detailed yellow flower
Ideas Presented in Chapter 4

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Idea #17: Thoughts and Sensations Are Part of Meditation

Thoughts and sounds present an insurmountable barrier to meditation for many people, causing the meditation adventure to careen into the woods after a few weeks of unhappy struggle. This is a most unfortunate kind of failure because it is so preventable. Failure to establish a happy, solid meditation practice due to the persistent presence of thoughts and sounds is rooted in misunderstanding, not inadequacy. If not cleared up early in the game, irritable feelings about thoughts in meditation can seep inward and become a critique of one’s innate ability to meditate. It might start out small, producing frustrated thoughts like, "I can not meditate today, I am so worked up over selling the house." Eventually it grows into a generalized sense of failure, producing thoughts like, "I'm no good at meditating" and "I'm just not the meditating type." If not corrected with experience and information, these sentences become death sentences for one’s meditative program.

Probably every one of us has, at times, wished our meditations would be different in one way or another—fewer thoughts, different thoughts, less sound, deeper feeling, or something. At those times, we get tempted to do something to improve the way the meditation feels. Most often, the first things we try actually hurt the sitting. We should remember the following whenever we are tempted to improve meditation:

Personal effort causes a contracting of the mind. 
Therefore, personal efforts to improve the conditions in meditation do not work.

We must learn to let the condition of meditation be whatever it is. Having established that principle, you can add the following nuance: We can in fact improve meditation by becoming gradually less controlling. This is not something we just sit down and do perfectly all at once. The release of control in meditation is a subtle learning that takes place in many layers over many years. So, let’s get on to a discussion of the thoughts-in-meditation issue. We start by stating what the problem is.

The Issue:

It seems obvious that having thoughts must conflict with meditation. After all, wandering off on thought messes up other programs of attention, like listening, reading—even watching TV. So how in the world can it be OK in meditation, the paragon of attentiveness? If I am sitting in meditation and suddenly hear someone downstairs ask, "Do we have any more mustard?" and I begin thinking about the answer to that question, why shouldn’t I consider that my meditation has just been tripped up? I have just replaced a thought of the mantra with a thought of mustard!

The Response:

Meditation does not require that you stop thoughts about mustard or shut out your awareness of the people discussing mustard. The meditative function does not require that we sweep the mind clean. It requires only that we give priority to the mantra and not give other thoughts their usual honored place in the center of our attention. This is all that is needed to allow a loosening of the constrictive forces of the mind and to allow a breathing, ventilating openness to grace the field of thought. We can have thoughts, hear them, feel them, and smell them without disturbing the meditative shift of consciousness and metabolism. To do so, we must let our thoughts pass by like people on the street. But, if you put the mantra aside and give other thoughts your attention, that would end the meditation. That would be like chatting with the people on the street or inviting them in for coffee. And think of it: that is actually all we do when we leave the meditative function in step 9. So, the issue is not whether thoughts and sounds exist, but whether we purposely put them first.

We generally have a habit of giving thoughts some energy simply because they exist. We attach ourselves to their meaning and ride along with them. If we heard the mustard question while changing our shoes, we would naturally follow through with it to some conclusion, maybe shouting downstairs to tell them to look in the top cupboard. Hearing that question in meditation, however, we would not follow through with it—at least, not on purpose. We do not purposely give thoughts a second chance and then a third and so on. As will be discussed at length in Idea #18, there will be plenty of times that we inadvertently carry on with thoughts in meditation. Interestingly, that does not dampen the meditative function. Carrying on a purposeful and prolonged internal conversation, however, brings us out of meditation. So, to enable the meditative function, beginning in step five we

"Honoring the intention" does not mean holding onto the mantra like a lifesaver to prevent being washed away by other thoughts. Honoring is a "gentlemanly" thing. It has to do with intention. It is like giving your word that for the next 20 minutes you will be with the meditative agenda, rather than with your investment strategies, weekend plans, and this morning’s domestic argument. Whenever you have the awareness that you are meditating, you recall your agreement and that brings in an abstract form of the mantra. Having other thoughts hanging around as you do this is quite fine, really. It is inconsequential that you have overheard the mustard question and that your mind has instantly spurted out a response, "Darn! I left it at Jim’s yesterday. Mom is going to be furious." You cannot help that. It is all natural and just fine. What you can help is whether to choose to put down the mantra so that you can give full attention to the mustard soap opera that is about to occur in the kitchen. If you choose not to put it down, you keep the mantra in its honored place and remain in meditation—even if you continue to hear the kitchen sounds and continue to produce spontaneous responses. This rule works. It is exactly what meditators have done when they have been wired up by physiologists studying their brain waves, oxygen consumption and skin resistance. People have produced significant and unique physiological shifts while meditating in the presence of curious scientists and with wires pasted all over their skin. You can imagine the kinds of thoughts that might attend such situations—all without hurting the meditative function at all.

