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Getting Knocked Off the Meditation Cushion: Unlearning Meditation

I recall going into the local sangha, taking a seat on my cushion, and the women in a chair beside me leaned down. “I notice whenever you come here that you always sit in a different place.” I smiled. “Yes, I’m not crazy about routine, and I enjoy challenging my comfort zones.” She looked at me like I was from another planet.

But I like to boldly go where no man has gone before, to seek new life, new civilizations . . . Sorry, channeling Star Trek there.

Change is something I am comfortable with in many ways, often more so than with routine. In fact, I had told my grandmother when I was 8 that surely there was no god, because if there were the grass would be a different color every day, and the land would always look different. Nothing to do with the existence of god, but it speaks volumes how I expected change.

So, it’s not surprising that meditation often bores me to the point of torture, or that a book called Unlearning Meditation would grab my attention. However, what did catch me by surprise was that in following the advice of this book, I have discovered I had fallen into many meditation routines, some of which I had developed attachments to. Additionally, I was finding comfort in the breath without even realizing it . . .

I have not been this interested or impressed with a meditation book as I have been with this one in a long time. The last thing I was looking for was a book on meditation. My shelves are filled with them. Then The Secular Buddhist came out with a podcast I couldn’t resist listening to Unlearning Meditation, Part 1 with Jason Siff. I decided to listen to the podcast, but not buy the book. But, by the end of the podcast, I shopped and bought the iBook version. So, I warned ya!

In spite of the fact that I have never enjoyed meditation much, like many seem to, I have found it profoundly beneficial and valuable to my perspective, my view of this thing I call self, mindfulness in how I behave in the world, how I react internally, and on and on.

So, I didn’t hesitate to take the challenge of unlearning what I had been taught. To knock myself off my cushion, so to speak, to bump myself out of my comfort zones was welcome. Jason’s advice did that, and more.

While I was eager to challenge myself, I didn’t have to go far. Immediately, by changing up the way I had been mediating, I discovered that when I’m not poking and prodding at myself to return to the breath, I have a tendency to go there naturally. I had no idea! That may not sound big to you, but honestly I had previously felt like I was forcing myself and feeling resentful about it. But when not forced, I found, after swimming around with some thoughts, emotions, desires, etc, I’d landed awareness in the calm peaceful waters of just breathing.

When boredom arose, I allowed whatever to happen, and found mindfulness placed on the feel of my hands against my thighs, then a general mindfulness of body and some kind of weird thoughtless awareness that I only experienced once before after meditating for three days in retreat! Suddenly noticing this, my awareness backed up, filled with amazement. I allowed myself to revel in that for a bit, not poking, not nudging it in any particular direction, not trying to let go, and found awareness fell back on the breath naturally again. Interesting.

Apparently I had developed a strict habit of demanding I return to the breath with every thought that arose, and with it, unmindfully, resentment had arisen. Without a guard on duty, awareness just went and rested there naturally. When I intentionally then dragged awareness off the breath, I found discomfort arising. Fascinating. I’d become attached to being on the breath!

In hindsight, it’s not surprising that I would respond well to this unlearning. I don’t take to rules and orders well. I’ve never been one for routine, and naturally lean into spontaneity.  Yet, I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to let go of the meditation rules I had been taught, the expectations, and gasp, how I had become comfortable with certain routines!

The method to Jason’s madness of unlearning what you had been taught in meditation is effective because in taking yourself out of routines, rules, advice, expectation, etc. you free yourself up for wisdom to arise, for discovery, and new learning to emerge. Unlearning meditation has invigorated my practice in interesting ways, and I’m discovering new ways the self arises, new triggers to the ol’ ego, and new places of profound peace and wisdom.

Do listen to the podcast, and change up your meditation practice, explore new ways of mindfulness of mind and thinking, mindfulness of body, etc. You’ll be surprised how getting knocked off your meditation cushion can wake up new understanding.

No Comments

  1. earl on August 25, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Great reflection on your phenomenology of awareness. Indeed.

  2. mknick on August 26, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I think Gotama’s parable of the lute is very helpful. A stringed instrument has to be tuned just right — not too much tension, not too little. In the same way, we have to find a balance in our practice between bringing enough effort and technique to stay mindfully aware, but not so much that we start to struggle, fixate, and judge ourselves.

  3. Sabio Lantz on August 28, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    I am likewise a person who changes seats regularly, travels different roads intentionally (even if longer), and loves change for change’s sake. So the book sounds enticing. Thanks for the post.

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