Meditation without control – lessons from India

For the last two months, I’ve been in India on a sort of meditative retreat.  I say “sort of” because it’s not a true retreat – I am dealing with all the chaos of India, roads, and people – and much of the meditation is informal, unlike almost all retreats in the West.

It’s a funny thing how people get into meditation.  We read articles about the wonderful brain states it can coax forth, even inner peace.  People get sold into the lifestyle – mindfulness is promoted even in the corporate world now.  According to promotional writings, regular meditation can bring incredible benefits, including physical health, creativity, relaxation, energy, confidence, and a sense of oneness.  So we strive for that.

But meditation is not about doing something.  It’s not about getting anywhere or getting results.  Trying to do meditation, to get somewhere else, is in my opinion a mental masturbation.  A mindfuck.  That’s one thing I’ve had plenty of in my life.  Not any more.

The Holy Mountain of Arunachala


Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India.   An incredibly holy place in India.  The city buttresses a mountain, Arunachala, which is said to be a physical incarnation of Shiva, the god of fire and transformation.  On every full moon, literally hundreds of thousands of people circuit the mountain barefoot, blocking all the roads, creating lines of cars and buses miles long.  It’s quite a sight.  It’s also associated with Ramana Maharshi, one of the most revered Indian saints of the 20th century, who lived a simple life of meditation, never traveling or proselytizing, but affecting people with his silence and presence to a profound degree.  His tradition was advaita vedanta, which a Hindu tradition of non-dualism, somewhat analogous to the Buddhist concept of anatta, or no-self.  

In the advaita vedanta tradition, there is no formal meditation technique.  There’s suggestions, such as simply looking for who this “I” is.  Who am I?  What is this thing called myself?  The “I” that was behind what I called “me” from a child to an adult.   This is not a technique or an intellectual curiosity, but a quest to loosen identification and even the idea that there is an “I”.  The theory is that if we look clearly, with a passion and without any preconceptions or control, it is possible to drop all the filters and identities we have and experience being pure awareness.  Pure awareness, consciousness before labels and comparison, is the meditative state.

In the Ramana Maharshi ashram, there are several halls, including a formal meditation hall, but it is completely unstructured.  If you just feel like normal meditation, you can sit there. If you’re a little too restless or fidgety, you can meditate in the large new hall, where chanting and singing occurs. If you need motion, you can do a walking meditation (pradakshina) around the lingam and shrine. If you need privacy, there’s usually a free chair somewhere in the underused museum or head off up the mountain on a trail. There’s a library for inspiration, which is delightfully well stocked for a spiritual retreat center.  Aside from the many wonderful Advaita Vedanta teachers such as Ramana Maharshi , Nisagardatta Maharaj and Ramesh Balsekar, it includes a good Buddhist library, books from other religions, plus a decent library of fiction – even Harry Potter.  Even the library has no dictates about where your mind should go.  

There is no one that rings a bell to start or end meditation.  You meditate when you want and stop when you want.  There are no posture police.  Some people are in strict zen postures while others slouch against the wall, letting their legs fall flat to the floor.  While there is a great sense of sacredness in the ashram, with hundreds or thousands of pilgrims visiting each day, there is no forced silence.  Peacock cries and monkey fights add to the ambiance, as do the regular chanting of the Vedas, a sanskrit text thousands of years old.   Even the barefoot walk to the indian-style toilets, across a dusty expanse that women sweep over and over throughout the day, past the cows in their goshala shelter, is meditative in its own way.

It’s a sacred place with no control.  There’s no message of how to be spiritual, how to get to this magical thing called inner peace and enlightenment.  There are books to read if you wanted, but no one trying to be a guru. No one’s pushing you to study the teachings. There are no meditation classes and no formal instruction – who would presume to teach in Ramana Maharshi’s place?  The message is “it’s already in you”, not as a theory but as a trust.  Everyone is welcome at the ashram who is seriously interested in this path of Self-enquiry.

