A couple of weeks ago a friend came to me to discuss problems she was having in her meditation practice. She was quite distraught at what she felt was her hopeless progress, and she despaired she'd ever get the hang of it. When I asked about the problem, she said that no matter how hard she tried she couldn't get her mind to stop having thoughts.
I recall once having exactly the same frustration. And I also recall how very helpful it was when I was told that thoughts aren't the problem and, better yet, if I found myself chasing those thoughts around 1000 times in my meditation, then that was 1000 excellent opportunities to practice mindfulness and re-establishing ''here and now'' awareness.
What I came to understand from this advice was that meditation practice is primarily about developing a skill, not forcing a result. This practice is about learning to observe the presence of thoughts and feelings, being aware of them, and learning to recognise when you become attached to them. It is about recognising when the pursuit, or rejection, of those thoughts and feelings takes you away from simply being with them, here and now.
Meditation is not, and has never been, about stopping the arising of thoughts and feelings. The monkey-mind calms down eventually, certainly, and for long periods thoughts and feelings may simply not arise. But that in itself is not the goal. It is simply a stage of practice.
In Zen, when we talk about ''no mind'', we are not talking about trying to force the mind into a non-thinking, non-feeling place. What we are doing is learning and developing a mental discipline of becoming aware of thinking and feeling, and recognising the process of ego in relation to them. The rest looks after itself.
This is about mindfulness. This is not about mindlessness.
All one needs do in cultivating a meditation practice is to refine the practice so that the ‘’results’’ come as they will, in their own time. “When the apple is ready, it will fall”. Consider the man who wants a butterfly to land on his hand. He will find no success grabbing at one; he will find even less if he struggles at it in a field where there are no butterflies to be found! Rather, all he needs do - all he can do - is find a field with butterflies in it, sit still, and wait patiently.
But all too often beginners in meditation are told that their goal, and their practice, is to make their mind blank. To stop thinking. To stop feeling. And even if they’re not specifically told that, it’s not made sufficiently clear that this is neither the aim nor the process.
I'm reminded of a joke. Abraham ascended the mountain to enter a covenant with God and was seen ten minutes later running down the other side shouting ''We're the chosen people and you want us to chop off the ends off our WHAT???''
It's hardly surprising that people misunderstand the value and purpose of meditation when they believe it is about trying to stop their thoughts. When the presentation of meditation encourages the idea that it's all about ''making the mind go blank'' it is hardly surprising that thoughtful and intelligent people dismiss the idea entirely.
“You want us to chop off WHAT???”
The problem lies squarely in a lack of cohesion between what we define as ''mind'' and what the original teachers of Eastern meditation methods meant by the term.
It strikes me that one of the reasons religion, as a concept, gets such a bad rap in the modern West is because it is so often badly misunderstood. It is important to realise that virtually all the foundational religious texts we have access to are written in languages that do not translate easily into English. Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic are the dialects the great religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, Judaism and Christianity were originally developed within. I am no great linguistic scholar, but I do understand that Greek, Latin and English are of a different persuasion and are more literal and lend themselves less well to symbolic metaphor and invite less ''intuitive'' and creative engagement with language than do these others.
Biblical scholars, for instance, note significant changes in meaning from the teachings that were originally spoken in Aramaic, then translated into more formal Hebrew, then into Greek, then Latin and finally English. And anyone who has browsed through different translations of the Dao De Jing can be forgiven for wondering if they are reading the same text at all.
And added to these potential problems in simple translations, different cultures place a different emphasis on the importance of certain concepts. It is said, for instance, that the Eskimo/Inuit peoples of the Arctic North have many more words for snow than is present in other language groupings. A greater degree of subtlety and nuance is present to classify and describe the concept of ‘’snow’’ than we are familiar with.
Similarly, the concept of ‘’mind’’ is one that has been developed to a significantly greater degree in the Asiatic context than it has in the Occidental. Indeed, prior to the pioneering psychonauts Freud and Jung at the turn of last century, the Western experience hardly even considered the existence of a subconscious or unconscious mind. Indeed, it was Jung who coined the concepts of ‘’personal unconscious,’’ ‘’collective unconscious,’’ ‘’archetype,’’ ‘’extrovert,’’ and ‘’introvert.’’
