The preceding was written in 1964 with a few minor revisions and additions made in the latter part of 1965. Now, at the start of 1972 and after six years in Thailand, it seems befitting that I review my own words. For the past years have not only added to my own experience with meditation, they have also brought me into close and prolonged contact (often close friendships) with other meditation practitioners many of whom are more dedicated, more skilful, and more experienced than I.
One is impressed with the variety of personalities who undertake practice. Some are experimental, critical, and pragmatic; others more devotional, dedicated, and idealistic. Some seem well adjusted and at peace with themselves and the world, while others seem desperate to find happiness and purpose in life. Some adhere literally to every detail of the scriptures, while some instead are dedicated to the interpretations and methods of their respective teachers. Still others attempt to find the ways and means alone by their own individual and unaided efforts. Likewise the techniques and methods which these people have undertaken are also highly varied and divergent.
During this period of personal practice and consultation with others, I have seen what I believe to be some genuine achievements and also some notable failures. The question then is: What is it that succeeds and what is it that does not? And why? Or to state the matter more precisely: One may succeed in one area of meditative development but not in another.
In order to evaluate progress at meditation one must have some criteria or standards against which to judge. Thus we must ask ourselves, what is it that, short of Nibbana, we expect to find in one who has made genuine progress along the Eightfold Path? Momentary periods of euphoria, altered perceptions, or other transient episodes of unusual states of consciousness are not what we seek. Likewise, we are not in pursuit of occult powers, unusual EEG patterns, or control of the autonomic nervous system (such as slowing the heart rate or changing body temperature).
With reference to the Four Noble Truths, we note the Buddha’s words: “One thing do I teach: suffering (i.e. dukkha) and the end of suffering.” Thus if one has truly progressed, we would expect that where previously sad and depressed, one is now less so; where previously selfish, one is now more giving; where previously defensive, secretive, and guarded, one is now more open and self-assured. Worry and anxiety should be reduced. Objective humility should replace conceit. Instead of recurrent thoughts of anger and “getting even” one is more forgiving and at peace with the world. It is felt that such attainments have been observed, occurring as the result of properly directed Buddhist practice.
Again with reference to the Four Noble Truths, it is craving or desire which causes our unhappiness and produces our mental defilements. Thus only by attacking the problems of craving, wanting, and desiring can progress be made. I speak now not so much of the crude and obvious desires such as hunger and sex but of the more subtle ones of egotism, emotional dependency, and desires for possession. One may fast for two weeks and yet never once look at the fact that the real reason for fasting is to feed one’s ego — to be better, more disciplined, more pious than one’s fellow practitioners. Or one may work diligently attempting to win the approval, confidence, and affection of a stern and aloof teacher and never once realize that one is attempting to compensate for the frustration and lack of love from a stern and aloof parent. To really break through these “hang ups” one must focus attention, not on the sensation of breath at the nostrils, but instead focus on the agonizing feelings of inadequacy, mediocrity, loneliness, or rejection in one’s heart.
When asked “What have you gained from meditation?” the correct answer should be “nothing.” For meditation is not for acquiring but for giving up — a full and complete giving up of the self. Too often people put in a half-hour each day at meditation in the same way that they put in a half-hour studying French. After so many months or years one has a new attribute, a new skill to add to one’s already impressive repertoire of virtues, achievements, talents, and abilities. “I can speak French, play the piano, ski, type sixty words a minute, and meditate as well.” Such a person is either compensating for strong feelings of inadequacy or else is badly afflicted with narcissism. Another way in which meditation becomes misdirected, as a result of the very motives which determined it, is the quest for new sensations or experiences, i.e. lobha. Many seek from meditation the very same thing they seek from drugs — i.e. an overwhelming ego-immersing experience of sensations, perceptions, colours, emotions, and “transcendental states beyond words.”
It is not meant to belittle such experiences and say that they have no significance or no value. But as with taking LSD or seeing a good motion picture, they quickly pass into memories. And once past, in a very short time one’s old mood changes, petty jealousies, conceits, and irritations are back just as strong and as frequent as ever. If there has been no true and lasting personality change, then Buddhist meditation has fallen short of its intended goal.
At the opposite extreme are persons whose approaches to Buddhism are excessively dogmatic, literal, orthodox, and moralistic. They strongly resist a pragmatic, eclectic approach to meditation and are hyper-concerned with the nuances and fine points of Buddhist tradition and decorum. From these sources one repeatedly hears such statements as, “To progress at meditation there must be strict moral discipline,” or “You cannot expect fast results but must work for years.” Now there is truth in both these statements. But in this context they are really symptoms of extreme rigidity and dogmatism, which in principle is no different than the dogmatism of many Christian missionaries or other persons doggedly committed to a given institution. One’s commitment to the tradition and to the letter of the teaching is so strong that one is incapable of truly practising that very same teaching which advises one to have no prejudices and to see truth as universal and independent of any institution. I feel that this unfortunate phenomenon accounts for several instances of very diligent and dedicated meditation practitioners who, despite years of intensive practice, reveal little more than chronic, mild depression mixed with plodding determination.
