Recently a gentleman who had taken one of my workshops asked if he could come in to see me and discuss his meditation practice. I did not know anything personal about him at all. He explained that he had attended a Zen center to learn meditation, but that his practice was stalling and he was confused with regards to instructions that did not seem to work for him. During practice he struggled with strong feelings stemming from past life events and did not know what to do with them. He approached his Zen teacher who said “just forget the past and the future and stay in the present moment, because this is the only moment you ever have”. In addition, he was in a lot of physical pain and therefore tried to bring attention to his physical body sensations by systematically scanning his body from one end to the next, only to be told that “this is not meditation! – Empty your mind, and when thoughts occur, just send them away!” He noticed that these instructions did not work for him, and came to see me to explore why.
This is Zen lost in translation. His teacher seemed unable to be there where he was on his journey, and these instructions, assuming he heard them right, are based on faulty assumptions about the nature of the organism that we are and do nothing more than undermine the student’s progress. The consequence is that he was not getting anywhere. These situations arise from three aspects of the student-teacher relationship, either because the teacher is not skilled enough, the student distorts what the teacher says or a combination of both. As an example of how difficult it is for students sometimes to process instructions correctly, I routinely teach the technique of aiming and sustaining attention on a chosen focus. When students come back a week later and discuss their home practice, they very often talk about how they were practicing thinking about the chosen focus. ‘Bringing attention to’ and ‘thinking about’ something are two entirely different actions, the latter being counterproductive and leading to failure. So let’s unpack the two main mistakes inherent in the instructions my lady heard, two problems I indeed encounter quite frequently.
The idea of forgetting about the past and the future and staying in the present moment is an absurdity that is based in a lack of knowledge about what the present moment is. It is not an infinitely small point in time and reality, separate from a past or future supposed to be ‘somewhere else’ and ‘not real’. The present moment is the reality within which we are fully embedded, while the past and future are fully embodied representations of reality created by the embodied mind. These past and future representations of reality are deeply real as they are embodied in our neurocircuits and cells. The present moment is at first a rich fabric of directly experienced energy flow lasting about one to two seconds, containing three major experience components, (1) the experience of how we have been conditioned by the past and the way that conditioning manifests in the present, (2) the experience of how we anticipate a future on the basis of our past conditioning and the way that anticipation and conditioning manifest in the present, and (3) the fresh and novel experiences arising in the present that are neither conditioned by the past nor anticipated as a future. In other words, to mine the depth of the present moment means to clearly see how the past is alive in the form of memories and gets reenacted through conditionings in the present, how the future becomes alive in the form of anticipations based on past conditionings in the present, how novelty arises in the present, and how all of these elements interact.
Such is the way humans are wired, and letting go of the past or the future means to discover both as they manifest in the present, see how they interfere with the free flow of energy by having coalesced in rigidity or dissolved into chaos, and undo those knots of chaos and rigidity. Only when we understand this can our practice take off and soar like an eagle in the sky. The moment we realize that the present moment entails all past, novelty and future as we directly experience it from moment to moment, we discover the timelessness of awareness within the present moment. Our view of the present moment then shifts through a succession of deeper insights, starting from a philosophical left-brain assumption that it is a dimensionless point in time excluding past and future, to the embodied realization that it is a short time span of richly embodied experiences involving past, present novelty and future, to the final realization of it being a timeless space alltogether outside time, where notions of past, present and future simply entirely dissolve.
Now to the notion that paying attention to the body is not meditation. The problem here is a category mistake, or a teacher’s unconscious identification with a tradition and confusing the generic elements of meditation with tradition. Let’s go back to basics. Meditation is a two-tiered process, in which we first actively and effortfully learn to aim and sustain attention on a chosen focus (concentration) with an attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance (equanimity), and later discover how we end up able to receptively and effortlessly dwell in awareness itself. In brain terms, we learn to bring the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) on line as the master integrator of the brain and the body.
Now here is the rub: The organism that we are has at least 9 different clusters of neurocircuitry, all of which need to become integrated or harmonized in order for us to experience liberation from suffering. Forget one and you will never find the kind of peace and serenity that is independent of circumstance. In addition, we are hierarchically wired (see ‘The sixtine brain‘ in this website): Cognition (thoughts) is dependent on the body, but the body is not dependent on cognition, even though both influence each other. This means that the body is primary and fundamental, and if you permit me to use this downtrodden term ‘enlightenment’ so many people use without having the foggiest knowledge of it, enlightenment is impossible to discover without going through the body and penetrating its unfathomable depths.
Discussing the 9 domains of integration I mentioned above is beyond the scope of this short essay, but be it said that in meditation we have to learn to clearly differentiate all the different categories of experience, mainly perceptions of the external world, physical sensations in the body, emotions, thoughts and awareness itself. In addition, a thorough exploration of the nature of our body and its physical sensations is essential.
In essence then, meditation means learning a few tools with which we observe the nature of or own experience and diligently applying these tools with great precision to our journey of exploration. The instruction to ‘just quiet your mind’ is plain nonsense as you can discover within a nanosecond of trying to do just that. The same with ‘sending thoughts away’. In the same way you most certainly will start thinking of a pink elephant if I instruct you not to think of a pink elephant, your mind will become more crowded and thoughts more insistent than ever if I instruct you to quiet your mind or send thoughts away.
To discover and learn the right tools for meditation requires the help of an experienced teacher who has clarity of view as direct experience, and is not caught in left brain rationalizations, dogma or blind tradition. It also requires an apprenticeship in hearing and listening on the part of the student, because a lot of the time what we think we hear or do is not at all what was said or what we actually do. Meditation includes addressing the totality of the organism that we are with the proper tools, including our mysterious body, our busy mind, the stories we weave about our lives and awareness itself. The gentleman in question who came to see me did not get anywhere, because his teacher did not know him well and failed to see that he had an alcohol addiction that needed attention first; he was also in great emotional pain because of traumata he went through that required attention to his life stories, and he had several physical conditions with chronic pain for which he needed guidance on how to address his body. When people come to me to explore meditation, I am therefore always in the habit of asking them what drives them to want to meditate. Upon closer inquiry the full catastrophe of our human lives reveals itself, and as a teacher it is important to know how to navigate these complexities and provide the student with proper guidance, which entails a multifaceted approach to suffering.
Life is complex, human beings are complex, reality is complex, and there is no way simplistic cookie cutter views of human nature and equally simplistic instructions will lead us anywhere but to more suffering.
Copyright © 2015 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.