Friday, May 11, 2012

The Secret(s) of Meditation

Vern Lovic ( communicating with Wisdom Quarterly editors
Jhana ("meditative absorption") is the Pali word for "Zen," Sanskrit Dhyana, shown here as bliss graffiti on a highway sign.

We see that Thich Nhat Hanh understands that there is no insight without stopping, no vipassana without shamatha (serenity that includes jhana).

So we posed this simple question to someone we are calling a "meditation master" though, of course, he does not claim to be anything more than someone able to attain the absorptions:
  • What is the secret to successful meditation, to gaining the zen state of jhana (absorption), which prepares one for the practice of insight (vipassana)?
The Secret(s)
The secret to successful meditation? The "secret" is -- one needs to know less, not more. Feel free to stop reading, talking, thinking about, or finding any [other] secrets and just sit and watch the breath.

The secret is -- it's ultra simple, not complicated.
  • jhana: (zen, dhyana, ch'an) eight purifying and profound states of absorbed concentration referred to more generally as samadhi and shamatha.
The secret is -- the reason so few have "absorption" visit is because they aren't doing the work. The "work"? The work is the ease-effort that allows the mind to gradually slow down then stop. The game of training thought to slow down must be won if the mind is to stop.

The secret is -- letting go of everything that comes during meditation. Everything means every thing: every want, every desire, every piece of mind candy, every jhana that comes. All of it must be let go with indifference.

The secret is -- it comes on its own when one can fully let go of everything clogging the head/heart. This includes desires for secrets.
The secret is -- that it probably matters not that one sits for more than a half-hour per day. Twenty to 30 minutes is enough.
  • "The Buddha did not praise every type of meditation, nor did he condemn every type of meditation. What kind of meditation did the Buddha praise? Here, Brahmin, someone abides with a mind obsessed by sensual lust, prey to sensual lust, and does not understand as it actually is the escape from arisen sensual lust. While harboring sensual lust within, one meditates, premeditates, out-meditates, and mismeditates. One abides with mind obsessed by ill will... with mind obsessed by sloth and torpor... with mind obsessed by restlessness and remorse... with mind obsessed by doubt, prey to doubt, and does not understand as it actually is the escape from arisen doubt. While one harbors [any of these Five Hindrances] within, one meditates, premeditates, out-meditates, and mismeditates. The Buddha did not praise that kind of meditation" (MN 108).
The secret is -- there is not much of a push from inside me, having attained the jhanas, to share some great experience with the world. It comes and goes. For years there was no desire for [coming down the mountain of blissful peace] sharing what had happened... Why? There was no desire for anything.

The secret is -- it erases desire. It gives one equanimity, the "near enemy" of which is indifference.
  • The concept of opposing states as "near and far enemies" is that there are negative states that defeat positive ones either in a subtle or obvious way. For example, the near enemy of loving-kindness is attachment, whereas is far enemy is hate. (See
  • The "greatest experience" of your life, and you have nothing you want to say because you feel you've said it already, suggesting you're tired of saying it?
What happens is inside. It's fulfilling enough to have experienced it. I've tried to write about what it is like. I've tried to explain it in written words, spoken words, and it isn't easily done. It isn't done at all really. [Words are] all rather pointless.

