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.