I have meditated and written down my reflections for nearly 15 years. Some of the most useful scribblings have been the pointers I’ve left myself—my orientations to the highest truths, or what Rob Burbea called “ways of seeing that free.” Contemplation often brings profound yet tantalising insights. One moment it all makes sense, and the next day you feel robbed. Yet, certain words and phrases can “bind” the insight and deliver us back to the understanding.
Coming soon to a psyche near you.
Despite the minimal instructions for meditation—sit still and pay attention—it somehow becomes much more: watching for this, avoiding that, practising this technique, taking that attitude. A new avenue of self-improvement. Each of these attitudes comes with its own expectations that can drag us away from the core directive of meditation: doing less but seeing things more clearly. The idea of “less but clearer” was something I recently came across again in Pema Chodron’s poignant When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, which I highly recommend if you’re struggling with any kind of upheaval in your life.
A few days ago, I found myself on the train and full of coffee. I did what I often do and started doodling: about meditation, awakening and how I would teach the progress of insight to others. This resulted in 30 minutes of furious scribbling that I’d thought I’d share and explain a little. Pedagogy of awakening In short, there are three waypoints on the journey: Learning to ground Learning to see clearly Just sitting 1) Learning to ground Learning to ground relates to what we generally call mindfulness.
Meditation can be summed up in one directive: just come back. When we first learn to follow the breath, the instruction is simple: Pay attention to the sensations of the breath. When you get lost or distracted, just come back. People naturally tend to judge their success by the amount of time they can consistently follow the breath. Staying with the breath seems like a win, and too often the instruction to “come back” is seen as a mere stepping stone back to the real work of meditation.
Meditation continues to soar in popularity. From the ever-expanding body of scientific research to the numbers of prominent leaders professing to practice meditation, we are living through a contemplative renaissance. Your Mum might have even got a Zen colouring book for Christmas. In an age of distraction and shallowness, the simplicity and stillness promised by meditation draw more and more people into its centre of gravity. Apps like Headspace and Calm have opened up the basics of meditation to millions of newcomers, providing bite-sized guided meditations to help people relax and de-stress.
2021 note: I often get asked for recommendations on meditation books and teachers. This was my response around 2014! There are still some great books and websites listed, so I’ve kept it around. I started meditating when I was 22, a couple of years after taking an interest in Taoism. Not long after beginning my practice I came across Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I was very impressed with the openness and clarity of the book, and immediately dedicated myself to Vipassana meditation as outlined in the first few chapters.
2021 note: this post was written 7 years ago, when I was the founder of a meditation community known as OpenSit. Times have changed and OpenSit is no longer online. If you’re looking for some way of starting up a meditation journal today, many meditation apps have some journalling functionality built in. Failing that, any paper pad will do! So you’re already sold on meditation right? You read all those convincing studies.
To see to the bottom of a pond, the water needs to be clear and still. The same applies to your mind. Until the mind is stilled, it defaults to stirring up debris in the form of stories, doubts and endless self-narrative. This debris clouds your experience, distorting the true nature of your mind. By focusing on the breath, we give the mind something to fully apply itself to. With the mind focused and absorbed in the breath the debris settles, our clarity increases, and our experience becomes still.
Meditation is the practice of freedom through insight Through the practise of paying attention to our moment-to-moment experience, we gain insight through seeing how we are not free. Each moment of awakeness helps us understand how we create friction in our experience by resisting it, and how this habitual resistance is stressful and draining. Furthermore, by learning to recognise the primary characteristics of our experience, we notice our ignorance about the nature of things – bestowing ‘mind’, ‘world’ and ‘self’ with a solidity and essence where none can be found.
Because we care, we choose to practice. We yearn for peace, for genuine happiness. And so we come to the cushion and engage with the crux of our predicament: what does it mean to be here? The feeling of being here is the gateway to all life’s vicissitudes, from the ever-shifting sensory landscape around us to our personal thoughts and emotions. It all arises right here. We often neglect the fullness of presence in favour of a reliance on thought.
When you sit down to practice Vipassana meditation, you observe your moment to moment experience with the intention of seeing the three characteristics: anicca (impermanence, change), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, suffering) and anatta (not-self). More accurately, you are tuning into the 3Cs, as they are always already the case. This is not a philosophical exercise – the practice is to stay at the immediate sensate level of your experience, with a degree of mental calm that allows you to observe manifesting reality without getting caught up in it.
On Sunday night I got back from a three week work retreat at the stunning Gaia House in Devon. A month or so back I’d been looking for a job, and also wanting to go on retreat, so I decided that I could wallop two birds with one stone, whilst also lending a helping hand at a world-renowned retreat centre. According to the Progress of Insight map which I’d found very useful since I started meditating, I’d been lurking in the equanimity phase of my first insight cycle since my first retreat in January.
I’ve been back from Dhamma Dipa for two days now. Here is a report of how it worked out for me, for those interested. The first 3 days were hell, and I don’t use the term lightly. Physical pain, mental judgements and overwhelming emotional attachments all quickly came to the surface thanks to prolonged meditation and the Noble Silence. The whole retreat experience is set-up so as to facilitate this kind of coming-to-terms: there’s no-one to speak to, nothing to distract yourself with.