Conforming to the formal retreat

I’ve been in 10 day Buddhist retreats before as well as many Shambhala weekend retreats.  There were set schedules, strict silence, teachers lecturing to a passive crowd, and a definitive technique of  meditation to practice.  In this format I felt an unspoken peer pressure to be a good spiritual student – or at least appear the good student.   In other words, even if I wasn’t actually in a meditative state, I wanted to look like a good meditator.   

But because this involved conformity, I also resisted, rebelling internally – in retrospect because I was suppressing parts of myself to sit for those long hours.  Don’t we all learn in school growing up to suppress to keep still and silent in those uncomfortable chairs? Then the backlash came: resentments, feeling guilty about not wanting to meditate, demonizing my ‘resistance’, counting the seconds to the end of the session, and watching and controlling every breath and facial muscle to make sure it was “mindful” and didn’t betray my turbulent state.  Forget that impromptu dance break my body wanted!   At question time, my voice had the proper mindful, submissive tones, even if inwardly there was frustration and feeling something was rotten in the state of Denmark.

Buddhist retreats vary greatly in character, of course, but those qualities were there in varying degree for all the ones I’ve attended.  There is an unspoken rule of speaking and moving in a slow, dignified, controlled manner, no matter what is felt inside.  Some courageous souls do speak out, and I have learned to do this myself, but it is difficult to go against the grain.   (FYI, the strictest was Goenka’s 10 day Vippassana course, which I would in general not recommend to any but those who feel they absolutely need to be trapped in a prison setting to meditate – here is a good idea of what to expect.)

Meditation without a goal

In this “retreat” I’ve had eight weeks of no control.  I sit when I want and where I want. I eat and drink when I want and what I want.  I can climb the mountain, get blessed by holy men at the top, and even go to the occasional social Western party.  Unlike past retreats, there’s no steam cooker of emotions building from suppression, so I don’t want to get drunk and go crazy to blow off steam.  I can not meditate for a day and no one would notice, not even me.  The meditation blends with regular life.  After eight weeks, there is little sense of trying to get anywhere.  There’s no accomplishment, nor is there a sense of disappointment.  Time passes.  After I meditate for three hours, which once would have been a source of pride, there’s more of an internal shrug. This is just what’s happening.


The idea of discipline has changed in me.  Growing up in the west I associated discipline with strictness, keeping an internal whip applied to my brain making sure I follow the path.  If I’m serious about the practice, I should get up and sit for an hour each day no matter how I’m feeling, right?  But this created my internal rebellion, and even a dissociative split in my psyche.  The “spiritual” part of me was on the cushion while the rest of me zoned out and flew away.

The etymological root of discipline comes from the latin discere, which means “to learn”.  The word disciple comes from the same root.  I’ve had to relearn that proper discipline is simply what supports learning.  It supports true learning and intelligence – not the rote memorization and obedience that are enforced in most schools.  Especially when it comes to self-awareness, learning about one’s true nature absolutely requires releasing habits of internal control.  How can you know yourself if you’re constantly restricting your thoughts and emotions?

The state of meditation is not a technique.  If it were it could be taught in our schools as a formula and we all would be enlightened.  There are schools that try to do this for adults – and they’re generally called cults.

I’ve had glimpses of what that meditative state is.  It’s called different things in different traditions.  The Self, or Atman, in the Hindu tradition.  Buddha nature.  Basic Goodness in Shambhala.  Essentially, it’s a state of pure awareness, where there is no “I”.  There is just breathing.  Shit happens.  There is no “I” to give a fuck about life’s frustrations, but there is still a sense of fullness, curiosity and caring.  There’s a great sense of play.  And irreverence.  If you are awareness and oneness, respect and disrespect are simply two sides of the same oneness.

