The courage to experiment

After my last post, I received a reply from my friend regarding what I’d said. I’d like to summarise some of the points I covered in response to his email briefly here, as I feel they may be of a lot of use to people who are starting to get into the ‘murky middle’, where after learning to meditate with some constancy and focus, practice suddenly doesn’t seem straightforward any more.

It can be difficult to have the courage to go against what teachers and people who openly claim attainments tell you to do, even when your intuition is that you are doing the wrong practice. Partly this is out of a desire to emulate these attainments.

I do not think it is wrong to want a bit of reassurance that there is not One True Way, and I am happy to say to anyone reading: as far as I can see, and as far as I have made progress in practice, there is no one practice or approach that has made the difference. This is because practice is much more mysterious process than a mechanistic ‘more meditation equals more enlightenment’ equation. The most conventional way I could put it is that my own mind has got in the way: my own expectations, worries and habits, some of which have required modification or acceptance through practices such as therapy, service, energy work, body-centred work, prayer, or conventional development. I have not just meditated a lot and hit some gold mine.

It is worth stating categorically that insights are not experiences that teach you something. They are not ‘bits of knowledge’ that you learn conventionally. I struggled massively with experiences being in fact symptomatic of the ongoing process, but this makes sense if you think about it: of course I wanted concrete achievements! The medium is the message here: what would the ego like enlightenment to be like? Well, that’s not what it is then.

If you really have the Seeker phenomenon badly, then you will not help but make progress. The trouble is that progress may not be what you want it to be. I have had to quit jobs, move countries, make mistakes, and drop things I thought were important to me, and all of these felt something like failures or avoidance at the time: only to turn out, it now feels, to be all part of what was being asked of me. It is all dependent on the narrative: do you think you can awaken to the emptiness of the self without sacrificing any of it?

The maps are useful insofar as you can see them as stages you will pass through naturally and not achievements. It might encourage you to go back to the core of the practice instead of troubleshooting. There is nothing wrong: this is all part of the process.

Awakening is pretty undeniable once it is pointed out to you, because there is such a tipping point: the practice is doing you, you are not doing the practice. You do not automatically become a better person; more the self takes a hit. God loves everyone equally, as it were. The work of becoming a better person is something I’m still slogging through. Perhaps it is the case that for some people they have huge shifts that require little integration in the form of this work in the realm of virtue, but I’ve not met them. For the rest of us, we keep at it. I am uninterested in having huge shifts until I feel I am more blameless; the scope to mess up in arrogance or reactivity is vast.

Vipassana can be very ‘negative’ seeming. It is not essential to vipassana that it is negative; in my experience it is merely that if you are in a very grasping period of life, or vipassana seems to be connected with and touch on those elements of you that grasp, then it will seem negative. Ergo a different practice is probably indicated at those points. The fallout is not worth it one bit. I think those who have a very solid base in conventional ethics are likely to suffer just as much, but may be able to not spread it around with a shovel.

I carried on with vipassana even though it was ripping me to bits at points, and I no longer think that was cool or macho; it was pig-headed and unkind. I learned, but it caused some damage spiritually and conventionally when I could have cooled off and trusted that I had literally no control over the process.

There is nothing wrong with having a pleasant practice. If this is encouraging: pleasant aspects of awakening are not invalid. People talk about brightness, spaciousness, novelty, amazement, curiosity, love and so on because they are all parts of it. I have experienced them all in practice, and they feel as authentic as the suffering. The trouble only comes with pleasant practices when they become a way to hide from your suffering.

‘Keep practicing in the face of anything’ requires a very strong basis in virtue, but specifically it requires a huge amount of faith. This is why the experience in meditation of secular and religious practitioners is different. If you have faith in the process then your experience will be different, because you will grasp less. It is like preaching to the choir. But at the same time, you risk just bouncing off a brick wall when the practice is not right for your needs and where you simply are in life. Trust God, don’t always trust the teacher.

If it does not feel deeply right to confront dukkha in a dead-on way, then it could well just be some masochism or bloody mindedness on your part if you carry on doing so. As practice goes on, the relationship with suffering changes. It becomes paradoxical that the more I embrace suffering as a human experience, the less I in fact suffer. The approach required for advancing practitioners is different to that required in the middling stages.

I am not one to say ‘why not do practice x instead? I did it and it worked for me’ to people who are struggling because: you will enact your patterns again, but with a different practice. You can drown in practice options. Instead it is wise to apply a bit of honesty and say: why am I not going with my intuition? Is it possible that actually I’m right?

Yes, in a very real way, what is the point of practice if it does not make you and others happier? And what, to go one step up, is the point of an earth-shattering insight if *that* does not make you and others happier either? The insights explain themselves and are for their own sake, but here on earth…