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Comments on Meditation

Ken is meeting with a group of students who have been attending the weekly meditation class taught by his students. They meet with him about once a month. They have been doing a modified form of the counting meditation.

Ken: A number of you have noted that sometimes meditation is difficult. But that's only an interpretation according to some ideas you have of what meditation should be. The problem is that the mind cannot accurately interpret how the meditation is going. For instance, you may perceive a given meditation as difficult, but that doesn't mean it's not working. Actually, often, when it's difficult, you may be accomplishing more than when it appears easy. It's like if you are a rower and you are practicing rowing, and you normally go down stream and it's going really well and you're satisfied with it and then one day the coach says, "Go up stream." It's going to be a hell of a lot harder, difficult in fact, but you're going to get more out of it.
The important thing is not to be thrown by the subjective impressions of your mind telling you "Oh, this is difficult." For the meditation to work all you need do is to keep on doing it to the best of your ability. Now the best of your ability can mean on some days it's almost chaos, thoughts are running rampant, but as long as you are putting the effort in it works. That is absolutely guaranteed. Don't let the mind's misinformation undermine the process. You do the best you can, and as long as you do the best you can, it has to work.
The meditation that you have been learning is technically not really even a meditation. It's a meditational exercise, because the state of meditation is a very high state. You cannot do meditation in this sense. It has to happen by itself, because if you are there, then it's not meditation. It cannot be done consciously through effort. But the sitting exercise you do which we call meditation, is foundational, it creates the space for meditation to happen in your life. The sitting exercise also creates space so you can more easily be in touch with your feelings.
Did you lie back and take the time afterward after the counting ended?
(Affirmative replies)
Ken: Okay, good. That is considered part of the meditation and is important. You can stay in that space for as long as you want to, it's very nourishing. Jim (one of the teachers), what did you suggest as the minimum? Five minutes, ten minutes?
Jim: We've been doing ten.
Ken: Good. Being in this space allows the healthy dynamic fostered during the meditation to become more established in you. Then it is more available throughout the day.
Woman: I usually stop that part when I start actively thinking about my day or something. I know that it's really important and you've just said it and Jim has said it and... Okay, maybe that's my problem. I have a problem with the afterwards when you're...
Ken: And your mind starts to get active, right?
Woman: Or, it's like nothing, it's like emptiness, or like a vegetable.
Ken: Again, that's your mind's interpretation. You're feeling of that is what? Let's say this emptiness...what is the feeling of emptiness?
Woman: I don't know, it just doesn't feel like much is going on.
Ken: That's how your mind judges this space. To the mind nothing much is going on unless it is involved. Because your mind is doing the interpretation, your mind is saying, "Hey, what's happening here? Nothing is happening." When you get into these spaces of quiet you're likely communing with yourself at a deeper level. And this is very healthy, nourishing, healing. But that doesn't register on the mind.
The human being, to make an analogy, is like an onion, with different levels. The outermost level is cognitive thought. Sometimes you sink deeper to a level that's nonverbal, spaces where thoughts are not happening, and those are the very spaces that can be transformative. So you spend some time lying there quietly and then afterwards your mind says, "You're a vegetable. You're wasting time." Of course to the mind nothing is happening because it's not involved. But you will find that when these quiet, non-verbal spaces happen, things will begin to shift in your life. It is being in these spaces, free from the mind, that releases something from within that begins transforming your life. So trust those spaces, not your mind.
So when your mind gets busy...I guess you set a timer for the last ten minutes or...?
Woman: Do I set a timer? No, I don't.
Ken: It's recommended that you set a timer for whatever time you have chosen. We want as much responsibility as possible to be taken from the mind, so the timer not the mind decides when the quiet period is over.
Man: But sometimes there is no quiet, my mind is running wild.
Ken: If your mind is going rampant, do what we did in the beginning here: just put your attention on the breathing. In other words, don't allow your mind to dominate this space or force you to stop early. The mind will do anything it can to sabotage this process, this meditation. If it's going well it will tell you, "You are turning into a vegetable." If it's not going well it will say, "Why bother. You will never get it." Minds are very cunning. You all look intelligent, some of you have advanced degrees, so you've got problems. You cultivated your mind and now it is very clever about sabotaging the process.
Woman: I don't trust my mind.
