meditation. None of it is as important as the process of recognizing distraction. Eventually, with practice, you will probably experience some genuine subtle states described in classical texts like Rigpa or Samadhi, but these come with time, and must not be sought after directly. Even if you do not experience these states, you will have accomplished much just by taking a little bit of control over your own mind.

Just remember that you cannot be bad at it. If the point is to recognize distraction, what is there to be bad at?

*Those with serious mental illness should not be meditating. Meditation can have side effects that are disturbing at times and has caused serious psychosis and destructive behaviors in people that were not fit for the practice.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Awareness Mines

“Remember yourself always and everywhere.”

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff once said the whole work can be summed up as “self remembering”. The self he speaks of is the awakened self: the Buddha within, the clear and unobstructed state. This type of remembering is tough but It is the main difference between the student and the master. It is relatively easy to reach, if not full enlightenment, a higher level of awareness while on the meditation cushion. It is significantly less easy to maintain that level of awareness when off the cushion living our ordinary lives.

In Dzogchen, the main method that I follow, the path begins with a master pointing out the nature of mind. This is usually done by making an analogy to a mirror or the sky. The student than tries to uncover and rest in the nature of mind, or Rigpa, through a series of meditations called Rushan’s. I discovered Rigpa for myself in 2000, after a week of sky gazing meditation on the Great Stupa at Boudhanath. It was a state that I like to refer to as “perfect ordinariness”. It was truly wondrous to have thoughts arise and set within the mind and yet feel no attachment to them. To rest in the nature of mind, rather than its contents. After experiencing a higher state of awareness, the issue than becomes maintaining that state, or even remembering that you can even be in that state.

This problem exists no matter what your meditation is. Once we learn that we can be mindful, we have to remember to try and be so. Monasteries exist almost entirely for this reason: to surround the practitioner with reminders to be contemplative. To practice being in the present when waking, walking, eating, washing dishes, praying, and playing.

In my own life I try to make use of what I call Awareness Mines. These are places that I pass occasionally that trigger me to remember Rigpa. Obvious ones like images of the Buddha and such seem like they would be best, but they are usually in the places that we meditate anyway, so they don’t quite count. Besides, if you get used to them, they can become just like ordinary objects. The best examples are things that push themselves into your awareness in some small way, things that you come across almost accidentally like a landmine. Only this type of mine reminds you to shatter your habitual patterns rather than your guts.

The first one that I usually encounter outside the house every day is one of the branches of the pine tree in the front yard. I see it against the sky right before I get into my car, and the light hits the dew in just such a way as to make it noticeable. It explodes into my awareness reminding me to maintain contemplation.

Another one is a spot in the parking lot of the mall I get coffee at every morning that is particularly quiet. The walls of the mall act like a sound barrier, and I am usually there before anything else is open. Awareness mine: I usually take a few minutes to stretch, make a mental offering, and do a walking meditation.

My job takes me to the beach often. How can one not be reminded of vastness and clarity when glimpsing the ocean meeting the sky. I blend my mind with the sky and gaze, if only for a few moments.

They should not all be scenes of serenity and beauty however. I use the toilet as an awareness mine as well. The perceived impurity of the act is a reminder of my vow to not view things as pure and impure. The bonus is that on even the busiest days you can spend a few minutes alone in the crapper. Call it excremeditation if you like. I try also to remember mindfulness when I come across a scene of horror and tragedy like a car accident on the parkway or Janice Dickenson on the television.

Awareness mines can be set by events as well as places. Sex is an obvious one. The orgasm is after all a pretty primordial experience, at least if you are doing it right. Thus the wonderful Kamamudra practices from the Tantras. Physical labor, especially repetitive labor, is another. It is easy to loose oneself in the work and be completely present, which is why I meditate while mowing the lawn; the only yard work that I do not complain about. Thich Naht Hanh speaks about washing dishes in the same way – not washing the dishes to get them clean, but washing them just to wash them.

It is easy to make pleasant and neutral experiences into awareness mines, but it is much trickier to make negative experiences into reminders to practice. For those that can do it though, the rewards are great. For the last month I have been trying to make anger and hunger into awareness mines. I am starting to make progress with the sensation of anger: my wife is 8 months pregnant so I get a lot of practice. I have had some success with hunger pangs leading to awareness practice, but often the search for something decent to eat counter acts the effort. Still, I am having some small amount of success.

I find that these little reminders to be present are key in linking the formal meditation in the morning and evening. Most days I can stop what I am doing and actually do a short 5 minute semzin practice or simple breath meditation, but even if I can’t, simply being present in the moment doing what I am doing is enough. Each of these ripples throughout the day like a pebble hitting a river. It is wonderful to develop the ability to cut through distraction, but it is even more wonderful to remember to do it!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Zang thal

"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds."
- Bob Marley

Welcome to Take Back Your Mind. My name is Jason Miller, known in some quarters as Inominandum. I teach and write books about the occult; magic, witchcraft, that kind of thing. I blog about that stuff over at Strategic Sorcery. This blog is different. There will be little talk of magick and spirits here. Even if you think all that is complete bunk, thats ok.

This blog is about simply about living a more present, open, and mindful existence. We will be talking about everything from meditation to time management, from diet to spirituality, from excercise to love.

Why is it called Take Back Your Mind?

Most teachings on meditation talk about finding calm. Calm can be good, and its a side effect of practice, but for me anyway thats not really the goal. Some teachers talk about spiritual fulfillment, and though that might occur as well, it ultimately is not the goal. The goal is to take back what has been stolen from you: your attention span, your natural awareness, your ability to react as you will rather than how habit dictates. Someone took your mind, should'nt you go kick the shit out of them and take it back?

There is no need to become an uber-calm, sandal wearing, wanna be monk that is dead from the neck down. Screw that. Meditate because you want to delve more fully into the fracas. Be mindful because you want to feel and fuck and fight more and better than you are able to while being a sleeping slave to habit.

The goal is to wake up. To be present in every moment.

Thats why the url for the blog is Zangthal. Zangthal is a term from Dzogchen that describes a penetrating, unobstructed, and fully open state of mind. Thats the goal. My goal anyway.

On a personal level, I have accumulated lots of teachings on mindfulness over the last twenty years. I am a Buddhist Ngakpa and have studied with many Lamas both in America and in Nepal. I have also studied Hermeticism in western mystery schools and contemplative Christianity under a gnostic bishop, along with a smattering of anything else that I thought would be helpful. As I write this, I am surrounded by the books and claptrap of twenty years of spiritual searching. I know lots of stuff. But to be honest, I could be a lot better about applying it. I am hoping to change that.

In anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, I will become the father of twins. A life already bursting at the seams will get even more hectic. I need to cultivate more compassion. I need to manage my time better. I need to conquer fear and habit. I need drop about sixty pounds. I need to not repeat the mistakes of my parents. I need be a better husband. I need to maintain rigpa. In short, I need to take back my mind.

The blog will be updated every Monday.