Difficulties, Failure and Disappointment in Meditation

a paraphrase of an article


Hugh Shearman

There is much secret dissatisfaction with meditation. There are plenty of books, but many students abandon them feeling misled, confused or inadequate.

Why do we attempt to meditate? What do we imagine we are doing when we try to pursue meditation? Setting aside a variety of more or less imitative, even greedy, motives most of us are probably seeking in meditation to sort out the disorder which we find in what we call "our minds", what some might call the "thought life".

If we observe feelings and images drifting through us, incompatible motives twisting and struggling, we feel perhaps quite seriously unhappy. To a small extent and intermittently, we find that we can exercise some control over the stream that flows through our minds. We can push aside a succession of images in order to concentrate attention on some fresh topic or task.

Because we can sometimes do this, we hope that, by a similar but more concentrated exercise of choice, we can in the end get some control over the whole process of thinking and feeling. Many "spiritual" authorities have asserted the merit and relevance of achieving this.

There is, for example, a well-known and much quoted passage in the Epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament which says,

"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

While this remains an excellent approach to meditation, it is also true that many of us misunderstand it, and run into various degrees of trouble and disappointment. Feelings of "spirituality" produced by "meditation" may be followed by nightmares.

Many of us have tried by thought to process ourselves into a state of peace. Although we seemed to some extent to have succeeded, there then arose a distressing upsurge of tension. How does this happen? What are we really doing?

Take the phrase "whatsoever things are lovely". Perhaps, if we are "advanced souls", we think that it ought to mean noble virtues which could decorate our character. For most of us, the things that are lovely are the things we want to appropriate to ourselves, the things we should like to own, the things which, perhaps in a delicate way, energise an accumulative approach: desire, possessiveness, even greed.

Yet, anything that we try to separate from life and appropriate to ourselves for our personal enjoyment will necessarily involve us with an opposite. (Readers may wish to pause here, for several years, to think that assertion through.)

Grasping at wealth, whether "material" or "spiritual" we invite poverty. Asserting ourselves "for peace", we invoke conflict. This karmic determinism usually works quite rapidly at the psychological level. We swing from a "spiritual" feeling or image to a nightmare or to some other undesired compulsive retro-action.

The fulcrum on which our emotional see-saw pivots is a competitively separate personal selfhood which feels a passionately compulsive need to assert itself, to protect itself, to extend its existence into the future. In each of us there is this parasitic "me" which we allow to function, making decisions for us, involving us at every step in the reactive operation of karma.

The "me" arises as the mind becomes fixated to the notion of separateness from the rest of life. As the result of past evolution and committing our minds to the task, we have learned to function in this world as individual units; yet we have been led to do this as largely unconscious integral portions of a substantially greater whole. Can we open ourselves consciously to that whole? Do we require to go on cultivating a hard felt isolation of competitive separateness?

We do not individually have any strict and permanent frontiers. Neither our individuality nor our safety depends upon having them.

The ambitious beginner in meditation would like her/his mind to cease functioning in a reality (relationship) distorting mode and to begin to function in a calm oceanic mode in which it mirrors without distortion.

The problem is that the oceanic state of mind is not a development from the fixated mind. It cannot be achieved on any terms that the fixated personalized mind, suffering from compulsive fears, bent on self-definition, lays down, or within the values which this mind projects. The oceanic state is a different order of experience. It can reveal itself only when the fixated self-identifying mind is laid to rest. It may then come naturally and spontaneously into its own.

The second step in meditation is therefore not to make thought occupy itself with any particular image. It is to stop thinking or at least stop what we have hitherto described to ourselves as "thinking".

We protest at this. We say that it is very difficult to think about nothing. But we are not asked to think about nothing. We are asked just to stop thinking. Only in that way can we discover what lies beyond the historical experiment which we have described as "thought".

We should like to have in ourselves a peaceful mind. We try to impose upon the mind an idea of peace, an idea provided by the mind, the sort of idea that the mind can approve of because it can be classified by it as "pro-me". Yet, if we try to base our meditational efforts upon the order of experience which is calculated and projected by the compulsive fixated mind, those efforts are necessarily flawed by the properties of that mind. Shaped by its evolutionary past, that mind is always "dualistic", choosing whatever favours a supposed separative selfhood and rejecting what seems to threaten that selfhood.

Perhaps we do not really want to learn to meditate. In what we call "everyday life", our warmest motivation is the consideration that "this is pro-me". Any pursuit seems interesting and attractive which benefits "me".

But real meditation involves, not so much setting "me" intact to one side, as recognizing the "me" for what it is and so dropping it, allowing it to dissipate. Such an activity, however, offers no heart-warming response to the perpetual query, "What is there in it for me?"

The beginning of a real motivation arises when we experience a deep disillusionment with what has hitherto constituted our motivation. The first step towards true meditation is concern for the vast unhappiness which lies upon humanity and the earnest desire to assist in a new and effective way.

As the necessary conditioning of our past recedes a little, and consciousness in us becomes awake to a world or an order of experience that is not given its orientation and value by a "me", the first impression may be one of silence, darkness, emptiness. Unity is not made up of a lootable mass of varied separate objects , this vast field of pretty objects, whether physical or mental or social, which keeps "me" on the go. The stillness of inner life is frustration and boredom for the anxious and greedy "me".

The silence, however, can be listened to, and there is indeed a "voice of the silence". There is in the darkness a clear light, but it conveys no privilege to those who respond, offers nothing which we, in our separateness and in our isolation from wholeness, can appropriate and take for ourselves. So, from the point of view of the motivation that has hitherto guided us, it is nothing.

This is where the great pathos of "organised wisdom" lies. Through the words and phrases of their Founders each group attempts to speak to us in the language of wisdom-mindedness, pure and unfixated; we understand in the sense of desire-mindedness, fixated to the anxious needy "me". This failure of understanding constitutes religious decay.

There is great interest these days in meditation and in various forms of group work for enlightenment. These are still little more than novelties from which we hope to obtain some personal advantage. As the world views such things, there probably is some advantage. Even just to learn how to sit quietly will probably do us some good.

There is also a risk of considerable confusion, even debasement for gain. The basic flaw lies in the fact that we pursue "yoga" or "spiritual exercises" for the endorsement and enhancement of that "me" from which it is the purpose of true yoga to liberate consciousness in us. It can be like applying the accelerator and the brake, suddenly, at the same time. Considerable stress can result.

Meditation is not a technique for processing ourselves into some kind of advantage. We must ourselves be diagnostically aware of what we are doing and not just be guided by an image in somebody else's mind.

There often appears to us to be a problem with life. Life, of course, is not a problem; yet we see it in that way because there is a knot in ourselves that we have projected onto or into the world. We imagine that some technique, some carefully orchestrated effort of thought and action will untie the knot. We cannot succeed because thought itself, as we have come to use it, is what tied the knot. The knot dissipates only by the discovery of what is beyond that kind of knot-tying thought.

Liberation is not an end product of any train of thinking or of any code of personal or social behaviour or action or membership of any school of thought or organization. There is no liberation technology. The mind cannot still itself.

It is only when there is pure simple perception of what is that there is release into lucidity and into love. There is no arrival. There is only discovery from moment to moment of what has always been, a recognition and an abandonment of illusion and ignorance.


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