There are countless people who teach ‘meditation’ as a kind of therapeutic means of relaxation. They call it meditation, but they have no idea what meditation is. Things would be much simpler if the majority of teachers on the spiritual scene stopped using terms such as awakening, enlightenment and meditation, and began to confine their work to the field of therapy, which is important in its own right.
Fortunately, we can also find more serious and mature approaches to meditation within various teachings. However, each one has its shortcomings, meaning it does not present the complete picture of what meditation truly is. Meditation can be seen as a form of practice and cultivation of various states or as pure abidance in our true nature. It was discovered in Zen that it is not meditation that leads to awakening but rather awakening that leads to meditation. To abide in an awakened state is meditation. But before we go into this more deeply, let’s look at some of the different misconceptions about meditation that currently exist.
Perhaps the most major shortcoming of most meditative practices is the fact that they are being done from the wrong place – the wrong doer. The true meditative state is by its very nature beyond the mind: it is a state of being, of existing and evolving as the awakened soul. However, any practice of meditation which uses artificial means or techniques – such as mindfulness, watching thoughts or the breath, or repeating mantras – is by definition based on the efforts of the observer, meaning it is all mind based. Whatever we do in meditation, it is the observer who is doing it. So, while the observer can achieve some things and has an important role to play, its ability to produce a meditative state is very limited because that meditative state is beyond it.
Having said this, these types of practices based on the observer can in their own right produce certain results or outcomes. There are two main effects: one is to make the observer weaker and less conscious of itself, and the second is to make it stronger. This weakening of the observer is often erroneously interpreted as having less ego, because the ego becomes less conscious of itself. In reality, however, the ego is in no way lessened: it is in fact strengthening its existence by becoming more unconscious, more confused and more lost. On the other hand, any practice that involves concentration, cultivation of mindfulness or one-pointedness aims at strengthening the observer. It is a common approach, especially in Buddhism, which is working extensively with the observer either to solidify it or to train it in disidentification from the mind. Indeed, it is quite ironic that the Buddhist path, which denies the existence of self, is so much oriented towards its crystallization in the form of the observer. One can also develop the observer through breathing practices or mantra repetition, although in this case the observer can become so hypnotized that it drifts instead into states of absent-mindedness.
Why it is important to develop the observer? When the observer is weak, we become dominated by the subconscious mind and have no power to oppose the constant inflow of thoughts and mental impressions. It is a delicate matter because if the observer is overdeveloped, one becomes overly self-conscious and extremely mental and when the time comes to get rid of it, it is very difficult: too much energy is concentrated in the head and this produces tensions and discomfort. The observer needs to be developed but not too much, just enough to solidify our sense of me to a degree. So, while it is important, basing one’s practice on working with mindfulness can be a serious error that prevents our ability to go beyond the observer.
The deeper dimension of me, beyond the observer, is conscious me. Conscious me can be seen as the observer conscious of itself. But the moment the observer becomes truly conscious of itself, he is no longer an observer. The observer conscious of itself should not be confused with the observer observing the observer. The self-conscious observer is not conscious me: it is the observer objectifying itself through self-reference. In conscious me, there is nothing to observe; me is in the state of presence as experienced in the front of the headspace. Awakening of conscious me is an important step in the process of entering true meditation for he represents the first level of pure subjectivity.
As we said, having a stronger observer enables one to have a bit more control over the chaotic arising of thoughts. The observer cannot stop the thinking, but he can quickly recognize that thinking is happening and bring a temporary halt to that movement of thoughts. Here, it is perhaps useful to point towards the fact that thoughts themselves are not equal, not only in content but in the sense of how much they are connected to consciousness itself. Many want to have peace of mind or a silent mind, but first we must understand what the mind actually is. The natural human mind consists of three types or levels of thought, all of which are experienced to varying degrees in each person: subconscious thinking, semi-conscious thinking and conscious thinking. In addition there is a fourth kind of thinking, that which we call intelligence, that only becomes present when thinking arises from within the awakened state of pure consciousness.