If it’s effort, you’re not meditating

Let me repeat that again: The meditative state is not work.  It took me 20 years to start to get that one. The essence of meditation is relaxation.  Like most westerners, I had no clue what that is, thinking relaxing was something you had to work at.  I sent repeated “RELAX!” messages to my body, which of course didn’t work.  I thought enlightenment was something you desperately strived for.  But the concepts of detachment and equanimity are really just synonyms for relaxation.  Letting things happen without any control. Not the pina colada on a Mexican beach kind of relaxation, but the relaxation that comes from the deep experience that things are actually just perfect as they are, so you might as well let go.  And yes, “perfect” includes a lot of uncomfortable emotions at times.

I know that if I think I’m meditating, I’m not.  Because part of meditation is that “no self”, or a state of flow where things just happen.  There’s no longer an “I am breathing” – there’s just breathing.  Breathing happens.  There may be tensions in the body, but they are just there and it’s not my job to fix it.  Thoughts may happen and it’s not even my job to bring my attention back to the breath, for then there would be a “me”, an effort, and a right or wrong way to do things.  But there is a letting go of trying, and that in itself creates a greater awareness, an inclusiveness.  

Krishnamurthi once described meditation as a state of choiceless awareness.  You’re not choosing what to focus on – you simply allow.  In other words, there’s just consciousness without effort to be conscious of anything.  You aren’t trying to focus on the breath, for that would mean removing attention from thoughts or other sources, which would be a choice.  There’s no “me” doing the observing, for if there is anything outside what you’re observing, there’s effort, focus, and conflict, trying to conform to a particular way of doing things.  

Ramana Maharshi often suggested following awareness back to the “I”.  If thoughts arise, who is doing the thinking?  What is this “I”?  Where is it?  Essentially, one might eventually see it is not there, that what is there is groundless awareness.  In Advaita Vedanta this can be called the Self, or Atman.  In Buddhism it can be No-Self, or anatta.  They sound opposites but are the same.  Pema Chodron regularly talks about a fundamental state of groundlessness.

When I get back, I’m going to do my best to let go of formality.   No more meditation timers where I’m competing against myself.  Less group meditation where I am affected by that peer pressure not to move, ignoring my body.  Most of my meditation at home will be leaning on the floor against a wall. Some will be more ‘formal’, and I will notice how much not trying I can bring to that time.  Mostly I’ll see if I can be in silence and let that happen.

“I am”… a meditator?  

I now find it strange how most western Buddhist teachers focus on technique so often at the beginning.  Later on in the path, both in Theravada and Vajrayana traditions, there’s more focus on being pure awareness.  It’s there – but that’s often after years and investing in an identity as a meditator.  Now for many people, being a meditator, having that as your identity, is cool.  Mindfulness is promoted by corporate wellness coaches, major magazines and psychologists.  Years ago I remember throwing about my meditation background on dates – hey babe, I’m a meditator, I’m a good catch!  It was akin to displaying a trophy to others for having the smallest ego.  Silly.

Enlightenment? AIIIIGGH!!!

Enlightenment? AIIIIGGH!!!

In India I’ve come to understand that the ego, or identity, is simply that which resists.  All these concepts of who I am, created every moment and reinforced in almost all social interactions, are about what I resist.  I can think of myself as a psychologically-balanced, intelligent, humorous, caring person – but that identity might partly arise because I don’t want to welcome parts of me that are in pain and could potentially lash out, causing hurt.  Conversely, sometimes I might think of myself as traumatized and fucked up, but that identity could be a resistance to the desire to conform, pretending to be some other person in order to have support and connection.  Any identification – positive or negative – has resistance to something as pretty central to it.  

If you want to see this in action, just start acting grumpy around law-of-attraction, power-of-positive-thinking types.  Resistance rears its head immediately.

I find it helpful thinking of ego as “that which resists” because with that concept, any attempt to destroy an “unspiritual” part of me is laughable. It’s obviously part of ego.  I’d be resisting something.  I’m human – through a day, I might feel all of gratitude, rage, terror, curiosity, dislike, and great empathy.  The meditative state is not to resist any single experience, to simply let it flow. 