Are you asking if, after writing about the experiences many times -- thousands upon thousands of words about it -- I'm tired of saying it?
  • We're asking if you are so tired of it that you can't bring yourself to say it to people for whom it is new, who haven't heard a word from you? You may have said it to someone at sometime, but it is new to us.
There's no point in repeating it.
  • That would be true if you were "repeating" it to the same audience. But is new, and your contact with Wisdom Quarterly readers is new.
I can go back and find something I wrote years ago, and it will be basically what I write today about it. Are you asking for something else? I'm not sure what is wanted.
  • The secret! For example, the problem with Eckhart Tolle as a "teacher" is that he is not really a teacher, by his own admission. After he speaks, the natural question, which he does not answer, is: "How can I get what happened to you to happen to me?" He neither knows how, nor even if, it will happen for us. Tolle is not a teacher, not a Tathagata, not even a monk.
  • The implicit answer is buy-and-read his books and CDs, come hear him speak, sit in silence, "allow" what is to be, accept it... Just do nothing special. But for goodness sakes, Don't try to make it happen! You could only mess it up.
  • Furthermore, by his own admission, Eckhart never has anything "new" to say; he is always saying the same thing but in different ways: There is only NOW, so align with it, and thereby step into your power.
  • Are you like him, do you do what he does, is that all there is?
Do I get particular joy from sharing these experiences with people? Not much. How much joy would you or anyone get from telling someone an hour long story -- when they don't get it -- but they start looking at you like you're different, special, gifted, blessed, fill in a word _______?
  • "Guru"? I would like it. I would build a cult unto myself. And call it the Me [CC] Cult. And everyone would send me a dollar. Then I'd be rich! And I'd give it all way and thereby store up riches in heaven. Then, my work on Earth being done, I would await my glorious death. And since I could rest, I would write a bestseller and make sure a copy of it was available in every cheap hotel and motel across the country.
How could I possibly write the feeling of jhana into some paragraphs?
  • The same way a poem or song alludes to a feeling without being it -- so that people think the song IS generating the feeling itself when it is, at best, only inviting it out of listeners. The Buddha spoke, and people's heart were calmed. He radiated peace but he couldn't directly give it anymore than he could enlighten by choice. He could see what stood in the way and take measures. Teachers today, if they do not intuit it, they can deduce, make an educated guess, follow their heart. Meditators must do it, but we can sure be helped by well timed words from you.
  • (Dhammapada, vv. 100-102): "Better than a thousand senseless words is one word that being heard gives people peace." One word of the Dharma -- uttered from a place of presence, as Eckhart Tolle holds when he speaks -- has the power to quiet our monkey minds and obsessive hearts so that our practices may suddenly blossom.
How could I, with my eyes glossed over in bliss, give someone the slightest hint of the experience with words if they haven't experienced it for themselves?
  • Well, you might tell them about it, give similes, encourage them to see for themselves, use illustrations or parallels, employ synonyms, develop allegories... I mean, after all, most of us not suffering from autism have mirror cells. To some extent we can experience things vicariously.
It's impossible. It is pointless, usually.
  • Usually? Twice you've qualified. Earlier you said "when they don't get it," and now you've said "usually." We sort of get it, and although it is "usually" pointless, this is one of those times it might not be.
I'm not on a regular mission to tell the world about it.
  • Well, there's a fine how-do-you-do. As long as everything's working out for you, never mind us?
The desire just isn't there all the time. Occasionally I feel like, "I have to tell people and help them see that it's quite possible to have jhana come if they prepare their mind for it...
  • Now that's the spirit! Help us.
Probably the reason I'm not fanatical about sharing the experience -- parachuting off buildings to drop flyers with a message for the masses -- is that I am not at all sure of the point of meditation... if it's a good point, or not a good point.
  • We can help you there. There is no point in meditation (jhana, jhaneti, sitting) itself -- that is, no an end unto itself. But it can go somewhere, and that can become the point. Absorbed meditation is a natural state, blissful as can be. And if we dwell in it as we pass away, the karmic result will be immediate rebirth in a corresponding fine-material or immaterial "heaven." That is not a good idea. There is no more point to that than when the Bodhisat (the Buddha in previous lives) did it.
  • That was the highest the results of jhana could go, culminating in mastery of the eighth absorption. But now there is something far higher -- developing liberating insight to see nirvana. The sight of nirvana is unexcelled, unrivalled, unparalleled. It is the ultimate!
  • Meditation leads to this direct knowing-and-seeing. The world, even the Brahmins (the establishment priests of the day), had access to meditative bliss. Seers and wanderers explained it to them as handed down in sacred texts. But they had no idea that rebirth with Brahma is NOT the highest. There are superior states within samsara. And there are supramundane states beyond that, beyond the beyond.
  • The heavens are great, fantastic. We recommend them: Go there. But if you can successfully meditate here, go higher! Go quickly. One does not know how long it will be before one again meets the Dharma that leads to the heavens as well as the "end of all suffering."
  • How does one go beyond? Enter the fourth jhana, emerge, take up the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as objects of meditation. When you get to the fourth set, the foundation concerning contemplation of mind-objects, focus on Dependent Origination.
  • Using jhana in this way, you will realize a great deal. That is the point. Those who rush into mindfulness practice, without a foundation in serenity (who do vipassana without shamatha and jhana), almost always fail. Right mindfulness needs right concentration, which is defined by the Buddha as the first four jhanas. 
In my own life, I have changed, sure, and dramatically. But should everyone sit down where they are this minute and focus on the breath?
  • There is a time and a place for everything. If the world were ending, that's what I would do and recommend. Since the world IS ending, yes, it would be beneficial if they did. Now, sitting for the first time is going to be a mess. So I would suggest they practice ahead of the end of their world. One can practice useful things when standing, walking, eating, and so on. Mindfulness (sati) is crucial, but there is also clear comprehension (sampajana, presence of mind) to cultivate.
For what? To see the same thing I have? To change their lives in a way similar to how my life has changed? For what?

