Sunday, August 28, 2011

My History of Meditation

A couple posts back I did a review of a book by Livia Kohn that was about a specific meditational practice that she translates as "sitting in oblivion" and which I have tended to call "sitting and forgetting". An anonymous person asked if I would write something specific about what I have been taught about meditation, so I thought I'd spend a post discussing this subject.

The first thing to understand is that a person isn't a "blank slate" that comes to a meditation teacher to have the "wonderous technique" inscribed on their being. Instead, they come with a very large amount of personal experience. In my case, I grew up on a farm and spent an enormous amount of time working at very tedious jobs. One of them involved hoeing an absolutely enormous vegetable garden. (We raised almost all of our own food.) I found that the only way I could stand the boredom was by making a game of the work. This involved willing myself to become a "hoeing machine". That is I would totally focus on the work of hoeing to the exclusion of all other thoughts. This involved trying to become totally and completely aware of the bodily sensation of working the hoe.

Another appallingly boring job involved driving tractor---often until late at night. I got around this by similarly becoming a "driving machine". I also used to talk to myself----I would have long monologues on a variety of subjects.

These two aspects of my personal history taught me to deal with boredom by developing an "interior life". I once had a housekeeping foreman tell me that he never hired stupid people to be janitors because he found that the boredom would drive them to distraction. He said that smart people never get bored---because they always have something "in their heads" to keep them occupied.

My first formal meditation experience came about in somewhat unusual circumstances. I was at university, living in residence, and a hall-advisor had come to me to ask about another person in residence that I'd been seen with. This guy had gotten drunk the night before and said that he had a rifle and was thinking about going up on one of the buildings on campus to start shooting people at random. The police had been informed, who had contacted the advisor, who asked me.

This "freaked me out", so I sat down with this fellow in the student pub to find out about him. He told me a pretty sad story: his parents had run away on him at a young age and his sister had supported him by working in a body rub parlour (i.e. as a prostitute.) His first job had been as a "repo man" taking away things like television sets from people who had purchased them on time and couldn't make the payments.

He left the table after sharing this with me and I ended up sitting by myself feeling pretty bumbed.

At that moment a fellow sat down next to me, ordered two beers for me and introduced himself. He was one of those "hale fellow, well met, types" and we started talking about this, that and the other thing. It came out that he was a Buddhist and his brother was a monk in one of the Tibetan flavoured sects. I commented that religion was a lot of hocum and all I believed in was "science".

He responded by saying that it wasn't scientific to reject something without experimentation. I asked how someone could "experiment" with religion and he said that "meditation" was experimentation in religion. He made a good case, so I asked how someone meditated. He said that one way was to sit still and repeat some phrase over and over again. He said that what you said didn't matter, just that you repeated it.

I got home that night and thought I'd sit down, make up a mantra and repeat it over and over. So I did just that. Almost instantly I felt a very strong force from the base of my spine punching up and out the top of my head. I was having an "out of body experience".

This got me quite interested in the whole meditation thing. As a result, I spent a lot of time doing things like sitting and quieting my mind, hatha yoga, repeating mantras, meditating in the forest, etc, etc. I used to bump into the guy I'd met in the bar once in a while and he'd offer suggestions---once he said I should walk around and just focus on all the parallel lines that I could identify in the building.

I used to read all the books I could on the subject of meditation and try out all the techniques described. For example, I read all the books by Carlos Castenada (who I later found out was a complete fraud) and did things like meditate in dried-up ponds in order to find the "water spirit". I also once took a massive dose of magic mushrooms after staying awake and fasting for 48 hours (to magnify the effects, which it certainly did.)

Eventually, I decided to learn a martial art, which led me to joining a taijiquan club, which in turn led me to joining an organization led by a Daoishi. In turn, I joined a temple he founded and was initiated into his lineage. He had a brother initiate from Hong Kong who would visit Canada once in a while. He would hold meditation workshops (and initiated me into the lineage.) At these workshops all he would do is have people sit in a specific posture. He would walk around and correct our posture. Whenever we thought we couldn't handle the pain anymore, we'd get up. Everything else was a case of "figure it out for yourself".

Since then I continued to study meditation. I've been to various Buddhist retreats and classes. I also went for weekly spiritual direction for years with a variety of Roman Catholic types. I've also gone through a lot of different phases. For years I had an altar that I did "sitting and forgetting" at. For other years, I did walking meditation while reciting a Buddhist rosary. Now, I focus primarily on taijiquan, reading and writing things like this blog.

In summary, my experience tells me that while there are a great many things that you can do while meditating, most of the more dramatic effects are "blind alleys". The only really worthwhile thing that a person can seek is wisdom and greater control over the different aspects of his mind. I also believe that, contrary to what many folks have told me and what I've read in most books, almost all forms of meditation are very similar. They all boil down to learning how to control the "monkey chatter" in a person's mind. There are a wide variety of methods to do this, but ultimately they come down to learning to "think about thinking". And once you've started to do this, you can see that there are various processes at work that can be changed through disciplined effort.

I hope that some of the above is of value to others. Questions are always accepted.


Anonymous said...

that anonymous: :-) and thank you

the interesting part to me about the "restored original instruction you got from your master" is:
"... I joined a temple he founded and was initiated into his lineage. He had a brother initiate from Hong Kong who would visit Canada once in a while. He would hold meditation workshops (and initiated me into the lineage.) At these workshops all he would do is have people sit in a specific posture. He would walk around and correct our posture. Whenever we thought we couldn't handle the pain anymore, we'd get up. Everything else was a case of "figure it out for yourself"."

what else do we know from previous post "Zuowang: "Sitting and Forgetting"" is:
"The school where I was taught "sitting and forgetting" did absolutely nothing at all to explain what it was that we were being exposed to. We were told to "just sit" and figure it out for ourselves. ...

