Monthly Archives: February 2009

Like Learning Any Other Skill

I spent some time reflecting on how my meditation practice is unfolding, and I came to realize something profound that should have been quite obvious to me earlier.

I’m learning to meditate in the same way that I learned to play guitar over many years. I started out by really listening to the sounds and learning the basic language (notes and chords). I then began mimicking the way I saw my teacher’s hands moving, and spent time really learning to use my hands, fingers, and arms in a fluid and relaxed way. After learning to play my favorite songs, and even write a few of my own, I began to learn the theory of how it all works together. From there, I moved on to learning more complicated styles like jazz, and began extending my knowledge to other instruments as well.

My meditation practice is unfolding in a similar way. At first, I spent time listening to dharma talks and guided meditations, and then began to follow along with the instructions. After learning some basic vocabulary and conceptual knowledge, I began to practice for longer and longer periods on my own. As I became more and more mindful with less strenuous effort, I really got in to the groove of the practice. I then began to learn and apply theory to my experiences, and started working with more difficult stages and applying new techniques. I also found it helpful, as with learning to play guitar, to have regular contact with experienced teachers. Not only that, but also the ability to “jam” with others meditators. Having conversations with others about meditation really catalyzes one’s practice.

My point here is that learning meditation and gaining insight in to the nature of reality is like learning and developing any other skill. As one begins the process, their natural learning style will guide the process if they are open to it. This is why it is so important to just start! It doesn’t matter which style of meditation you try as long as you’re willing to try it. You will quickly learn your strengths and weaknesses, and will be able to make adjustments when necessary.

Try to remember that it’s perfectly OK in the beginning to focus on the parts of your practice that are the most fun. Getting good at what you really enjoy doing first will help you to build up the confidence to try other techniques that don’t come as easily. With enough dedicated training, learning to play the guitar is possible… Enlightenment should be no different.

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Map Based Meditation Practice: Some Pros and Cons

I regularly participate in an online forum called the Dharma Overground, which was founded by Daniel Ingram – a self proclaimed “badass dharma cowboy” who has attained arahatship. An arahat, according to Ingram, is one who “has seen through the sense that there is a continuous, separate, or special controller, doer, observer, or centerpoint that is ‘who they are’ in a very direct perceptual way that is not merely an intellectual or conceptual understanding.”* Ingram founded the Dharma Overground community (i.e. the DhO) to be a meeting place for people who are serious about meditation and are more interested in pragmatic techniques that lead to actual progress and attainment than they are about ritual, myth or dogma. These practical minded folks, including myself, use various Maps of Meditation as guides from which the progress of wisdom/insight may be charted and/or interpreted.

Without going in to too much detail about the various Maps of Meditation, I wanted to share my personal perspective about how the maps help, as well as how they can be an obstacle. I should say up front that although I am largely in favor of map based practice, there are some ways in which getting hung up on the maps can get in the way of progress.

A Plus Side to Map Based Practice

Where individual experiences may vary, mediation practices tend to follow a reproducible pattern that is more or less experienced in the same way by meditators who are making progress. There are stages that are exciting, pleasurable, full of rapture and bliss, and include seemingly unintentional body movements and strange visions. One may experience a stage like this (which in the Theravada Progress of Insight map may be called The Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away), and then erroneously believe that they have become enlightened. If their practice unfolds in any way like the maps suggest (as is usually the case), this wildly pleasurable experience will be followed by a long and arduous stage which the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross termed the Dark Night, where one feels as though they’ve witnessed the Divine, but it has now been taken away from them. If one is unaware that this stage occurs, they are more likely to quit practicing altogether and never progress to the stages that follow.

On the other hand, if one is familiar with the maps, they may be able to recognize the territory for what it is… another stage. With help and guidance from experienced meditators, one may learn ways to practice that lead them out of the difficult stages that they would not have had the courage to traverse on their own. In fact, I have corresponded with quite a few meditators who gave up on their practice for years before learning about the maps, and were able to push through after realizing where they were at.

A Shadow Side to Map Based Practice

The most common shadow side to map based meditation practice that I’ve notice in my self and others is that people tend to get a bit obsessive about them. They feel that they are not making progress if their direct experience doesn’t line up directly with the particular map their using. So, instead of practicing their chosen technique in meditation, they spend their time looking for signs of their progress. This can be quite an obstacle for me, and I’m learning more and more to just practice the technique and not worry about when and where the signs of progress will show up. Besides, as my dharma homeboy Vince Horn said recently in a post at the DhO, “knowing whether or not you are making progress isn’t actually a requisite for making progress.”

To sum it up, applying one’s personal meditation-derived experiences to a map of meditation can provide useful information about what the practitioner should be doing at a particular stage. The maps create a reference point from which practioners are able to relate their experiences to others in a way that allows concise communication and practial advice. But, the map can never be substituted for the territory in the same way that the menu cannot be eaten in place of the dinner. Looking for signs hardly ever makes them arise. In other words… practice first, interpret later.

*From Daniel’s controversial article An Essay about Arahats, which is available at his website… www.interactivebuddha.com/arahats.shtml

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Acceptance and Letting Go

I’ve come to realize that the spiritual life is characterized by the paradoxical pairing of two radical practices: acceptance and letting go. In acceptance, we must remember not to grasp. In letting go, we must be careful not to push away. For me, the play between these two practices is the heart of the spiritual life. It is from this delicate balance that our every day lives become fully embodied expressions of that which is sacred.

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