The Practice of Buddhist Meditation is Not for the Fainthearted

| July 31, 2012 | 13 Comments

We’re hearing about studies that boast meditation reduces stress, lowers high blood pressure, and calms the mind. These all sound great, and perhaps over the course of time, meditation has that effect, but that is not the purpose of Buddhist meditation. In fact, if your meditations are relaxing and cozy, I’m going to be bold here and suggest either you’re not doing it right, or you no  longer need it.

Buddhist meditation IS practice time, and it’s not easy.

Practice suggests you are doing something that is not nodding off, that is not feeling like everything is hunky-dory and if the world would just not interrupt your quiet time all will be well.

I just finished an hour of working through 50 problems that focused on mathematical exponents and their functions. Working through each one gave me practice I need to understand what is happening with the numbers, and so I’ll remember how to solve them in the future. Meditation is also practice time, and it’s work.

While on retreat I meditated daily. For these meditations the practice was concentration, and by the third day I entered what is called the first jhana. This is where your concentration becomes single pointed, nothing else is in the mental space except for the focus point, in this case the breath. I had a feeling of calm, of peace, of joy. My mind was absolutely still and quiet. It was nice. It was also what I consider to be one of the least productive meditations I’ve ever had.

My most productive meditations were the ones  where my mind was on fire with anger, indignation, and stories streaming faster than the stock market ticker tape at the bottom of a TV screen. This was the most productive meditation practice time I ever had because I had a front row seat to how thoughts stir up emotion, to how easily seduced I am by my own stories, and how much suffering this process causes for me. I knew suffering, angst, anger, and fury in that moment, and I realized I had to figure out how to hop off the merry-go-round of trouble-making thinking. I had to have compassion for myself. I had to let go!

Contrary to belief, Buddhist meditation is not about creating warm fuzzies. It’s not about learning not to think. And it’s not about stuffing your emotions. On the contrary, Buddhist meditation is the practice of sitting right in the heat of a moment, and giving yourself the space and the compassion to see what is really going on, how these processes arise, fall away, and what causes them to arise again. See the wonderful series on A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising for more information on those processes.

Buddhist meditation is the practice of learning to get to know suffering intimately, to see how we create and attach to a selfing process, to see that everything is impermanent. Buddhist meditation, when we sit, slows life down just enough so we can get a bird’s eye view, and then dive in more deeply to see what else is going on. The breath is the anchor, and anything that interrupts your focus on the breath, should be noted and let go of. It’s this continual letting go, over and over and over, that eventually allows us to jump off of the angry thought merry-go-round. If you don’t practice  letting go of the benign types of thoughts, you’ll be caught like a fish on a hook with the seductive thoughts of anger, self-righteousness, and sadness.

I often hear people say I can’t meditate. It doesn’t work for me. I’m going to take a guess that your expectation is  looking for a feel good pill, not practice time. Also, when I hear people say they had a good meditation, what they often mean is they had a quiet, relaxing, unfruitful and noneducational practice time. Let’s face it, if we want to relax there are lots of ways of doing that. My preference is to take a nap!

Buddhist meditation is not for the fainthearted. You will get close up looks at your most unsavory thoughts, your scrambled emotions, your frustrations and desires. This is great. This IS practice. This is KNOWING dukkha! It’s also where you learn your way out of dukkha, as you begin to see little by little how much of your suffering you create via the stories in your head, the way you tense your body, the way your build drama. Through Buddhist meditation, you learn how to let go, let go of the thoughts, let go of the stories, let go of the illusion of self and control. The real beauty of Buddhist meditation is that the mindfulness you learn on the cushion and through movement meditation bleeds out into daily living, becomes a regular mode of being.

Buddhist meditation thrusts you into the heart of the physical world and reality. You won’t transcend into some higher plane, develop psychic powers, or learn to levitate.

Instead, you will gain a firsthand understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Overtime, letting go gets easier, time between thoughts grows longer, and, yes, then peace takes up residence where the stories and selfing had been.

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Dana Nourie

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Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

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  1. Meditation practice not for the fainthearted – Beyond Meds | August 1, 2012
  1. NaturalEntrust says:

    Dana I hope I don’t derail too much but
    your text here:

    “While on retreat I meditated daily.
    For these meditations the practice was concentration,
    and by the third day I entered what is called the first jhana. …”

    Is that not almost identical to what The Flow refers to?