Of course, memory plays tricks and the meditation sessions I attended were a long, long time ago. It might be that the Daoshi who taught us felt that the translation available wasn't up to the task of explaining what was going on."

and from another post, that the master was probably "Moy Lin Shin"

I was thinking that since Zuowang is said to be the "key Daoist spiritual practice", there could be the most possible amount of writings on instruction from the most possible original sources, no matter what these turn out to be, for scholarly and private uses...

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

" there could be the most possible amount of writings on instruction from the most possible original sources"

I'm sorry, but there is a communication problem here. Are you asking for a source of info on "sitting and forgetting"? If so, the Livia Kohn book I reviewed is the absolute best one I've seen.

Having said that, I am not alone in thinking that "just sit and figure it out yourself" is the best way to pursue this stuff. I have been told by a Zen Priest that some schools of Zen follow a similar prescription. (I believe that Zen or Chan is a Buddhist adoption of the "sitting and forgetting" practice.)

Lots of folks go to great lengths to find differences between different schools of meditation, but from a lifetime of investigation I've come to the conclusion that the differences are trivial. Ultimately, meditation all boils down to introspection, or, "thinking about thinking". And no matter how good someone is at explaining things (and I think that I'm one of the best people around for explaining things), everyone has to "figure it out for herself".

baroness radon said...

I think you mean "Daoshi", not "Daoishi." (Sorry, I'm a copy editor, and studying Chinese too.) I think it means more like a tutor, a teacher or guide, not necessarily priest (as someone ordained). A priest would be jiaoshi. Although your daoshi may have been a jiaoshi. I only mention this because you refer to his temple and lineage.

In any case, I think a teacher or a guide is important, even essential. Yes, meditation is a solitary, internal process, but just as you couldn't learn qigong or taichi without a teacher, I don't think meditation without some guidance works. Though the insights and the feelings you get from thee practices do come as realizations on your own after...practice.

Livia Kohn is wonderful, but there are also lots of classic texts in translation, but they probably won't make any sense without that guidance of a teacher. It's all metaphor anyway, as my daoshi has said.

Your OOBE sounds like kundalini to me.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Yes, I meant "Daoshi", not "Daoishi". I've never heard anything about a "jiaoshi", but I have had people refer to people as a "jushi". Some people said that all these people are are glorified janitors at the temple.

Ultimately, I haven't a clue about this stuff. I don't know Chinese, I've never been to China, let alone other Daoist Temples. People go to one Temple and think that that means they know about all the others, which makes about as much sense as a Methodist thinking that they understand the Greek Orthodox church.

I picked up the term "Daoshi" from academics, not from the Moy Lin Shin and Moi Ming Do. Moy was first only called "Mister", then he morphed into "Master" at some point.

As for "teachers". I've had a lot of those. But they tended to be people who didn't fit into any sort of orthodox lineage thingeee. For example, the guy I met in a bar. Even Moy and Moi seemed to have somewhat dodgy credentials.

I'm a big fan of "yah pays your money, yah makes your choices." Ultimately you end up "figuring it out for yourself" even if it's nothing more than deciding exactly which teacher you want to listen to.

Anonymous said...

dear "Cloudwalking Owl", since you said "Questions are always accepted.", I have a few:

1. did Moy Lin Shin or Moi Ming Do (or the daoshi, who taught you) explicitly said to you, that this was zuowang, what they were teaching?

2. did they make any reference to scriptures or other writings regarding that practice?

3. did you find zuowang meditation instruction in written form anywhere else except livia kohns books? if so, where?

4. was there any practice taught regarding zuowang to be done outside of sitting meditation, I mean while earning living, ...

thank you

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Dear Anonymous:

1: Moy and Moi didn't speak English and our translation was less than perfect. As well, none of the people involved had anything like an academic understanding of what was going on. As a result, a word like "Zuowang" certainly would never have come up. Instead, this was always called things like "sitting",and, "the original Zen". The problem with doing things through translators is that you never know where the words came from and how good the translation is.

Let me give you an example. I've had academically-inclined people tear a strip off me because I called some Daoist scriptures "sutras" instead of "jings". What these guys refused to understand is that that was the word that was used.

2: Nope. No scriptural reference was ever used. That sort of thing would have been pretty much impossible for the translation that was available. One of the projects that Moy Lin Shin came up with was to have some books translated. That's where Eva Wong (who was initiated in the same era as I) started doing translations. Unfortunately, her abilities as a translator are greatly wanting and I've never found them terribly useful.

We used to chant "sutras" (or "jings") in temple, but they were the transliterated Chinese and none of us understood a word of them. (I'm not even sure that people literate in Chinese would, either.)

3 I have other translations of "sitting and forgetting" texts besides those in the appendix of Livia Kohn's book. Louis Komjathy's "handbooks of Daoist practice" for example. Beyond that, I have read a lot of Zen Buddhist books and gone to various workshops. I was specifically told that "sitting" was the origin of Zen, although I think that is probably more true of Soto Zen than Rinzai.

4 Any meditation practice that is worth doing bleeds into your day-to-day life. And modern Westerners are prey to this weird fixation on meditation to the exclusion of all other elements of spiritual practice. One clear example of this is the way modern Buddhists refuse to consider any of the other elements of the "eight fold path" as being important parts of the Buddhist lifestyle.

In the same way, Daoism is much more than just meditation. Traditionally it also involves a code of conduct (especially for people who lived at Temples), gynmastics like taijiquan, scholarly study and aesthetics like art, calligraphy and music.

Conceptually, it is possible to separate out sitting and forgetting from this context. But I doubt if one can make much progress by simply scotch-taping the practice on a life that inherently out-of-sync with the Dao.