This was first written 22/03/2020
I am responding to Jem Bendell’s post about meditation, chanting and prayer. I am responding from my own almost 50 years experience of meditation, both as practitioner and teacher My perspective on meditation rests on many years experience as a member of the Kanzeon Zen Sangha. Yet this perspective has been deeply fertilised by my experience of almost 50 years practicing and teaching Yoga also.
My perspective is that the deep benefit/purpose of meditation is to integrate the intelligence of mind into the intelligence of consciousness. This is certainly what my Zen training brought me to. In my experience of Zen Training there was no conceptualisation about this process. There was however a strong emphasis on letting go of concepts. Any story of any kind, however satisfying, refined or subtle, was always dismissed by my teachers as a distraction.
As yoga takes place in action and meditation in stillness they offer different challenges and gifts. Yet my experience of Zen inspired me to fold its heart into my teaching of yoga. In doing this i came not only to a clearer understanding of yoga and how it works, but also of what was going on in my experience of zen meditation.
In yoga posture practice the first concern must be to protect the bodies vulnerability at the joints. This demands that the practitioner become intimate with the sensations being generated in the tissues within and around the joints. Then it becomes possible to not only ‘hear’ what the body is saying, but respond to it also. That responsiveness provides the protection (ahimsa).
In my latter experience of Zen Training my teachers had only one instruction for me: “do nothing”. At first i simply rejected this out of hand. They kept at it. Eventually i decided to drop my arrogance and see what it might mean. Eventually i found out. Having spent a lot of time and effort using my mind to ‘make’ nothing happen, in the end my mind let go completely of any attempt to make anything happen.
As my mind let go of its intention and efforts i was overwhelmed by an intense pressure in my chest. This pressure seemed to be pressing outwards and inwards at the same time. Its intensity was initially and for quite a while painful. But suddenly the intensity reached a peak pitch and spread and the pain dissolved into a deep, quiet, satisfying delight.
Even though i did not realise it at the time what i had been taken through was an intense experience of physical sensations. So intense that there was no space left for mind to impose itself on what was happening. Instead awareness was taken deeply by the flow of sensation.
In applying “do nothing” to my practice over time something else happened, over and over again. If my mind really did let go of its ability to make things happen i arrived at the same place. A place of clear, calm rapture. This happened no matter the quality of feeling i was experiencing. It was the same for pain in my ankle, pressure in my shinbone, aching in my back, grief, anger, fear.
So, my advice to anyone wanting to ‘deal with’ intense emotions through meditation is simple. Feel the sensations as deeply and clearly as you can. Allow your mind to express its dynamism freely, but invite your mind to let go completely into your deeper ability to feel.
This means no longer paying special attention to the content and activity of your mind. Instead it means just feeling the flow of sensations as continuously and clearly as possible: whatever they may be. It means no longer asking your mind to do anything. Not even to understand: with experience it will understand. Not even to notice anything in particular: what can be known will eventually be known.
Feeling sensations is quite different from noticing them. In noticing there is a gap. This gap can reduce intensity, but it reinforces the split in your experience between the observer and the observed. This split is the foundation of our sense of separateness and the anxiety and aggression it generates. Meditation for daily living must dissolve that split, close that gap: unifying observer and observed, dissolving the distinction between self and other.
If we emphasise our ability to observe or notice the gap our underlying sense of separateness is strengthened. This can lead to chronic detachment. Not only from particular feelings, inspiring us to avoid, displace or repress our anger, grief and fear. It can also detach us from life itself. It can create a deep longing to escape the pressures and responsibilities of daily life and flee to an ashram, monastery or cave.
If we emphasise our ability to feel we will be doing more than quietening mind. Our ability to feel is a remarkable capacity. One that we share, in different ways, with all living beings. What it is that we feel as human beings is excitations in our nerves. Yet we do not feel most of the neurological activity of our bodies.
To feel a sensation three things must be present. The intelligence of the body must be generating neurological activity in the sensory nerves. The intelligence of mind must be recognising that something is happening, even if it does not recognise exactly what. Yet the experience of a sensation also requires awareness.
Awareness is an expression of the intelligence of Consciousness. Awareness functions through different pathways: feeling, smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing and thinking. Thinking, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling all require the intelligent presence of consciousness. Your ability to feel requires the intelligent presence of consciousness.
Your ability to feel is a direct expression of the intelligence of consciousness. This is not the consciousness of the conscious mind. It is a deeper, more fundamental expression of consciousness. One which we share, in different ways, with all living beings.
By becoming intimate with your ability to feel you are becoming intimate with consciousness. In becoming intimate with the presence of consciousness mind becomes very still, quiet and clear. It is absorbed into the presence of consciousness and its spacious luminosity. The disturbing stories of anger, fear and grief dissolve into that peaceful luminosity. This allows us to act on their underlying cause with a clear, calm mind.
If you are feeling fear, grief, anger, loneliness or anxiety you have many options. Yet, whatever else you do, try feeling the sensations within them as deeply as possible. So deeply that you no longer even know exactly what you are feeling. So deeply that you no longer even know exactly who or what is feeling them. Stay there, being deliciously marinated by the nourishing presence of consciousness. It will make a welcome difference.