Traditional contemplative manuals are generally written by monastics, those of us who have dedicated themselves to practice. This means that their subject is often an ideal practitioner: strong in faith and single-mindedly focused on contemplation, lacking the distractions of the sensual pleasures they have sworn off and the complexities of work and family.
Often monastics are ordained at a young age and their environment has always been ecclesiastical. This does have its own dangers as various teachers have pointed out – repression, dogmatism and a lack of understanding of the layperson amongst them – but their ways of life are designed for a purpose, even if monastics do much teaching, labour and administration of their centres that prevent them from living as hermits.
The layperson is rarely an ideal practitioner. More than one teacher has pointed out that the massive emphasis on single-pointed, do-or-die effort that is described in many texts is designed to motivate a person who has been brought up in a tradition and follows it in a way that does not bring it to life: going to church on Sundays but not really listening, offering food to monks because it is customary, or meditating occasionally out of a desire to have a cool experience. A carrot-and-stick approach of enticing people with the (very real) conventional benefits of practice, and threatening them with eternal damnation or endless rebirth into human suffering, is used to get people moving.
The born-again convert who has chosen a faith with very real intent to develop, or the seeker with a strong inner push to find something they can’t even put into words, is a different animal though. They are likely to pour hours into meditation, follow precepts and rituals very strictly, and read widely in order to develop their understanding. Telling these people to work harder at it due to a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn’t seem uncommon, unfortunately. As I’ve said before, if you keep trying even with massively erroneous intent and aim, then you’ll still make progress even if that is by learning some nasty lessons after a long time. But that isn’t healthy, isn’t kind, and can cause collateral damage. There are even schools of thought that are in my opinion, pretty macho: keep pushing, ignore the pain, smash through the gates of heaven.
Similarly, multiple psychologically-minded practitioners have noted that many people are simply dealing with their own demons at the same time as practicing. It’s arguable, in fact, that this is the stuff that practice is always made of: Christian mythology more or less literally describes spiritual attack by devils of pride, lust and hatred, for example, because that is what the experience of insight practice is often like. From one traditional psychological view, there are simply some people who have more neuroses than others. I see the benefit of applying this view to practice because it points out the need for tailored practices and psychologically-savvy teachers. It is all well and good to point out that practitioners will eventually see an issue as being just another non-inherent, transient and conditioned phenomenon that causes suffering, or as a part of their unique existence given to them by God for a reason. Here and now, though, some of us are stressing out. I have so many times, out of an unfortunate mix of pride and delusion, used practice as yet another thing to beat myself over the head with.
I am not, however, going to say that because of this, everyone needs to take a very gentle approach to practice. Neither am I going to say that some people are not ready for practice until they’re basically less wobbly. It would be highly hypocritical of me, since sometimes I have practiced until I cried because I literally didn’t know how else to do it – didn’t know how to relax into it – and because in my experience you don’t get to choose much about practice. Always remember that, in the last analysis, you’re choosing nothing at all about it. When you are ready to surrender, you’ll surrender. But especially for beginners, who still experience the world as largely opaque, self-oriented, full of choice, and requiring effort to change, there’s a lot to be said for taking a conventionally methodical approach, attempting to go with the flow, being kind to oneself. Simply wishing you were the ideal practitioner who cuts straight to the unconditional is nonsense. I’ve never met them, anyhow, though I suspect there’s one or two. Sods.
The below advice is not catch-all, and I am relying on people reading it to use it in a flexible, practical fashion. It may be useful for people who tend towards perfectionism, striving, bloody-mindedness, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, addiction, strong negative emotions, a very internal locus of control and generally having a hard time in practice rather than a nice one. People like me, in fact. I may well split this post up later into more specific ones to cover these various areas, but for now here are my thoughts. It is very important to explicitly say: the below are not cures for mental health issues or maladaptive behaviour, though I will happily say they’ve helped mine. They’re ways of doing contemplative practice when these issues are present, and yet you’re going to practice anyway – because you gotta.
- When meditating on the body, allow yourself to focus on the peripheries if there is a lot of unpleasantness in the midline- lumps in throats, churning stomachs.
- Balance pessimism with meditations that are optimistic: reflecting on God’s unconditional love, doing metta bhavana, singing in church, doing charity.
- Note only positive emotions to cultivate pleasant concentration: happiness, appreciation, curiosity, awe, compassion, love, sympathetic joy, pleasure, amusement, hope, calm.
- If overwhelmed by a particular unpleasant thought, just note it rather than engaging with the content. Notice that is is a habit, coming up again and again. What does this say about the mind?
- Focus on the bodily feeling rather than the narrative of unpleasant emotions. Watch it appear and then disappear. ‘This too will pass’. What does this say about phenomena?
- Use pointers that take you back to the present. The present is manageable and the only thing that exists. What is true now? What is this? How do I know what this moment should be like?
- Does God want you to be stressed out? Does He want you to dwell in your suffering constantly? Does He want you to never forgive yourself? How quickly does He forgive?