One of the main problems that people experience when they first begin to meditate is the constant flux of subconscious thoughts. Subconscious thinking is involuntary; it is similar to daydreaming. One is thinking but does not know that one is thinking. The next level of thinking is semi-conscious. This indicates that the minimum of the observer is present and that we have a stronger sense of participating in the thinking process. Finally, there is conscious thinking, which simply means that we choose to think; we consciously participate in our thoughts. A deeper level of conscious thinking is contemplative thinking which takes place from conscious me. Having a more developed observer allows one to shift more energy from subconscious thinking towards conscious thinking. However, it is important to emphasize that the observer alone cannot arrest the mind other than momentarily. The reason for this is simple: the observer derives his existence from his relationship with thoughts. Without thinking of some kind or another, there is no observer, so there is no one to stop that very mind.
Because these attempts to arrest the mind are unsuccessful, other than perhaps entering a state of trance, one of the well-known approaches to meditation is to create more distance between the observer and the mind. Both Advaita and Buddhism have suggested several approaches to achieve this. The first approach is called ‘watching the mind’. Here, the observer is not merely picking up incoming thoughts: he is waiting for them and remaining in his observing seat as they arise, not getting involved. For this to be possible, the observer already has to have a slightly stronger sense of self, which suggests it is in a stage of development between the regular observer and conscious me. When this watching is done properly, there will be more conscious thinking than subconscious thinking because the very nature of subconscious thinking is that no one can watch it other than in delay: one recognizes that one was thinking just a moment ago. Watching the mind has its benefits, but one should not get attached to this approach. After all, it is still a mental effort; the condition of watching one’s thinking is ultimately very unnatural. When we think, we think – there is no point in watching it. It is a valid tool for beginners, but one should be cautious not to get stuck in it.
An extension of watching the mind is watching it with the intention of remaining detached from thoughts. Most thoughts that manifest carry information that is important to us; there is often an emotional charge to thoughts as they relate to our desires or fears. This makes the watching difficult. You would not merely watch someone cutting your finger off nor would you want to watch yourself making love or dancing. In order to maintain the watching position and not get caught in thoughts, the device of cultivating mental disidentification from the content of thoughts is employed. This too has its value but, again, should not be taken to an extreme because it will result in the repression of our natural tendencies. We should not forget that there is a positive dimension to the mind and that many of our thoughts are related to healthy desires: the need for security, creativity and positive emotions. Without processing various kinds of information in the mind, we could not exist as humans. So as far as this method goes, one should not be cultivating complete detachment from the mind but rather a positive disidentification from thoughts that are either useless or negative in nature.
The next approach to meditation carries the elements of self-enquiry or contemplation into the nature of the mind. Who is doing that self-enquiry? Who can contemplate the mind? It is, of course, that very same observer. The observer usually has pre-conceived notions of what the result of his contemplation should be. For instance, a Buddhist may contemplate the mind to intellectually confirm that there is no self there or that all the manifestations of the mind are impermanent. Someone with a background in jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge) may choose to contemplate the thought ‘I am not the mind. I am the witness’. All these contemplations have value, but we need to be aware of their limitations as well. Firstly, one may reach erroneous conclusions when one has begun with such fixed views as to what conclusions should be reached. The mind can easily imagine things that do not exist or are purely mental in nature. Secondly, the one who is conducting all these enquiries is the observer, and since he himself represents a rather low sense of self, how far can he take us? Whatever conclusions or attainments the observer reaches, he remains stuck in the mind like a prison inmate.
While we’re on the subject of the observer, we need to look at two other approaches to meditation: mantra repetition and watching the breath. Using mantras is nothing but a desperate attempt to replace uncontrollable thinking with thoughts which are chosen, in this case, saying the same word or set of words over and over again. There is a small benefit to that technique, which is the development of a certain concentration in the mind. However, on a larger scale it cannot yield any change to our fundamental state of ignorance. On the contrary, it will either over-crystallize the observer or manifest all kinds of hypnotic states in the mind.
As for watching the breath, again, it is quite artificial. Certainly, it may pacify one’s emotions and energy and help those who are very unconscious to establish a point of focus. But a higher level practice with breath is not to watch it but to feel it. Even though the observer is also partially engaged in this practice, feeling the breath is experienced from our sense of self that is located in the belly. When done in moderation, apart from other benefits, it can open the energy of being as well as bring some emotional healing. Feeling the breath also helps us to learn how to properly breathe from the belly, which in turn assists the transformation of our energy body. It also has a grounding effect.