Part of being human, especially in a modern society,  is also about being programmed.  We’re shaped by our childhood, by our culture, and we operate automatically for the most part.  Science confirms this.  Here’s an exercise: after a full day, just try looking back and see how many decisions you consciously chose without the force of habit.  We think we choose, but in reality we don’t.  But it is possible to laugh about it, to let things happen, to disidentify and relax.  This in itself can change things and let the body and brain’s innate intelligence come forth.  But that’s not the point.  The point is just to let things happen, to be in that flow state.

As they say, Shit Happens.  That’s it, that’s the meditative state.  It’s not giving a fuck, in the most positive, enlightened way possible.

How much of this attitude will continue when I get back?  I don’t know. The pace of life is so much faster back home.  Most interactions have an element of stress in them.   But I’m writing this to remind myself that I don’t need to defend against it.  Just let it flow.

I think everyone needs reminders like this.

April 24th, 2016|transformation|2 Comments

Before you commit – bond

He’s just afraid to commit

How many times have you heard that kind of proclamation over your lifetime?  If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard it hundreds of times, and believed it for at least the first hundred.   I’ve also heard much about the “hook up culture” and with so many options, some people never want to have any commitment,  such as written in the blog post “This is How We Date Now”.

I’ve committed in a relationship (to monogamy and time) many times, most of the time because it just felt like ‘this is just how it’s done”.   This has been labelled the relationship escalator, where you unthinkingly take what you think is the natural next step.  I had little idea at the time of what makes a real, supportive, long lasting connection that involved deep intimacy, and so I just followed what I thought was the model that led to it (commitment), at least until I felt something wasn’t working.  Then I would often blame myself, thinking I was doing something wrong, trying to behave ‘better’ and trying to work with my emotions and act in a loving manner.  Needless to say, that didn’t work, and resentment inevitably built because of all the suppression I ended up doing.  

Looking back, I didn’t really know or specify wcommitmenthat I was committing to.  It usually worked out to: monogamy, spending my free time with my partner as a high priority, not acting (or feeling) other attractions, planning a future with them, vulnerability, unconditional trust, always valuing their thoughts and impulses, and behaving like they fulfilled all my needs.

Some of those commitments, of course were completely out of my control.  No one has complete control over what they feel.  Trust can be built, but committing to vulnerability no matter what is more of a set up to hurt – and possibly abuse.   Planning a future sounds great, but it only works out great if there is a common purpose agreed on and a continually developing connection.  And like I wrote describing how my current relationship developedsometimes intimacy is developed by being honest about ‘negative’ things such as distrust and what we don’t appreciate, at least in a confessional, non-accusatory manner.  We’re human and we share the full human experience in a relationship.

What commitment often strives for – and paradoxically masks when forced – is the desire for that deep, uncompromising interconnection that we wouldn’t want to cut away.  When we have a real family, it lasts through thick and thin.  It doesn’t matter when there are highs or lows, appreciation or angers, pain or joy – there’s an inner knowingness that the connection is solid.  I call this bonding.   

Commitment vs. Bonding

Humans are naturally bonding animals.  We live in a social network and require it.  Left in complete isolation with nothing to form relationships to, as some prisoners are subjected to, humans can go insane.  Stable connections are absolutely necessary for our emotional regulation and well-being.  We bond to family, to friends, to pets, and even at times (sad, I know!) to our computers and cell phones.  It’s an organic process that can’t be rushed, because inside our brains it is a bottom-up process.  Our conscious, logical mind doesn’t say “hey, it’s time to commit to my mother” when we’re growing up.  It’s a fundamental process that is pre-conscious and instinctive.  Our adult needs for attachments aren’t precisely the same as a child’s, but they’re still there and almost as important.