The theme of guilt and self-punishment is one factor (though not the only one) which tends to perpetuate the phenomenon of diligent striving with minimal results. It usually begins with one taking a highly idealistic, moralistic, and sometimes devotional approach to Dhamma. One tries for one-pointed concentration and complete suppression of mental defilements. One fails and tries again; fails and tries again. Blaming oneself for one’s failure one comes to feel guilty and tries even harder, again failing. With this the austerity of one’s practice comes to take on a self-punitive nature. Angry with oneself, one becomes more severe with oneself.
For those who have some insight into their dilemma, there may be the added problem of feeling guilty about feeling guilty or becoming irritated that one gets irritated. But insight is also the first step to resolution. The second step is to back off and relax a bit. As the Buddha said, the guitar string once too slack has now been wound too tight, and to produce harmony the tension must be relieved. For idealistic, moralistic personalities, letting go and relaxing are the very things that intensify one’s guilt. Yet in principle this is much like what the Buddha did when he renounced austere asceticism and took up the middle way. The practitioner must stand back and re-appraise his whole involvement in Buddhism and examine the matter fully without fearing the consequences of his decision.
In evaluating progress at meditation it is important to distinguish between true Buddhist attainment and adaptation. Any human being (or for that matter almost any biological organism) when placed in a new situation goes through the process of adjusting, adapting, and growing accustomed. This is true of human life in general, and it is true of a man who takes the robes of a Buddhist monk. With the passage of time he grows to accept his role, to acclimatize, and to learn to “work the system”; he may become contented and happy by virtue of duration and age alone.
This process of adaptation is especially relevant in the case of intensive meditation practice where one may spend weeks or months confined to a small room, leaving that room only for brief meetings and instructions from the meditation master. In such situations the practitioner may get extreme feelings of peace and happiness, of clarity and alertness of mind such as never before seen, and also he may glimpse what appear to be transcendental states. (However, moments of depression, agitation, sobbing, etc., are also common, depending on the person.) Many who have completed such training have come away greatly impressed and highly praising this technique. However, it appears that all of these impressive subjective experiences vanish as soon as one comes out of cloistered isolation, and then, much like a drug experience, they remain only as memories. Moreover, many people who have “finished the course” appear to manifest the same selfishness and general human shortcomings as found in human beings picked at random. In addition, there is a hazard in that some “graduates” have revealed extreme pride relative to their attainment.
From this it should not be assumed that there is nothing to be gained from such intensive training. On the contrary, I have frequently suggested it to persons seeking competent meditation instruction. However, I do feel that the empirical evidence shows that for many if not most people this technique alone is insufficient. And the very facts of the Eightfold Path and the Buddhist scriptures in general support this thesis. Thus it would be wise to resolve one’s mundane problems of social adjustment and other emotional conflicts before attempting more specialized practices.
Quite often a cloister which protects one from all forms of insults, humiliation, irritation, and anxiety may induce a false sense of attainment and lull one into complacency. We can confront and abolish our mental defilements only when they are actively alive in our minds. We cannot do this when they are but hazy memories or intellectually created notions. Consequently many practitioners have found that their progress is enhanced by having true life situations of social interaction and frustration. On the other hand, an excessive exposure to such interactions and frustrations may exceed one’s ability for alert mindfulness, and one thereby insidiously becomes involved with the quarrels and fascinations that breed hatred and sorrow. When living in a cloister where no problems arise, one’s defensive reactions and dispositions may lie dormant and thus remain hidden. But in ordinary lay life, temptations, sensations, and problems arise so fast that much of the daily routine is little more than a repeating pattern of perceive, react and solve; perceive, react and solve; perceive, react and solve; and so on.
Thus for many practitioners the solution lies in a middle way between these extremes: that is, a situation in which one still has a moderate exposure to chores, annoyances, and social interactions, but this is interspersed with intervals of quietude and meditation. Such intervals may be a duration of hours or a duration of weeks depending on individual needs and circumstances. Thus by maintaining an optimal amount of involvement with social and sensory arousal, such a one does more than just perceive, react and solve. With mindfulness he is able to catch the perception and reaction as it arises. He observes it, scrutinizes it, and evaluates it. In so doing, it may then be modified, abandoned or developed as seen fit. He acts with mindfulness instead of on habit or reflex, and thus new responses and solutions may be learned. If (as some psychologists have claimed) one’s personality is the sum total of one’s perceptions, responses and reactions, then in this way the growth and development of the personality is possible.
The optimum proportion of time that one should spend in isolated meditation as contrasted with the time spent in more mundane pursuits will vary among different individuals. It will also vary according to the method of practice and with different times and stages of development for a given individual.