Even on perfectly quiet days, with nothing but the muffled sound of a snowplow to tell you your ears work, your mind will be quite capable of offering up an endless display of interesting topics during meditation. So, once again, just because your mind produces thoughts does not mean you are missing the meditation boat. Indeed, you might just as well get used to its being part of the deal. After a while, living peacefully with thoughts and sounds will become second nature. The presence of thoughts and sounds becomes less pressing and dominating. You will seem to be rising above thoughts, as if in a hot air balloon, or diving under them as if into a lake. Take another look at the figure introduced in Idea #11 and contemplate the following sentence:

Instead of quieting down through the removal of thoughts, the mind quiets down in the presence of thoughts.

The concern over thoughts in meditation is often fueled by the conviction among practitioners and writers of meditation that the substance of meditative discipline is concentration or focus. You can see so clearly on the figure that concentrated thought is really the opposite of what should be sought in meditation. We can practice concentration all the time outside of meditation. The meditative function is a vacation from concentration. And a much-needed vacation it is, for most of us. It is also a small, daily, expedition into our already-there, inner, spacious nature. Of course, people do want minds that can focus and concentrate. Natural Meditation helps achieve that, but not by working on it directly.

Some methods of meditation clearly go in a different path overtly prescribing vigorous concentration. You should understand that those methods are based on very different theories. Do not try to mix their methods with yours. Also, be alert for the widespread use of the word focus in discussing meditation, even among proponents of gentle and relaxing techniques. Try not to let it subconsciously influence your meditation technique.

Even Dr. Benson, the founder of Relaxation Response methodology, calls the mantra a “focus word”, which implies concentration and contracting rather than expansion. He writes [italics added], “The most universal methods of focusing your mind are linked to breathing, either by concentrating on your breath itself or using it in conjunction with a focus word…When your mind is focused, you cannot dwell on negative, anxious thoughts…A mantra is an anchor for meditation and helps you to quiet the chatter or self-talk of your mind as you begin to meditate. [The Wellness Book, Schuster, p. 50]. Dr. Benson has done as much as anyone to promote the idea that meditation relaxes and releases stress. If even he uses terms that carry overtones of tension and self-propelling effort, it just means you have to stay alert when reading and stay clear in your own understanding and experience of meditation.

It will be useful to look at three different models, or viewpoints, that people use regarding thoughts in meditation. All three are valid and have a place in meditative tradition, but only the third one applies to Natural Meditation.

Cleaning a Room (concentration): In this viewpoint, the mind is seen as being a container, like a room, and the task of meditation is to control what’s allowed in it. To achieve a peaceful meditative state and to move toward the ideal of enlightenment, the practitioner’s job is to sweep the mind clean of extraneous thought. For a beginner, this is nearly impossible. So without clear guidance in this, when thoughts do come, even a small one will be annoying—like a housefly buzzing around the room. If, as a student of Natural Meditation, you think of meditation as an empty room, you will see thoughts as invading your space, hurting your peace of mind and showing you that you cannot meditate well. That’s a short path to failure. If this method works for others, that’s fine. But it is not a natural meditation.

Sitting by a River (mindfulness):

This approach is common today in the West, having roots in traditional meditation cultures and often called mindfulness by Buddhists and others. Rather than seeing meditation as a clearing of the mind, you just watch whatever is there. It is like sitting on a riverbank watching things float by. Observe them and then let them go. This is a good way to become less attached to thoughts and desires, and it helps reveal patterns in our thinking.

Riding the River (flow, transcending):

Mindfulness assists the growth of wisdom, but if you see yourself as staying in one place watching the mind flow by, you may not perceive the flowing nature of the meditative function. As will be explained further in Idea 19, there is a positive, healthy, enlightening direction to the meditative sitting. The meditative function carries you along on this flow to a deeper, quieter, more powerful and wider mind and heart. So, instead of seeing yourself sitting on the riverbank watching the flow, see yourself as out there flowing with it, in it.

 

When you hear a sound or have a thought, you are experiencing your flowing mind. And it’s helping. It’s carrying you in the right direction.

 

So, in Natural Meditation, we don’t try to kick out thoughts or stay aloof from them. Thoughts are not the point. The flow downstream is the point. And we don’t have to struggle because the current is already headed where we want to go. If there is a thought, it is like a boat, or fish in the stream. Its presence makes little difference to our own travel. As you go with the flow, the river itself becomes more peaceful and more powerful, regardless of the amount of things floating on it.

This concept of meditation as a widening river also reflects the concepts of long-term growth presented in Idea 24.

 

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