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Meditation series: 3 questions
May 6th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Meditation series: 3 questions

My last post on meditation gathered most comments in relation to the photo chosen —which much interpretations, suppositions and projections on my intention— so I'm responding to the comments/questions on meditation separately.
I suspect this post ( was one of my most important and practical posts so far though, and if you're interested in meditation, maybe you can make the effort of reading the text, even if you dislike/disagree with the photo? See this effort as a form of practice (since it is so!).


"(1) What about the inverse problem? You want to meditate and have a strong interest, but intense pain keeps you from 'going in', and even worse maintaining a light state of distraction is how you are keeping pain from becoming agony?"

This is an extremely complex question. My first reaction was to take it at face-value, but I think I need to address this assumption too.

It is possible to consider that if intense pain keeps you from 'going in', you're actually not concentrating enough on your object of concentration. Now, I'm very clear that just saying this doesn't help you the least! But I have to mention that the jhānas (as understood in early traditions) would severely question whether anything really (intrinsically) 'could' keep you from 'going in': somehow, the very premise relies on the belief in a 'self', which could be tied down by some other factor… Physical pain has no grasp on the four formless jhānas, and no grasp on nirodha-samapatti.
According to the Pāli commentary, there is a stage of meditation called upacāra-samādhi to reach before entering into jhāna. It is a stage where the mind becomes well concentrated on an object, but a stage which is nonetheless unstable because other stimuli still can knock-knock to get the attention. The jhāna is entered precisely when the mind no longer functions on the ordinary sensory level.

In this context, I see nothing wrong with "maintaining a light state of distraction" as one possible tool to learn that, actually, your mind cannot be tied down! You're still cultivating upacāra-samādhi! Yes, you have to respond to the conditions and circumstances at hand, your mind is not separate from the world (even if you see the world as its creation!), but the appropriate response and taking responsibility for your own growth (instead of clinging to a form of meditation that is not appropriate to your circumstances) is how you get Liberated!
While it's 'easy' to perceive upacāra-samādhi as some kind of 'lower' state, first that's where most meditators are at (no matter what they tell themselves), second it has nothing 'low' (B. Alan Wallace holds that modern Tibetan Buddhism pushes no further!), third being autonomous and taking responsibility for your practice is a (strong) sign of attaining 'stream-entry'! So don't judge 'low' or 'high', simply work appropriately with what you got.
Once you have internalised enough that pain cannot actually anchor your mind, intense pain might no longer be able to keep you from 'going in' (simply because you won't "buy into" the narrative that pain even could do so). And yes, pain will remain present until you learn to focus so one-pointedly on something else that the experience of pain ceases. But the whole realisation is precisely that the experience is an appropriation of pain as 'yours', not pain itself.

This being said, I'd actually suggest that the jhānas might not be the appropriate route in such circumstances… and that's okay because they are not the path to nirvāṇa anyway! This is agreed by the Theravāda tradition, which acknowledges that 'insight' is the key, not 'concentration'. Vipassanā retreats include 'concentration' but with the goal of cultivating 'insight': concentration is useful to stabilise the mind, and thus to let the mind appropriate wisdom and 'remain' wise for long periods… so concentration is very useful, but it is not the key to Liberation!

There are many (buddhist) forms of meditation (plus non-traditionally-buddhist forms, equally valid) and there is no much point in arbitrarily picking one form (e.g. the cultivation of jhānas from the Theravāda school) then clinging to "I have to be able to do this one", that's not how reality is. And as it happens there are forms of meditation which explicitly rely on a light state of distraction! 大鑒惠能 in the Platform sūtra wrote that "to concentrate the mind and to contemplate it until it is still is a disease and not Zen." The meditator who enters a state in which thoughts are suppressed must allow them to arise again!

A form of 'insight' meditation which I use and appreciate is 'listening meditation'. It relies explicitly on 'light distraction'!
Instead of focusing on your breath or body sensations, you listen to what's going on, and observe how your mind processes the sound.
It's just sound. But there are many processes to observe: one is tied to labelling 'like'/'dislike', one is tied to how perception itself varies independently of the sound (a continuous sound is quickly filtered out by the brain as 'irrelevant' and becomes inaudible although physically present), one is tied to pattern-matching the sound (to identify what is the cause of the sound and pattern-matching this cause to "is it 'normal' at this time of the day?" etc. etc. and then you realise you're no longer listening, at all!)…
One advantage of "listening meditation" is that it keeps you anchored in "here and now" without anchoring you to an objectively painful body.
You need to remember what is the point of meditation! The anchoring on the breath or body sensations is to keep you in the "here and now" rather than mulling over the past and anguishing about the future (not that these times don't exist at all —they do in concepts, which do have causal consequences on our acts, so they do!— but that you cannot 'act' in them, you can only act in the present!). Anything that anchors you "here and now" is meditation, and this anchor does not have to be your body (Selflessness, anyone? 'You' being "here and now" is not the same as saying "you are your body"…).

The point of meditation is for you to learn to engage with pain differently, not let the pain dictate your life for you. One way seems to be in silencing the mind completely, but then you just locked yourself away and won't do anything with your life: that doesn't sound like "freedom from pain" to me, more like "pain has successfully established a blockade on your whole life". There is nothing wrong with an engagement that relies on explicitly not allowing pain to become the center! It is easy to label this an 'aversion' but it's also easy to label this a "wise way to refrain from obsessing!". And isn't the goal to become wiser and freer?


