Friday, August 08, 2008

Meditation Update

Sitting is essentially a simplified space. Our daily life is in constant movement: lots of things going on, lots of people talking, lots of events taking place. In the middle of that, it's very difficult to sense that we are in our life. When we simplify the situation, when we take away the externals and remove ourselves from the ringing phone, the television, the people who visit us, the dog who needs a walk, we get a chance--which is absolutely the most valuable thing there is--to face ourselves. Meditation is not about some state, but about the meditator. It's not about some activity or about fixing something. It's about ourselves. If we don't simplify the situation the chance of taking a good look at ourselves is very small--because what we tend to look at isn't ourselves but everything else. If something goes wrong, what do we look at? We look at what's going wrong. We're looking out there all the time, and not at ourselves.

--Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen

It’s a little more than a year since I went to my first meditation retreat – one at Shambhala Mountain Center, led by David Nichtern and Cyndi Lee – and a bit longer than that – call it 14 months – that I’ve been meditating daily.

I’ve noticed that I am often judgmental of my practice. Some mornings, sitting is peaceful. Some mornings, it’s fascinating. Some mornings, it’s jittery. Some mornings, it’s a constant battle between distractions and effort. The thing is, I (or at least what I think of as the “small-I,” the self that sometimes seems all-encompassing and sometimes seems merely an object within awareness) likes certain kinds of meditation experiences, and dislikes others. And it translates “I like this experience of meditation” into “This is a good meditation session,” and it translates “I dislike this experience of meditation” into “This is a bad meditation session.” When I get into such a mind-mode, I try to remind myself of what meditation teachers constantly say to beginners: “Ignore your particular experience in meditation. Notice, instead, the effect of the meditation on the rest of your life.”

So in that vein, here’s what I’ve noticed about “the rest of my life”: whether a particular day or week or month of meditation is pleasant or unpleasant, since I began meditating, I’ve become more patient, I seem to see things a bit more clearly than I used to, I’m happier in an equanimous kind of way. I seem to be depressed a lot less, and I’m less attached to my manic days. I am more aware of my thoughts and my actions. I’m less reactive.

While it happens less frequently, I still go through lots of “small-I” experiences – getting angry at other drivers on the road, taking offense when someone says something that pushes one of my buttons, that sort of thing. But in recent months, even those experiences have changed, and that’s what I wanted to talk about here.

I’ve begun to experience this: even when I find myself unhappy or angry or offended, or annoyed – even though I still experience all of those things – it’s like they’re thinner somehow than they used to be – less substantial, less weighty, less important, less complete. (As I write, I hunt through Hartranft’s translation of the Yoga Sutra, and find that he uses the term “transparency” in expressing a related idea (III:56) – it’s a good match for what I’m trying to express.) It’s like I can see through the experiences to one degree or another, even as they happen.

Oh, don’t get me wrong – seeing through and beyond doesn’t mean that the small-I doesn’t react. If you’d been with me a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled into a bunch of stinging nettles along a backcountry stretch of the Henry’s Fork, you’d still have heard me swear loudly at the nettles. (The nettles were more equanimous and said nothing in response within my hearing.) But the negativity of the experience was easily contained in and perceived as the experience itself, not spilling out into other parts of life or mind. As I felt the needle-sharp pain in my calves and thighs, as I felt my body pull back, I was aware that it was the small-I that was responding, and not my whole being. It was like I was existence, and existence included the pain and consequences of nettles stinging but wasn’t limited to that experience, if that makes any sense at all.

* * *

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali says that part of our experience of life includes an unconditional part – “pure awareness” (sometimes it gets translated as the “seer” or the “witness”) – and that it is not something that can be perceived directly. But he also tells us we can still perceive it indirectly, nonetheless, because pure awareness can color the mind itself, just as the phenomenal world does, also. IV:23 In other words, while the small-I can’t see the seer, it can notice when it’s obscuring the simple experience of pure awareness – like looking through a window and suddenly realizing that you can see not only the trees and sky outside, but also a reflection of your own eye, at the same time. I’ve had this experience occasionally in yoga, more frequently in meditation – the “small-I” settling down enough to see itself reflecting the pure awareness that is the awareness through and of the small-I mind, itself.

Mirrors, everywhere.

* * *

At any rate, perhaps what I’ve recently experienced as the “transparency” or ‘thinning’ of experience is simply the small-I mind becoming a bit quieter, less impressed with itself, more aware. It is truly hard to come up with the right words for this experience. But whatever the correct articulation may be (and, dear readers, feel free to suggest any ideas that you have along these lines), the small-I seems changed by the simple experience of daily meditation practices of concentration and mindfulness.

Freer, in a word.