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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

High interest rates

What do high interest rates have to do with meditation?

When I meditate, I often find myself distracted by thoughts that pull me into them.  Why?  Because, at some level, I am interested in them and where they will lead me:  the solution to a problem, an answer to a question, a memory from the past, a plan for the future.  I have to remind myself that I am not meditating for these purposes.  I have to refuse to pay the "interest rates" these diversions cost me by disengaging from these thoughts, by letting them go.

Sometimes I encounter clients who seem to be going over and over the same ground, such as a loss, trauma, or injustice.  There has to be a motivation behind this; perhaps at some level they hope that by continuously going over the same ground they will achieve some insight and with it a sense of satisfaction or closure.  Perhaps they believe that they can think away the problem.  Maybe it is just a desire to impress upon those who listen how deeply affected they have been and to experience the sympathy from others.  Whatever caused their suffering initially tends to be compounded by a secondary form of suffering in the form of this repetitive spinning and the emotions that it generates.  But many people have great difficulty breaking out of these cycles, of disengaging from them, and letting them go.  They seem to have a stake in going over and over the same content, an interest that keeps them engaged and bound.  Thus, they continue to pay exorbitant interest rates at the cost of their mental health.

To break these cycles, it is first of all necessary to recognize the cost of them.  It is not that we cannot think about our issues or tell others about them, but we have to be able to break out of repetitive cycles once they have become a secondary source of suffering. This can be done at the level of mental training or the level of action.  The level of action is perhaps easiest.  We can keep busy and thereby divert ourselves from the repetitive thinking.  We can recognize when we are getting caught up in these cycles and use that as a cue to act and do something that is important to us.  

Breaking out of repetitive cycles can also be done through mental training and meditation is especially effective for this.  This requires an awareness of the purpose of these cycles, a willingness to let go of them, an ability to recognize when they appear, and the disciplined use of noting to disengage from them.  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What's wrong with thinking?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about thinking and its relationship to meditation.  I remember when I was first learning to meditate in a Zen context as a mere lad of 19.  Thinking seemed to have a really bad rap in that context.  I won’t blame my teachers for my misconceptions, but I was under the impression that thinking was not a good thing.  That was a problem since I was a philosophy major at the time.  For that matter, in whatever I have done since, I have had to do a lot of thinking.  In fact, it could be said that I have made my living by thinking.

Certainly thinking is not a bad thing.  We would be in serious trouble if it were.  Being symbol using beings is what presumably separates us from “lower” beings.  It has enabled us to become  problem solvers who have command over our environment.  (On second thought, that may not have been an entirely good thing.)

Sometimes people have the idea that meditation is taking time to reflect and think about their issues. But meditation, at least the form of meditation that I teach, is not mentation, however helpful that may be at times.

Thinking certainly shows up in meditation; in fact, it is pretty much the dominant thing that goes on when we are meditating.  In the Mahasi style meditation that I teach, we are supposed to note thinking in all its varieties and to let it go.  The noting actually works most of the time, although sometimes we can get trapped in some kind of obsessive train of thought and we have to deal with it in deeper ways.  What we are trying to get to is sometimes described as “bare attention,” a mode of awareness that is more sensory than cogitative.  It is sensory in that it is an immediate apprehension of its object, whereas thinking is by its nature mediated and so is not in direct contact with the object.

I sometimes illustrate for a client the difference between mediated and immediate apprehension of an object with whatever furniture is handy.  I may take a table and start talking about the table, what it is made of, where it was purchased, my experiences with it, how I feel about it and so on.  Then I stroke the table with my hand and close my eyes to shut out distractions so I can really feel the table.  For me to really feel the table, I have to stop thinking about it since the two modes of apprehension are incompatible.  The sensory apprehension itself may not be bare attention, but it is largely free of thinking.

I made a brief list of the adjectives that clients often use to describe their thinking processes.  It is not complete, but it will do: racing, repetitive, intrusive, unbidden, obsessive, random, ruminative.  These are clearly unwanted forms of thinking, examples of over-thinking.  Meditation is a great antidote to over-thinking.  However, it is not designed to rid us of thinking altogether.  Remember we need to think, but we don’t need to think while meditating.  When we meditate, we begin to be able to let go of thinking.  We focus on the breath and then acknowledge whatever else shows up briefly and let it go.  As we do so we gain a form of control that is not one of exclusion but one of awareness of whatever is happening at the present moment.  We learn to focus and concentrate.  And, guess what, when we are not meditating, we concentrate better and are not subject as much to the kinds of unwanted over-thinking to which we were formerly disposed.  So when we need to think, when it is intentional and directed, we can do so.  Meditation, which is not a form of thinking, is an aid to thinking in this positive sense.

letting go versus getting rid of

When my clients experience negative emotions, they are quite eager to see them go away.  They often associate therapeutic procedures with getting rid of these emotions.  Meditation is seen in the same light.  When they hear of "letting go," they think they are going to get rid of these troublesome emotions.

I frequently demonstrate the difference between letting go and getting rid of something by holding a pen in my hand.  To illustrate getting rid of the pen, I throw the pen forcefully on the ground.  To illustrate letting go of the pen I open my hand and incline it slightly so that the pen gently rolls down my outstretched hand and falls to the ground.  Letting go involves opening the mind and inclining it towards the release of whatever shows up (whether it be negatively or positively charged) so that it falls away of its own weight.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Wandering and desire


I have observed my wandering mind and have detected the role of desire in my getting caught up with the topics that pop up.

Let's suppose I am meditating and I start to wonder if the change I got at the store today was correct.  I start calculating the difference between what I gave the clerk and what I received back with my purchase.  Then I remember that I am supposed to be meditating.  I should let it go, right?  I note "calculating, calculating, calculating..." and the calculating stops (if for no other reason than that the energy involved in noting takes away the energy required to obtain an answer).  However, let's suppose I really want to know the answer and so I continue calculating until I get the answer.  When I get the answer I may be relieved (I did get the right change after all), which is what I hope will happen, or not (the clerk made an error or, perhaps, intentionally cheated me).  The critical point in the process is when desire gets the upper hand and prevents me from letting go.  What ties me to the calculating is the desire to get the answer, and, with it, to provide relief that I did get the right change or, alternatively, to confirm my suspicion that I did not get the right change.

Planning is probably one of the most common afflictions of meditators.  Substitute planning for calculating in the example.  The same process takes place.  It is the desire to resolve things, to have a good plan, and the relief that we think it will bring, that gets us caught in planning while we meditate.  To let go of planning we should note it.  However, more importantly, we should see behind it the desire to resolve things, to get to the plan that will solve all problems, to get to the peace of closure.  Meanwhile, we get caught up in and spin around with planning and forego the peace of being focused and mindful at the present moment.