    When I first heard about The Flow I recognized that this
    is from Buddhism and he has only given it a western name.

    Sure I can write and ask him but he get hundreds of email
    so slim chance he answer.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29

    “The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy,
    even rapture, while performing a task although flow
    is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing
    but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.

    Buzz terms for this or similar mental states include:
    to be in the moment, present, in the zone, on a roll,
    wired in, in the groove, on fire, in tune, centered, or
    singularly focused.”

    So could one incoporate The Flow as a SBA practice?

  2. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Hi NaturalEntrust,

    I could be wrong, but no I don’t believe Flow and the first jhana are the same thing. Flow is much more similar to mindfulness, but mindfulness does not need to be driven by motivation as Flow does. Flow arises out of being intently focused and motivated in some activity.

    The first jhana is simply focused attention on one object to the exclusion of all else, while awareness is at it’s peak, and the mind is perfectly still. In this space, joy, peace arise.

    And as I pointed out, while that is all good and lovely, the purpose of Buddhist meditation is generally to know suffering/discontent or whatever arises to distract you from your focus, and to continually let go, let go, let go. Concentration will usually increase over time, space between thoughts will increase over time, and for many feelings of peace or joy will slide into that space. But meditation is about learning how our processes arise, and to move that awareness and mindfulness into daily experience. Joy is a nice side effect of meditation over time, but for Buddhist practitioners it is not the ultimate goal.

  3. NaturalEntrust says:

    Dana,
    I wish I could agree with you.
    You should know these things
    way better than I even have
    a remote chance of grasping
    so from that perspective
    I hope you are right but nothing
    in my subjective personal experience
    agree with your take here.

    When I try to get what Mr. M.C.
    intended to say using the word “The Flow”
    that is much more about the jhana than
    it is about being mindful.

    But sure I can be totally wrong and that
    text that I cited can be very misleading.

    I don’t trust that the original author of The Flow
    would agree with that quote. He has written
    several books about it so it is not easy to make
    a short take on all the nuances needed to get it.

    We could agree to disagree?

  4. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Well, I don’t think it matters. If you like the idea of Flow, by all means study and incorporate that into your life. I am just focusing on meditation here, and actually I don’t consider my experience with jhana a particularly helpful one, as it took me three whole days of concentration meditation to get to that point. If I just want to feel joy, I actually don’t need to do anything as it is as easy as doing something I enjoy:-)

    But yes, we can agree to disagree. I don’t think Flow and jhanas are similar. :-) That’s fine.

  5. Linda Linda says:

    As I understand it (and here I am not contradicting any of the above; in fact I am probably agreeing with what you’ve said) Flow is the state one gets into when one is totally focused on what one is doing, to the exclusion of all else. Self moves out of the way (so from a Buddhist perspective, that’s a good thing), but so does the whole rest of the world (is that a good thing, from a Buddhist perspective? I’m not sure). So, for example, a writer who is struggling with writer’s block because of too many pressures from the world, could get into Flow and all those self-applied, “world-applied” pressures move out of the way and the writing flows. Surely that is a good thing.

    And the state of flow feels good. That’s good in its way.

    So when one is doing meditation like, for example, a jhana, when the world drops away, and the sense of self drops away, that could be seen as Flow. But that is only one example of Flow. Flow does not equal jhana, even if jhana is an example of flow.

    With me so far?

    The thing about the jhanas is that the Buddha noticed — before he was even enlightened — that they, by themselves, didn’t lead one to awakening. He clearly felt, after he’d been through all he’d been through, that they were useful, but they were only useful *as tools* or *vehicles* to move us further down the road.

    It is really important to understand that, soothing as that feeling of Flow can be, whether we encounter it in jhana or mindfulness or wherever, the soothing effect isn’t the goal. It’s a side-effect. It can even be a strong motivating factor in continuing to practice — the Buddha even says that the joy is part of the motivation. But it isn’t the point, and if we mistake it for the point, we get stuck in the practice.

    As Dana is saying in the article above, meditation — when it’s doing the work that really makes a lasting difference — isn’t necessarily soothing or comfortable, much less joyful. It isn’t a blissful (but temporary) escape from life, but it is a turning in to face life — our inner life and our outer life, and how the two affect each other/are one and the same. It often turns up uncomfortable feelings and thoughts that make us want to spring up off the cushion and suddenly find that the lawn needs mowing instead and that lawn seems *far* more important than meditation at the moment — because we really don’t want to sit and face what’s going on.