A commonly used term directly related to the function of the observer is attention. Attention is related to mindfulness, but mindfulness is both a wider term than attention and a wider state of the observer. Attention is the energy of the observer which is focused in a particular direction. It is like zooming a flash light in on a wall: the smaller the circle of light is, the more concentrated it becomes. We often hear about being attentive or having total attention, but most meditators have no understanding of what attention actually is. The observer is in relationship with the observed (as the thinker is in relationship with the thought) and for that relationship to be conscious, he has to pay attention to that object. The energy of attention has to be used economically because applying too much attention depletes the resources of the mind and wastes energy. Attention has to be both focused and relaxed in order to replenish itself.
As we evolve, so does attention. Any animal knows very well, much better than humans in fact, how to pay attention to the environment, mostly driven by fear and hunger. When the observer develops its ability for self-reflection, he is not only paying attention to the environment but also to himself. This is what most people call ego. Paying excessive attention to oneself can be quite uncomfortable as it isolates us from the world around us, hence the misguided idea to dissolve ego is so appealing. When the observer pays attention to himself, he is in fact objectifying his own presence; he becomes a sort of subjective object.
The next level in the evolution of attention is when that duality within the construct of the observer is eliminated. When the state of self-attention relaxes into the now, it becomes conscious me. This is where attention is transformed into awareness. Awareness is not paying attention: it dwells in its own presence. As long as we exist, we must use attention, but now we begin to use it not from the observer but from our deeper, conscious me. Then there exists an even deeper dimension of attention, pure attention, which is an extension of pure me that travels between different centers of the soul. The soul pays attention through pure attention which is free from any trace of objectification. Pure attention is the spirit of cognition that embraces all the aspects of the soul as one being.
To complete the subject of the observer, we must realize that no type of mental exertion can take us into meditation. For instance, mindfulness of environment has nothing to do with the meditative state. Rather, it is about developing the one-pointed faculty of me. For many people, mindfulness is appealing because it gives relief from being so hopelessly locked in the mind, but it is not a solution to our unawakened state. Meditation is not being aware of environment but being conscious of who one really is and, only from that place, embracing the perception of the outer world. To be too mindful of the environment is entirely unnatural; even animals like to space out or relax the faculty of attention. Those who train themselves excessively in mindfulness become too self-controlled, too rigid, and their ego becomes over-developed.
So, if no effort on the part of the observer can take us into meditation, what can we do? Just be? One cannot just be because there is nobody to be; the mind cannot just be. Does meditation come to us when we relax and just wait for it? Krishnamurti once said that meditation comes like a breeze entering in through the window: all we can do is keep the window open. But is it really so? What about, instead of waiting for that breeze to come in, stepping out of the room and into the wind?
There is a bunch of fellows who say that everything they do is meditation. They walk or dance and they say this is their way of ‘meditating’. Why do they need to call it meditation at all? They can just call it walking or dancing, but they have the inner need to make their ordinary walking or dancing more meaningful. Some of them are just too sloppy or lazy to do any meditation practice while making all those claims. Why? Is it to have a sense of being spiritual? It is better not to be spiritual at all than to be spiritual in a fake way. Similarly, there are those who say that everything they do is Zen because everything is Zen. There is the Zen of motorcycle maintenance, Zen of tea drinking, Zen of fishing and Zen of spacing out. All these types of Zen can be put under one title: the Zen of bullshit…
Meditation begins with entering the realm of pure subjectivity, with awakening to our essential nature. Only awakening can take us into the space beyond the observer. There are three doorways through which we enter that non-objective space of existence, our true nature: consciousness, heart and being. The three aspects of our existence constitute the three centers of our soul and the three portals to the universal self. Meditation in its pure form has two fundamental dimensions: embodying our true self and merging with the beyond. These two must be perfectly balanced. If one reaches a degree of absorption in the inner realm without meeting his or her true self, the soul remains unawakened and one simply does not know who one is. On the other hand, if the three centers of the soul are awakened, but we have not merged with the inner realm, the pure nature of our existence cannot be fully realized and we are still not free.
It is perhaps the Soto school of Zen Buddhism which, with its concept of shikantaza or just sitting, had the greatest insights into the nature of meditation. This school made an important attempt to solve that spiritual paradox that one cannot really evolve unless one is already awakened. They tried to integrate the understanding of the spiritual path as both the means to enlightenment and the goal in itself. In their understanding, we sit zazen not to reach awakening, but rather to express our Buddha nature. The practice of shikantaza can be simply described as abiding in the state of just being.