Bonding is that slow, unrushed process of building trust and getting attached, so that person becomes not just a part of your life, but a part of your being.  It is there or it isn’t; you can’t consciously decide it.  Forcing it blocks it or makes it slower.  When you have a strong bond, you know it.  Your body relaxes in their presence, no matter what is going on.  You feel more and are more yourself, not less, because it’s a dynamic of trust and space, not a kind of relationship agreement with subtle rewards and punishments.  If they stop being in your life, you grieve profusely.  They are a part of you and you are a part of them.

Trying to commit before a solid bond exist is often a recipe for disaster.  It creates a fantasy bond instead of a real one.  I’ve done this a couple of times, mostly because I had no idea what a real bond was.  Our movies don’t know it and my family didn’t give any healthy examples.  I thought I was afraid to commit and thought that I should dive into it instead of running away.  Needless to say, this involved some lying to myself and hurt feelings when I couldn’t pretend anymore.

From Attachment Theory in psychology we know that there are many people in this society that are also in this boat, who didn’t have a reliable supportive bond in childhood.  Even those that did often had conditions attached, such as to “behave” and not get too angry.  Families make their own rules of taboo topics and emotions to keep stability, and this impacts our ability to make bonds, because a deep bond includes every bit of one’s self.  When we hide parts of ourselves away, we also say to the other “if you bring out that part of you, I may not stick around”.  Feelings cannot be felt selectively – it’s all or nothing.  Similarly, when you love and bond and wish it to be deep, it has to be all-inclusive.

How do I recognize a bond or one growing?

A healthy bond helps all involved.  It is the antithesis of a power relationship, where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished.  In fact, reward and punishment dynamics are one sign of an unhealthy connection, because they are a sign of pervasive distrust.  Bonding is all about trust.

So here are some qualities I’ve learned to watch for.

  • Relaxation and Comfort.  This is again, a bottom-up relaxation, where it’s your body itself communicating that being near your partner makes the world safer.  Sitting around doing nothing with your partner feels comfortable.
  • Freedom of Impulses: I’m using “impulses” as a generalized term for expression and action.  In other words, you feel free to allow any impulse of speech to just come out without controlling it much first.  Suddenly jumping into weird interpretive dance moves might be strange, but fine.  Expressing raw anger is also safe, because it’s not like shooting ammo.  There’s consideration and curiosity.  In other words, there’s a sense of play in the relationship.  Relaxation naturally flows into curiosity, exploration and expression.
  • Feeling more, not less: Being alive – fully alive and brimming with vitality – requires a good connection with the body and all its signals.  This is where emotional intelligence comes from.  A healthy bond creates more resources to be comfortable with a more varied emotional life, with greater tolerance of overall arousal in the body/mind system.  This can mean greater ease in dealing with the results of external challenges, such as entrepreneurship, but it can also mean the stability to look into unresolved past issues or traumas.  Thus a bond doesn’t always mean feeling good, but it does mean heading in an overall good direction.  This is particularly applicable to those with insecure styles of attachment.
  • A Stronger Core Sense of Self:   A good bond will always help you over time become more you.  Not the you that you think you ‘should’ be, but someone living authentically, with your inner world and outer persona in harmony.  This arises because when there is trust, freedom, and connection, a sense of spiritual curiosity arises too, akin to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization. There is no limit to the discoveries of who your partner is or who you are.  When there’s mutual curiosity in exploring the connection and a willingness to go together into anxieties and past influences, self awareness is the result.  
  • Play:  Ok, this really is saying “free impulses” again.  But it’s so damn important it’s worth mentioning again.  If you can’t have playful interactions on a regular basis, then something likely doesn’t feel safe.   Play is part of how we learn, how we connect, and what makes us happy.  The particulars of what play looks like is different for everyone, but it damn well better be there if you want a happy, intimate, stable relationship that lets you grow together.  