I state these above conclusions not only from a theoretical position and not just because they seem to be revealed in the life pattern of the Buddha and his disciples as portrayed in the suttas. My own limited observations of persons who appear to have progressed at Buddhist practice also fits this conclusion.
It is against such a background of observations and considerations that I have reviewed my own earlier writing on meditation. In essence these words still appear to be sound, and there are no statements that I would see fit to repudiate. However, I feel one point needs to be more strongly emphasized, and that is that a regular daily practice of meditation alone will not be likely to show results unless one is willing to thoroughly scrutinize his or her entire pattern of living and be prepared to revise or abandon this lifestyle if so indicated. In the same way one who undertakes Buddhist training as either a monk or layman would do well not to set a time limit and should not commit himself too strongly to future plans (such as “I will finish my university training” or “I will return to my homeland to teach the Dhamma”). For such a one has already decided beforehand just what he will become and thereby has limited the amount of change that he will allow himself to make.
Also (and partly as a result of Buddhaghosa’s writings, i.e. the Visuddhimagga) I think I have emphasized too strongly the amount of breathing and other bodily-directed concentrations called for in beginning practice (pp. 16ff.). I say this with some hesitation because it has become popular in some circles to completely disown concentration as important to Buddhist practice, and I do not agree with this view. But if one focuses exclusively on breathing, walking, or whatever to the point of blocking all thoughts and emotions, one is thereby turning his attention away from the very mental defilements and neurotic conflicts that must be confronted in order to be overcome. Thus it is probably significant that in the Noble Eightfold Path right concentration follows after right mindfulness.
One meets a fair number of people who have (or at least claim to have) made considerable attainment at one-pointed concentration. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, they appear to be just as prone to selfishness and petty jealousies as any ordinary persons whom one might meet at random. Some in fact have shown themselves to be very unhappy, lonely, and/or insecure. On the other hand, persons who have made only slight progress at sustained concentration have, nevertheless, in the course of Buddhist practice, made considerable progress at diminishing conceit, resentment, depression, and selfishness. (However, the one person in my experience who, after months of close observation, appears to have made the greatest progress towards removing mental defilements of all sorts, is also the only person I know who appears capable of entering the third jhana at will.)
The same is true of the labelling technique which is especially common in some forms of Burmese intensive training. With this technique one, who in meditation, finds himself daydreaming will simply note this and label it “imagining, imagining” or “fantasy, fantasy” and then return to awareness of breathing, body sensation, or whatever. However, daydreams and fantasies are most often an expression of our desires and emotional conflicts. If one examines the daydream in the frame of mind: “What does it express?” “What desire is it attempting to satisfy?” “What feeling does it carry?” then one can gain insight into his emotional needs and at the same time confront those same mental taints which meditation is supposed to overcome. The labelling technique is, of course, highly useful in dispensing with physical distractions such as itches, pains, and noises; and with certain types of moods (e.g. boredom) and certain kinds of memories. But it must be used judiciously; for if used exclusively it can retard progress. A general rule of practice which many practitioners have used to advantage is as follows: One starts practice by attempting to quiet and concentrate the mind. But after some minutes of finding that the mind repeatedly wanders from its intended object, the practitioner then stands back as it were and asks: “Just what is my present state of mind at this instant?” “What is it that makes my attention wander from its intended object?” This then is analyzed and confronted. In principle this is much like another useful technique which is: One does not choose any given meditation subject but instead simply sits and takes note: “What is my mental state now? What gross feelings? What subtle feelings? What memories and expectations? What intentions or desires?” In actual practice this is done not in the form of verbal thoughts, as expressed in the preceding sentences, but rather as a state of watchful observation with few if any word thoughts present. Quite often at such times one finds a subtle mental defilement which must be examined and discarded. That is the idea: “Now I am meditating and want to have something to show for it. I want something to happen.” Or it may be: “I want to confront and overcome my anger, but now that I’m looking for it, it seems to have gone,” and with this arises a feeling of frustration. Herein one has set a goal and been thwarted. Thus the desiring of this specific goal and its resultant frustration is the very state of mind that must be dealt with. Successful meditation requires catching the immediate present.
Finally a note about the attainments in meditation: unless one is very advanced, one does not expect or aspire to any new or unusual experience such as are known in ordinary life. Instead the attainments are negative ones and thus only seen in retrospect. For example, one suddenly reflects: “A year ago I was chronically depressed, unhappy, irritable, defensive. That rarely happens now. Such and such a thing used to upset me greatly. Now it happens and I hardly notice.”
It may be stating the case too strongly to say that in meditation one seeks to gain nothing. For there is an increase in happiness and peace of mind. But when asked, “What have you gained from meditation?” the answer would be: “It is not what I have gained that is important but rather what I have diminished, namely, greed, hatred, and delusion.”