During the past twenty years I’ve gone through various life periods, that swung from one extreme end of the pendulum to the other: from a profligate life in New York City, to an intense spiritual journey of many months in Peru and Ecuador, through seven years of living an austere and celibate life in an Hindu ashram of yoga and meditation in Massachusetts. Then I was back to the “real world” of work and relationship in Tel Aviv, through a powerful meeting with Buddhism, then to India, practicing and studying with various teachers there, and then back to Israel. Many questions arose, many answers appeared and dropped away, but one thing weaved as a thread and a constant presence through all these different “life-times”: my love for meditation as an experience and as a main tool for an awakened life.
In this article I’ll try to describe and illustrate some of the reasons for this love.
A few days ago I heard on the radio a song whose words were something like: “don’t look at the world with happy or gloomy eyes, look with open eyes”. These words evoked some thoughts and got me wondering: do we really have the basic ability to look at the world with “open eyes”? Is it not that what looks out through our eyes is our concepts, our belief systems, our conditionings?
These words are ascribed to the Buddha: “Things are not as they seem to be. Whatever you conceive of – the facts are other than that”.
Dharma teachers explain that we are constantly interpreting and evaluating the world around us; our senses constantly deliver to us an endless stream of information. This information is then instantaneously processed and categorized by a sole criteria: whether it causes us pain or gives us pleasure. We then response accordingly: to the sensations of pleasure we react with clinging, trying to prolong and perpetuate them, and to the pain we react with aversion, trying to avoid it and eliminate it from our lives. This unceasing, continual reactivity blocks our view, and does not allow us to see things as they are: to see that pain and pleasure are not intrinsically inherent in the object, but are in our response to it. In meditation we become aware of this process that’s occurring inside us; the temporary immobility that we submitted ourselves to, enables us to observe the reactivity that arises in our mind –without acting on it. The act of observing exposes the nature of reactivity, and develops in us the ability to distinguish between things as they really are in their true nature – and our reaction to them. Thus we create a gap, though little as it may be at first, between the object, and the reflex, primary reaction it invokes in us. By practicing meditation, by observing, inquiring and non-acting we become aware of the things as they are, and of how they work – inside us and in the of world phenomena around us.
The hardest practice – self awareness without self judgment
I believe that one of our most primary and fundamental needs is the yearning for self development, for the expansion of consciousness. But all too often that urge is accompanied by an instinctive tendency – so automatic it almost feels like second nature – to judge and criticize ourselves with every new insight, self discovery or exposure of a pattern. Our inner conversation tends to be critical and judgmental, an internalization of the cultural conditioning that in integral in the society we grew up in. Most of us are used to seeing certain parts of us as negative, unaccepted, even shameful. We spend much of our lives trying to hide and deny these parts, and when, to our surprise, they show up in meditation – we react with horror or deep pain in the face of these unexpected, unwanted meetings. My teacher from the ashram, Yogi Amrit Desai (Gurudev), used to say that the hardest practice of all is self awareness without self judgment.
I remember when, while living at the ashram, I fell in love: I felt as if this was defeating the whole purpose of my life there, which was meant to be dedicated to celibacy, to self development, and to the transmutation of sexual energy to the spiritual energy of selfless and unconditional love to God and to all beings. So not only did I not enjoy the feelings of being in love, but I also judged myself harshly for having them and, tried to get rid of them.
One of the things that happens in the meditation practice is an enlargement of the inner container, an increasing of the capacity to “be with” all these thoughts and emotions that come up inside us, increasing the ability to look at them with generous and compassionate rather than judgmental eyes, to befriend all those parts that seem to us inappropriate, unworthy and unspiritual, to see every expression in us as an expression of “all there is”, of the Whole, and thus worthy of love and respect. Pema Chödrön, a renowned American teacher and nun in the Tibetan tradition, writes: “…the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently. The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see”. (When Things Fall Apart)
The paradox of meditation
One day at the ashram, an honorable guest arrived: a bearded Rishi with an orange robe and sparkly eyes who claimed that we are all caught in karma bandana, in the bondage of action. According to him, we cannot release ourselves from this bondage by additional action, and therefore “there is nothing to do”. He said that the most prevalent problem with adults is that they don’t play, and so he took us all out to fun and wild days in nature. This was a most liberating experience after years of mental and emotional constipation from doing “the right thing” every single moment, of spiritual rigorousness and righteousness, and the Rishi helped us not “do” anything, especially not anything spiritual, but just enjoy ourselves.
Doing, being active, is ingrained in us, especially in the west. There’s a famous expression that says we have become human doings instead of human beings. The state of just “being” is foreign to us, even frightening. Our inner computer is so programmed on doing, that it’s almost incapable of conceiving of a non-doing state, of a state of absolute stillness, of deep yet alert rest, of profound, spontaneous, clear and all enveloping awareness.
Saying this naturally gives rise to the question: if we are to let go of “doing”, if we are not to “do” anything, then what is it to “meditate”? And if we are not supposed to do anything then why bother go to a meditation retreat, why not just pack a sandwich and go to the beach?
The answers to these questions lie in our inner experience, in our inner understanding. We can be aided from outside with teachings and guidance, but there’s immense value in developing the ability to be with the questions, to leave them open, alive, pulsing, and thus the answers will be richer and have more power when they arise on their own, from within.
Meditation holds an interesting paradox: “doing” and effort are necessary to the practice of meditation, yet the experience of a meditative state is an experience of non-doing. As appose to other activities, the meditation practice is a bridge that can carry us from doing to non-doing. Though effort is needed, we cannot get to non-doing by efforting, by more and more doing. Like a hamster running on its carousel – running faster and faster won’t get it anywhere sooner, certainly not to a place of stillness. Though we must strive, the non-doing state is a state that happens on its own, striving only keeps it at distance. Therefore we’d better leave behind expectations and cravings for “something to happen” during our meditation. We are to create the right conditions, to make ourselves available and to be fully present – and then let go of everything else: let go of the technique, let go of the hopes, let go of the effort, let go of meditating. Possibly, there’s this paradox again: is letting go an action, or is it something that happens on its own? In my experience, letting go is both: sometimes it is an intention with which we sit, other times it is a spontaneous, effortless shedding and dropping away, which some call Grace. This dichotomy between effort and non-effort is sometimes depicted classically as a two-winged-bird: one wing is the wing of effort, of steady and committed practice, of doing; the other is the wing of letting go, of non-doing, of surrender.