Using practice pointers

I’ve felt rather ambivalent about giving specific meditation instructions on this blog. There is a risk that readers can disappear into slavishness when I am very sure that the DIY ethic, combined with a faith- or source-based approach, can be very helpful. There also really isn’t that much to actually practicing. Sit down and watch your breath, be aware, give thanks to God, enjoy nature, just damn well intend to wake up and grace will do the rest. In this vein, the use of practice pointers has been an accessible, enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and definitely productive contemplative practice for me, and I’ll give you some hints as to how to go about using them.

A quick observation: beginners seem to not like using practice pointers. They seemed smug, mysterious, indirect and intellectual to me when I was first beginning formal practice. I much preferred doing breath work as that was the traditional object of Theravada Buddhism, something I could chuck lots of effort at in timed sessions to give a sense of achievement, and to get away from all the philosophising which had become frustrating. This is absolutely fine, but I would also say I have yet to come across a contemplative practice that, if done as a truly experiential practice and not just a thought experiment or bodily exercise, is not useful to beginners or advanced sensei-types who can levitate, like I can. *cough* Ahem.

The point of pointers (har har) is to focus attention, behaviour, thought and all that on a particular area of practice. Just having the intention to investigate a certain topic will bring the mind around to it again and again. It is an incredibly portable way of practicing that doesn’t require incense or cushions- again, both fine, but carrying a swiss army knife around for a whole day is less fuss than a whole tool kit. It isn’t complicated, requiring little memorisation or special skillz, and can range widely from a very abstract, esoteric topic to a very specific one.

My preferred way to use pointers is to pick a sentence, or preferably a question, that is set to you by a teacher, or naturally seems to occur. The reason not to pick a deliberate phrase is because the answer that you want will be contained in the question, and you’ll be trying to get a specific result if you choose a phrase deliberately. Something that is in fact mulling itself over in your head, or even better plaguing you like all hell, is better, creating that pondering curiosity that is so useful. This is not so different to koan practice, now I think about it (I’ve never done it myself) though koans are deliberately weird it seems to hit the nondual on the head.

When you’re on the cushion, repeat it slowly and thoughtfully to yourself, chewing it over, really trying to have no preconceptions. You won’t reach enlightenment more quickly by saying it faster or more times, though the more regular and the more you think to say the pointer, the more it will infuse your everyday life. When you’re out and about, keep saying it out loud where you can, and where you can’t, repeat it in your head.

Answers, frankly, aren’t all that necessary. If you think you’ve solved a pointer, then start noticing what that means for you. My experiences of using pointers range from mere frustration and using them to make myself feel smug, which are lessons in themselves, to using them as some kind of mantra or magic word to try and come back to some kind of spiritual or emotional equilibrium (really not the point), to on the other end finding my whole day dappled with sensory vividity, joy, great interest and sudden insights.

Example pointers

What do I think this moment should be like?
Knowing is enough.
What is true now?
What am I fighting?
What is God telling me?
How would this moment be different if I were awakened?
How am I experiencing this moment?