It shouldn’t be surprising that all these signs are also signs of a healthy child.  After all, if you can never act like a child within a relationship, you’re watching yourself all the time.  What fun is that?  

Cultivating qualities like the above I’ve always found grows incrementally, in little steps.  It’s also paired with the freedom to be honest about not being there yet.  After three years, I’m far from living the above ideals all the time.  I might say “My body isn’t yet totally relaxed around you” or “I’m cautious about showing pain around you now”.  Pain and anger are often tough to develop trust and listening around, which for me is  the sense that neither venting nor taking it personally will occur on either side.  I might suggest going to an Improv class together if there’s not enough silliness.  But the open discussions in a non-blaming way around what qualities are not present is of absolute importance in developing free communication.    How can you completely relax in someone’s arms if you can’t trust them to listen when you tell them to piss off with a gentle smile?

Wait for bonding before committing

Sometimes bonding takes time.  Years – especially in our stressed society with little unplanned meetings and play.  Mistakes need to be made and repaired.  There can be a great deal of social pressure to make commitments before a real bond is formed.  Even the introducing someone to a boyfriend or girlfriend has certain commitments implied.  It takes courage to be honest about wanting to be sure and admitting what the actual bond is like instead of pretending a Hollywood story.

But commitment isn’t always the big “C” Commitment.  There are many small commitments that can build trust, respect, and set the stage for real bonding to grow.  Gentle honesty about all emotions can be a good one.  Consciously not trying to pressure the other into any decision, and apologizing if it happens unconsciously, can be another.  These kind of commitments can be soft, not hard.  In other words, they’re a statement of intention and not an excuse to jump into distrust, incrimination and feelings of betrayal when someone doesn’t live up to the ideal.   Little commitments grow into bigger ones as the foundation of trust they’ve built becomes solid. 

Here are some of the commitments I’ve made with my partner:

  • I will be open with you about everything in my life that affects you significantly, while maintaining some healthy privacy.
  • I will do my best to never repress anything in myself to smooth things over or tell white lies to you.  [Note:  this includes not repressing honestly felt attraction to others or when feel frustration or distrust]
  • If one of us notices that some habits could be arising from fear (e.g., the terror of losing the other), we’ll bring it up instead of starting any walking-on-eggshell behavior.  Regular time speaking in a meditative, unrushed fashion helps.
  • I will always try to consider what the effect of my actions will be on you and have that affect, but not control, my decision.  
  • If I notice habits of interaction growing between us, like a rut that could remove spice in our relationship, I will do something strange to shake things up a bit while doing my best to be kind.    
  • I will actively be curious about you, listen to verbal and non-verbal signals, and try and give space for you to be more you.  But I will also be clear when I’m unable to do that in a moment.  Nothing should be forced.
  • I will make sure there is a good amount of quality, unrushed time with you each week, while making sure I’m also getting enough alone time.  I want to spend time with you because I want to spend time with you, not because it’s a habit or an obligation.

This list grew over time, with introspection, and with little overt pressure from either side.  Bonding and trust grew incrementally, not magically, and took years.    Little commitments like these are more support for a real bond and a recognition of the bond that has grown.  The bond has grown precisely because I have been honest and not repressed any major part of myself to fit in the relationship, even the parts of myself that hate being tied down.  I would not have had this level of bonding without the freedom to explore that most standard commitments imply.  

No relationship ever looks the same, but I believe for everyone that trust and bonding is built over time, organically, and every time it is forced it starts to die in that moment.  The human spirit is ever desirous of deep connections, but also loathes cages of any kind.  Too often we think to have a deep connection we need the cage, and thus our society’s version of early commitment was born.   It takes a trust in human nature, including one’s own, to go beyond this.  The desire for freedom, expressing truth, and non-suppression is not anathema to a long soul connection, it is fuel for it.   For how can you bond deeply with another without bringing every last bit of your soul, even the parts that fly free?

February 20th, 2016|Intimacy, relationships|0 Comments