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, demonising 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, which includes a day by day synopsis.)
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.