    So, NE, when I hear you saying (not here but elsewhere) that you were a failure at meditation, I can picture you unable to sit still for it and feeling that was a failure but what I recognize is that every moment you remained trying to keep at it was actually you doing meditation *perfectly*. You just didn’t recognize it, I think, because you’re thinking it’s about Flow and good feelings, when it’s not, not really.

    • NaturalEntrust says:

      Thanks Linda!

      You could be right.
      I don’t know enough to make any
      qualified guessing what made Mr M.C.
      to come up with that name for it.
      And I instantly recognized that I must
      have read about it in some book by
      Suzuki or Watts? so I thought I have
      to ask if the Buddhist have the Pali name for it.

      Just me wanting to find a name for it.

      I have found togetherness in Buddhism at a wiki page.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path

      quote
      All eight elements of the Path begin with the word “right”,
      which translates the word samyañc (in Sanskrit) or sammā (in Pāli).

      These denote completion, togetherness, and coherence, and

      can also suggest the senses of “perfect” or “ideal”.[3]
      ‘Samma’ is also translated as ‘wholesome’, ‘wise’ and ‘skillful’.
      /quote

      so that could explain why the translator from Japanese to English
      did use togetherness?

      Now maybe togetherness in this context refers to something entirely other?

      I would have changed inner in “inner togetherness” to
      compassionate togetherness.

      Amida Buddha is suppose to be the utmost symbol for compassion.

      Him promising every sentient being to achieve enlightenment and
      that maybe is a practice if togetherness or dependent arising?
      Interconnectedness? Dharma?

      I don’t know these things I just try to make meaning out of my personal experience

  6. Abimael Rodriguez Ortiz says:

    Good article Dana, and thanks for reminding me of this :-)

  7. JohnT JohnT says:

    Dana

    I got going to get into technical discussions about what is/was something (or not). It just doesn’t seem important or useful.

    Anyway, thanks for a refreshing reminder that meditation is not blissing out or new age fluff. There is an awful lot of ignorance out there.

    In my experience coming back to the breath again and again is daily hard work, although I do look forward to the challenge. Some days my mind is very turbulent and it is hard to settle. Other days are easier. But I don’t over-analyze each experience – it is what it as at the time.

    I don’t think I am anywhere near the jhanas yet and I will probably need to go on a retreat as you did. But hey, one step at at time.

  8. Nayeli Nayeli says:

    Dana

    Let me disagree a bit with your article.
    I think if you have a coin, your article states that the coin is the face but not the tail. Meditation, I agree is work, sometimes hard work, but it also brings the tools to a more relax life, a more open life, your mind is calm and your health is better. you develop equanimity to ups and downs within and without. As soon as you sit in meditation you are letting go. (at least the to do list for a while) you start the practice of being as is: angry, worry, relaxed, sleepy, but aware that such is. and then let go.

    • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

      We don’t disagree Nayeli, meditation definitely can result in peace and equanimity! I didn’t mean to imply it doesn’t, just that it can, for many of us be a long process of letting go, and then peace fills the space.

  9. Nayeli Nayeli says:

    I think meditation is good for the fainthearted, it will bring strength to their hearts and minds (that doesn’t mean is easy)

  10. mikec says:

    It’s not uncommon to hear something like: “Oh Timmy’s been so stressed at work, both his psychoanalyst and his chakra cleanse clinician told him to start meditating.” I just think, poor Timmy, he better have a stiff drink waiting for him when he waddles off the cushion.

    Of course it’s not Timmy’s fault the word’s been contorted beyond all recognition by a quick fix culture. Hopefully, for the stock market’s sake, he only realized how hard it was After he bought all the cushions and candles and Go-Deep-in-5minutes-Guarenteed! DVDs. No, I’m just kidding. I don’t want Timmy to become an alcoholic.

    The good news is that this is going to be a very exciting century for neuroscience and I think Buddhist philosophy and techniques will be indispensable along this climb. If we can just avoid the zombie apocalypse, mindfulness will be taught in schools and meditative states and practice will be demystified and enhanced by neuro imaging and people will learn it’s more like learning to play an instrument — with the constant hammering of scales, the repetition, the commitment — than it is cleaning your auras.

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