Though this contribution to the science of the spiritual path was valuable, we need to see its limitations and potential pitfalls. Firstly, one cannot sit in the state of just being unless one is awakened, and awakening cannot manifest by simply holding the intention to sit in shikantaza. In fact, many Zen masters warned against the false or ‘dead’ shikantaza where one is sitting with the correct attitude but is not experiencing one’s true nature. This shikantaza lacks illumination. Additionally, assuming that one is in the correct state of just being, the condition of just being can be experienced on several levels and with varying degrees of depth. For instance, one can just be in the state of awareness (which is not an awakened condition); one can just be in pure consciousness; one can just be in a certain depth of being (which is not an awakened condition); one can just be in the absolute state, and one can just be in a more perfect or more imperfect combination of these states.
There are some spiritual schools that negate the need for sitting in meditation. While it is true that the state of meditation must be integrated with the active principle of living in the world, sitting practice has always been the foundation for all true seekers and masters. Buddha sat until the end of his life and so did Ramana Maharishi. At a certain point it was no longer a practice for them but a natural way of living; they were drawn to sit because sitting opens the doorways to a deeper penetration of the inner dimension. Some of the Advaita schools deny the need for sitting in meditation other than at the feet of a guru. But we can see that most of those who say these things are extremely ungrounded to the point of being imbalanced, and that their experience of their inner self, if any, remains very shallow. Not having the necessary depth in the vertical plane of being, they most often drift into various mystical states.
Another school that does not indicate the necessity of sitting is Dzogchen. The idea of Dzogchen is that one becomes initiated by a master into the state of rigpa (bare awareness), and then one simply needs to stabilize it and integrate through their form of self-remembrance. This school has much to offer in terms of mastering the art of work with consciousness but has its own limitations as well. First, it lacks the conceptual differentiation between the realization of consciousness and the source. In their view, they are the same; they are our original nature. As such, they do not acknowledge the limitations of realizing consciousness alone. The awakening of consciousness is of great importance, but it is just the beginning of our evolution into our higher nature. Dzogchen does not emphasize sitting meditation for the simple reason that sitting is not a must in the work with consciousness (even though it is of great assistance). However, for energy to drop into being and begin to evolve towards unity with the source, one must sit. Sitting allows energy to fall into the unmanifested, into the gravity of the ground of existence. Without the practice of sitting, the energy of the vital force will always fluctuate, moving upwards and away from the absolute.
Perhaps there was once a secret teaching in Dzogchen differentiating between the realization of rigpa and the absolute, but it is nowhere to be found in the present version of this tradition. In addition, as in many Buddhist schools, the conscious intention to awaken our spiritual heart is absent. They compensate for this lack through activating the quality of compassion for other beings. While compassion can open our heart to a degree, realizing the true nature of our heart goes far beyond mere compassion – it allows us to awaken our divine essence and actualize the state of love. Since Buddhism is a path that tries to eradicate the causes of suffering, it has natural resistance to go into the heart because every being who enters his or her heart has to go through a deep confrontation with their human pain. Indeed, compassion can often be a way of escaping the pain of our own heart. It is not enough to feel compassion to others or even devotion to the divine to realize our heart. We must meet our own self in the depth of the heart as the light of I am. And on the way, there will be pain.
The actualization of our spiritual heart changes the quality of meditation. Not only does it illuminate the state of consciousness and being with the light of love and profound intimacy, but it also acts as an energetic bridge between consciousness and the absolute, allowing the soul to merge into one self so that she can become whole.
Meditation is a science of spiritual transformation. Our perception of meditation is directly tied to our knowledge of the inner realm and our perception of human evolution. The path of meditation is not one of many paths – it is the only path. Those who do not meditate are not on the path to their pure nature. To sit in meditation is to confront our existence directly – there is no escape. Before our meditation becomes a natural state of bliss, peace and deep rest in existence, our consciousness has to be transformed and it is hard work. Those who seek the easy way out should not enter the path to meditation. It is difficult, but not too difficult; it is just difficult enough to test our resolve and devotion to our very self. Very soon it becomes easy and simple. When there is enough understanding and sincere intention to grow into our light, we will be assisted by the whole of existence to reach inner fulfillment and become our higher self, for this is the very reason we have entered creation.
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