Ken: That is wise. But make sure it is not one part of the mind coming down on another part. That's like the Gotti family saying, "I don't trust the Gambino family." Usually it's all the mind. The best thing you can do with the mind is laugh at it. The mind likes to be taken seriously, life is really heavy duty stuff, you know.
Woman: You were talking about how it's not that you have to do the counting meditation a certain way......
Ken: Let me stop you. You have to do the counting meditation a certain way. You absolutely have to do the counting meditation exactly as given. Your experience of doing it, whether it's good or bad doesn't matter. This meditation was set up a certain way so that it goes very deep. Thus, the mind's continuing resistance.
So you're not supposed to be watching anything when you're doing the counting. All you are supposed to be doing is counting. This is an incredibly powerful meditation and this is why Jim has introduced the tuning in. When people say to me, "Oh, I have a friend, a sister, a brother, a husband and they want to meditate," I don't give them the counting. I give them a breathing meditation. This meditation goes deep and brings things to the surface that have been buried, like repressed hurts and fears. That is why you are learning to get and stay in touch with your feelings.
This meditation works by throwing a monkey wrench into the mind, and the mind doesn't like it. So you have to do it exactly as given. But how well it goes according to your mind doesn't matter. As long as you are making the effort to stay with the numbers, it works.
Woman: I didn't do a good job of articulating that but as long as you are not camping out and thinking about this and sleeping or whatever, but if you're focusing on trying...I'm using the word trying again...but if you are focusing on making an attempt to do the numbers that isn't...we could accept that. Is that what I'm hearing?
Ken: That's a sneaky way of saying trying. There is a difference between trying and doing. I am always suspicious when someone says they are going to try something rather than saying they are going to do it.
Woman: Yeah, I know. I'm in my first year of (a rigorous intellectually challenging professional program).
Ken: Great, so your mind is really being trained to be clever. You're really going to have to watch it because what you are studying really sharpens the minds ability. And this ability can be used against you.
2nd Woman: You just made my brain hurt.
Ken: Made your brain hurt? What do you mean?
2nd Woman: Well, actually that's one of the things that happens. I alternate between doing it in a relaxed way, not being concerned about thoughts coming in and then other times I'm like, "No. You will do the numbers." And so when I focus really hard my head hurts. I don't know if that makes sense. Like physically, I have a sensation of pain.
Ken: Well, yes, it makes sense. There is a term I really like, ‘the middle way'; what the Buddha has called his teachings. On his own path, he started out as a prince where he led a fairly decadent life. When he left home to embark on the spiritual path he adopted a very austere way of living, such that he almost starved to death. But in time he discovered that he had to balance between the two extremes.
This is the approach that needs to be incorporated into one's life and one's spiritual practice. The middle way is not some mediocre averaging but rather a dynamic balancing according to the situation. There is no one answer to every situation. You have to be very attentive to yourself to see what works.
If you are too loose then the meditation doesn't work. But if you are too hard you get a headache and it doesn't work. So you have to experiment and find the right balance that does work for you. Enough focus so that you stay with the numbers but not too much so you get a headache. Does that make sense?
2nd Woman: So, yeah, sometimes I found that I try to get something in between the pain and the total...I mean something in the middle where it's like I'm focused but I'm not forcing it.
Ken: That's exactly it. In other words, as long as you're focused it works. As long as you're not just consciously drifting off to other things, it works. You don't have to effort so hard that it hurts, that intensity just interferes.
Woman: Okay, now I have better sense of it.
Ken: When your meditation goes relatively well how is the quiet period afterwards?
2nd Woman: It's good. Well, even today I didn't think about anything during the quiet it was just the emptiness. Afterwards I start thinking there's this Pasqualle quote...I think it's Pasqualle, some scientist, "All the ills of mankind would be solved by man's ability to sit quietly in a room by himself."
Ken: The guy knew what he was talking about.
2nd Woman: Yeah. And so I'll be sitting there quietly and everything is peaceful and blank and then I think, "How is this possible that I'm doing this? I must be..." and suddenly my brain just takes off again.
Ken: Of course, this is exactly what the brain is doing. It's interfering, asserting its dominance. The brain is not going to let go and say, "Hey, here's a better way of living." You're familiar with bureaucracies: the mind is like a bureaucracy. Did you ever know a bureaucracy to give up any power?
Jim: These two both work for bureaucracies.
Woman: Yeah, that's right. We are the government here.
Ken: I better get a lawyer here with me.
Jim: He's a lawyer.
Man: I am, too.
Ken: I'm in deep trouble.

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