It goes without saying that these and related concepts were well-established in Eastern psycho-spiritual practice many hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.
And it is precisely this difference in language and understanding of the ‘’mind’’ concept that has led many Western meditators into significant confusion.
I will return to this common misconception many have about mediation - about becoming ‘’blank’’ - and how this relates to simple problems of language by providing a very brief primer in Buddhist (and Hindu) psychology.
That which we in the West loosely refer to as mind could be equated with a limited application of the Sanskrit word vijnana . This term refers to the entire field of consciousness, from basic sense perception up to Buddhata , or Buddha-nature.
This concept of vijnana is very precisely defined and dissected within yogic and Buddhist literature to highlight fundamental functions within mind itself. At the basis are those simple functions of sense perception which relate to data acquisition. The eye sees, the ear hears, etc.
There is also chitta , or the ‘’cognisant,’’ perceiving, mind. This element of mind pays attention; it perceives the ‘’picture’’ that the senses present. It, literally, ‘’re-cognises’’ sensory data into a recognisable perception. The eye sees a dog, the ears hear a gong.
Then there is manas , or what we might loosely refer to as the ego-self, the ‘’censor’’ mind. Manas tends to try to organise and control all the other functions of mind in service to its own invented sense of “I”. It is the sense of self that censors experience, that interprets it to its own agenda and conditioned (and conditioning) sense of self. It is here that the ego craves what it wants, shuns what it doesn’t want.
Alaya is what loosely relates to the Western psychological concepts of unconsciousness, both personal and collective. This is the ‘’deep’’ mind where are hidden complexes lie, and is the root of our conditioned awareness. In Buddhist and Hindu thought, this is also the domain of karma and the innate tendencies that incarnate across lifetimes.
When these functions work together harmoniously then the mind, consciousness itself, becomes jnana , or ‘’pure awareness’’ as opposed to vijnana (with the prefix vi- referring to conditioned, or divided). This jnana is related to Buddhata, or pure, unconditioned, non-dualistic mind. The mind of enlightenment.
Manas is the central and controlling principle of mind. It decides how perceptions will be recognised, how they will be valued, and to what degree they will be allowed to become part of the sense of self. It decides whether it likes the dog it sees, or whether it decides the gong is too deep or too loud (which may also be inspired by alaya) . The manas also has a part in controlling (suppressing) information that comes through from the alaya. Again, in the interests of maintaining the conditioned sense of ego.
The above represents a very general snapshot of the ancient and Eastern concept of mind. The problem for the Western meditator is that they may hear or read instructions related to the discipline or cultivation of “mind’’ not necessarily knowing what function of mind is being referred to.
For instance, what sense do we make of one Zen master saying “transcend the mind,’’ while another says “Buddha is mind”? Some seem to say escape, ignore or treat the mind as enemy, whilst others talk of cultivating and aspiring to a ‘’pure’’ version of it.
When it is understood that they are referring to different concepts of mind then it all makes a lot more sense. To come back to the woman who expressed her despair at her lack of progress, what we can see is that she was under the impression the aim, and process, of meditation was to block the chitta , the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sensations, the wandering thoughts (those wandering thoughts, of course, simply being the sixth sense).
This is not the function of mind that meditation is meant to control. This part of the mind is not meant to be cut-off in meditation. Indeed, when that occurs it is quite likely we are dealing with trance rather than meditation.
The teachings on meditation that talk of transcending, or disciplining, the mind are those that relate to manas. It is not the recognition of the dog barking that is the impediment to jnana , but rather the mind that makes judgements about the dog barking and relates it back to the ‘’I, me, mine” complex.
The dog barks. Fine. That is as it is. The thoughts that flow on, inspired by the manas , are the target of meditation. But even then, not to control or suppress or struggle with. Merely to notice. Merely to recognise the manas in action and come back to the chitta , the immediate perception - without judgement - of the here and now.
May all beings be happy
May all being be free from suffering
Fa Gong Shakya, OHY
1 July 2012