I'm still in somewhat of a questioning mode about the meaning of, the worth of, the whole experience. I am not Buddhist.
  • Well, there you have it. Neither is Eckhart Tolle.
The experience doesn't mean I've attained anything great or rare.
  • I suppose that depends on where one is sitting. Sure, adopt the lotus seat and bliss out. You can; we can't. Why would anyone call you special? Deeply relax. You can; we can't. Why would anyone call you special? Let go. You can; we can't. Why would anyone call you special? Fruitfully set up the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. You can; we can't. Why would anyone call you special?
  • It's true, there's nothing much special about doing what comes naturally, what comes to the beginner's mind, what comes from using the heart/mind as intended. But we have gotten so far away from that that it is we who should reckon ourselves "special" in the worst sense of the word.
Was it fantastic?
  • We wouldn't know, not firsthand anyway. Our teachers did not bring us to it. They, instead, focused on the people (retreat participants) for whom it was happening naturally.
Sure it was. But, probably, taking crack or LSD is fantastic too. Is it worth doing?
  • We think so. That is what we have understood. But what is the secret to doing it "right" (i.e. fruitfully)?
Meditation is so very simple and yet so powerful. It is the most powerful life-changer that I've ever experienced.
  • In that case, What's the point? Who needs that? You did; we did not. Why would you think of yourself as special?
In my life it has caused what I'd call positive changes in me as a person. But it has also destroyed some social aspects of "Vern" and dramatically changed how I interact with people.
  • What a price to pay! Wouldn't you rather be as confused and oppressed by greed, aversion (hate/fear), and delusion as the rest of us? Then you, too, could be the life of the party. Let's see, which would we rather, Popularity Contest Winner or Quiet Meditator Hiding Light Under Bushel? Judeo-Christian wisdom (Matt. 5:15) says no one does that, but in the West we have construed modestly hiding our good points as biblical advice.
  • Since you are so normal and not special, help us understand, You don't have a message for the world you're dying to get out?
"Dying to get out?" No. It has only been some years after the experiences that I had any desire at all to tell others about it. This is something I noticed about my experience that doesn't match many other people who have been able to get into, and progress through, the [serenity meditation] process. All of a sudden they have this great message for the world, messages they are dying to get out, and I don't have that (yet?)

Who is anyone to begin with? Joan of Arc, Mother Theresa, the 14th Dalai Lama, and Mahatma Gandhi all became special by their deeds, actions, karma (

I am not at all sure what to make of any of it. Most people are coming from some background... Buddhist, Hindu, new age, whatever it is... and their experiences are put into the framework of that background... of that religion usually.
  • You learned and practiced meditation in the Theravada Buddhist forest tradition of Thailand. It had to be that you practiced in past lives because, as it is said, no one is interested in this topic now unless they practiced in the past.
I have first jhana (a rapturous, blissful, life-changing meditative experience) and don't even know what it is. Second, third, and so on, without knowing I am even seeing any levels of jhana at all. And it happens over and over as I sit.

Whenever I let go, there is a progression further.

Each time I like what I get, there is a reversal of that progress and it might slip away entirely. Instead, I just let go and watch without attaching to anything nice that is going on.

Back in 1998-1999 there wasn't anything I could find online that explained jhana. I was clueless about its importance to Theravada and other Buddhists.
  • Wisdom Quarterly is trying to change that. Bliss (via absorption) is a crucial part of Buddhist practice. When people are missing it, many things go wrong.
It was absolutely amazing to me to see how the experience matched up with descriptions of jhana in 2005 when the abbot at [Northeast Thailand's] Wat Pah Nanachat in Warin Chamrap, Ubon Ratchathani in Issan handed me a few brochures about jhana after telling me that my experiences were "jhana."

I don't have that to give meaning to my experiences (Buddhism). The meaning I am getting out of them is the result they have and are having on me. I feel like I'm still in the process, not likely finished.

Is the end-game nirvana? Maybe not for me at all. Maybe nirvana is for Buddhists. My mother is an evangelical Christian. In front of the TV with a televangelist minister telling her to "let it all go and give it to God," through him, she gave up all her cares. And she calls it being "born again."

Maybe her  end-game was Jhana 1, being born-again. She thought that was it, and it was. That was it for her. She later spoke in tongues [glossolalia] and had feelings about what God wanted her to do. But, for her, she has an entirely different story built around the experience. She's not concerned at all about progressing further [through the meditative absorptions in her mind to any other experiences similar to the first bliss experience.
  • Will you become a "Buddhist," which need not mean anything more fancy than seeking guidance from the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and [noble] Sangha? Going to Thailand to learn to meditate is already benefiting you and us even without any conversion.
I don't have a story other than what I am then, today, and later.
  • Oh, other than that one, the biggest thing we cling to, the story of ourselves. The Buddha taught jhana not for jhana, but for the sake of getting over that story.
I am not screaming anything from the tops of buildings at the top of my lungs because I don't yet see the point. Is the point that the entire world sit and have jhana? Maybe, but I don't see that yet.

If I ever see that that would imply that I am in a great state, one that I hope everyone else can experience. I am not sure of that at all. 
  • You said you didn't "deserve" it -- you weren't anything special and you weren't doing anything special to achieve this very special experience?
I wasn't anyone special. I didn't do anything special. I sat and watched the breath and followed a very simple set of guidelines [monastic instructions] I just pulled from a big book of rules about meditating.

I don't think I was doing anything special.

Is watching the breath "special"? It's something that few do -- even those who practice -- [they] are not really into the whole idea.

Something Special
Something about me that is interesting, maybe, is that when I do something -- when I'm excited about doing something -- I really go into it and do it.

If I like what I'm doing, I go deep and go as far as I can. I found the exercise of watching [the breath as it passes at the point where there is] the sensation of breath around the nostrils and the subsequent refocusing of the mind away from thoughts that grabbed it, back to the nostrils, to be a fascinating game.

I wanted to "win" that game, I guess you could say. I wanted to be able to beat my mind and make it do what I wanted. So you could say that winning that game caused the rest of it that followed.

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