"(2) Although I believe a drug-free state of mind is best, if not essential for real meditation, if physical problems prevent this from being a reality, and one has to take analgesics, perhaps narcotics, even opiates or daily morphine, what meditation techniques are most effective over a mind medicated for pain?"

In relation to the previous answer, first, work with what you've got! There's no point considering an 'ideal' (here: drug-free) situation you're not in.

Who said it was 'ideal', anyway? Remember the gods in the higher abodes do not have the best conditions to realise the cessation of lust, hatred, and ignorance, and this is because they don't suffer enough (and thus lack motivation to attain cessation, they just enjoy life… until it becomes painful again)!

You might note that nirvāṇa as the "cessation of lust, hatred, and ignorance" is —how to say it without shocking the most hard-core believers in the buddhist doctrine?— not the "cessation of pain"… The relationship to pain is different (due to the cessation of ignorance), but pain still exists (if only out of compassion, but it doesn't seem the buddha felt particularly 'well' physically when he died from food poisoning either)!

In (Tibetan) tantric terms, you need to let go of Buddhism itself (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche - path is faulty)! Ideally, if you're enlightened, you'd still be wise when drunk! And if that sounds preposterous, I'll give a practical example: an enlightened drunk accepts he is drunk, and does not drive! This is very much practicing the first precept "do not kill"!
In earlier traditions, one has to leave the raft behind, after crossing the river…

The point of our practice is to work with reality, not doctrines (no matter how useful and fruitful the doctrines might be): if the reality is that morphine is needed in the current circumstances, then reality 'wins' over principles, every single time! The only thing you have to be careful of is not to take substances "out of habit", assuming they're needed when they're not (e.g. taking them "out of precaution").
The pain is unlikely to be the exact same everyday, so… just responding with the right dosage and right medicine is a form of mindful practice, a form of responding appropriately and without prejudice (no lust, no hatred, no ignorance… but also no denial of "things as they are"!).

So if you're on medication, don't regret that you cannot practice in drug-free circumstances. Simply enjoy being the enlightened drunk: the person who mindfully knows his circumstances and conditions and acts wisely and appropriately given them!


"(3) Although sitting up is the Ideal position for meditation, If one MUST recline, what techniques are best for meditation?"

Okay, in principle, no difficulty. In practice, a few but they can be accommodated.

Start with dropping the belief about the existence of an 'ideal' position though, there isn't any! A way to see this is the importance of samu ("work practice" in monasteries) and the importance of "walking meditation" in some traditions (both strongly advocated by e.g. Thích Nhất Hạnh).

If you can, do not lie in bed! Use a yoga mat or a thick carpet… Lie flat on the back. To avoid back pain, use a cushion below your knees (to help straighten the lower back in line with the upper back, i.e. to avoid arching). This detail might also participate in the position being different from your usual sleeping position.

There's nothing wrong with meditating in bed (and it's a great practice at night when you cannot sleep, rather than getting upset that you don't and starting to get worried about not having enough sleep and consequences the next day, etc. etc. etc.) but we're creature of habits until we're Liberated! So let's not deny the reality of how our brain works by pattern-matching. While getting the habit of meditating in bed might be good, the habit of sleeping (because "in bed") while meditating might not be as conducive ;-) So, even if you lie in bed, that's hopefully not in the same bed you sleep at night, or maybe simply not even the same side of the bed! Basically try to prevent 'meditation' to be associated too closely (in conditions and circumstances) with 'sleeping'.

There are statues of a "reclining buddha" where he is "on his side" but I don't advise to pick such a position because it does itself generate pain. It can be useful to stay alert for those at risk of falling asleep, but this is not the context of the question.
Remember that most statues are 'wrong' on this, because the sculptor wants the head of the buddha to appear more vertical than it should be for spine alignment purposes… In particular, if you use this posture (maybe in alternance, to avoid sleep setting in), rest your head on your elbow or a cushion, do not lift your head too high (e.g. by resting it on your hand 'up', as this would twist your column —bad for the back— and impede your breathing).
If reclining on your side, avoid curling towards a foetal position! Pain might push you to reach this position, but that's the one to avoid: it numbs. That's why pain might push you to get into it, but it will numb your meditative practice too.

If you change postures regularly (to fight sleepiness, or because of pain), a good practice is to use "mental noting" while changing the posture! Pay attention to every muscle you use, to how pain changes while you move, etc. In short, be present here and now with your "changing the posture" and it's then like practicing "walking meditation" while lying down.

The whole point is to stay alert, and again "listening meditation" is a good tool while reclining. "Breathing meditation" is likely to send you to sleep, again due to pattern-matching (while we sleep, the breath usually slows down, and while we meditate, it tends to slow down too —even without us actively controlling it this way). "Listening meditation" has this advantage of being less 'regular' than "breathing meditation" and thus helps with alertness.

Other techniques to maintain alertness is to use Tibetan visualisations, Zen kōans or Sŏn hwadus… Use 'active' meditation (and distraction) rather than the 'quietist' forms.

Last bit: if you fall asleep, that's okay! Maybe shift a detail next time, then another until you find some support (bright light helps! dimmed lights don't!). But don't beat yourself up: many meditators fall asleep (often and repeatedly) while sitting on a cushion! Remember this!

#Buddhism #meditation #buddhistcircle  
(photo: Reclining Buddha, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka)