What we are doing in meditation is being with what is going on, without conceptually processing what is going on. This sounds deceptively simple – actually it is very simple, but being simple isn’t of course as easy as we might assume it is! Being simple takes an astonishing amount of work, and not the sort of work that we’re generally used to either. Being simple is the hardest thing there is – if it so happens that we’re starting off from the position of being complicated or contrived. When we deliberately try to be simple all that happens is that we add new levels of complication to the complication that was already there.
All the various levels of complication that go on when we try to be ‘simple’ are due to us thinking about what we are trying to do. Thinking inevitably complicates matters, and yet the thing about thinking is that we’re so sewn into it that we don’t seem to be able to stop. Life starts off simple, but when we get to thinking about it then somehow it isn’t simple any more! And if we realize this, and try to correct matters by not thinking so much, then this adds yet another layer of complication, yet another level of confusion onto the confusion that was there already.
Meditation is sometimes spoken of in terms of a technique (or set of techniques) that we can learn. It is often seen as a state of mind which can be brought about by utilizing various methods, but this way of looking at it also adds to the confusion. Ultimately, it has to be true that we cannot use a technique to become simple because a technique is a complication. What’s more, a technique is a complication that we tend to get addicted to, a complication that we tend to get hopelessly attached to and dependent upon. We could therefore say that methods are ‘unnecessary complications’ that we are more than likely to end up seeing as indispensable to the whole process, which is of course going to remove us even further from simplicity.
This is true for all the structures and protocols that thinking creates – by some sleight of hand the product of thinking (which is supposed to help us achieve something) gets confused with whatever it is that it is to be achieved, such that we end up getting attached to the structure of thought at the expense of what we were really trying to do. Our thinking not only ‘makes itself indispensable’ therefore, in some tricky way it manages to substitute (like a package of highly infectious viral software) itself for what we are supposedly thinking about. Thinking does nothing else other than add itself to ‘what’s going on’ as if ‘what’s going on was insufficient without it. It’s got nothing really to add, but it doesn’t want us to know that!
This basic point ought to be clearer to us than it is. How can there possibly be a technique or method for being simple? How can there possibly be a technique of method for ‘not thinking so much’ when techniques and methods are the products of thinking? Simplicity is the kind of thing that is arrived at by removing levels of complication rather than adding them. Very clearly, it cannot be something that can be approached by accumulating yet more thinking, yet more theories and terminologies, yet more methodologies. We need to lose baggage to become simple, not take on yet more of it!
Practicing meditation means freeing ourselves from techniques, not making ourselves dependent on them. There can be no technique for freeing ourselves from techniques! Normally, techniques are all we know – so much so that life seems to be all about accumulating techniques. This is what we’re led to believe. We learn a technique for this, a technique for that, and a technique for the other, until it gets to the stage that we feel we ought to have the appropriate technique for dealing with whatever challenge it is that life throws at us. Life has therefore become a mere technicality to us! We naturally assume therefore that learning to meditate must mean learning yet another technique, yet another ‘skill’. Yet, as we have already asked, what possible skill, what possible technique, could there be for being simple? What possible technique could there be for being ‘the way that we already are’? Or to express this in the terms that we did right at the beginning of this discussion – what possible ‘skill’, what possible ‘technique’ could there be for ‘being with what is going on, without conceptually processing what is going on”?
The problem is of course that all techniques, all methods, all skills, etc are examples of ‘conceptual processing’. They are all ways of adding extra layers of complication to what is essentially a very simple situation. We’re trying to do something to something, or do something with something, and this is complication! We’re trying to change something, because that is all the thinking mind can ever do, and so when we identify all this non-stop compulsive activity of the mind trying to change things (or ‘improve’ things) as ‘the thing that is causing us distress’ then straightaway we try to change things so that we’re not always trying to change things any more…
Even the word ‘meditation’ (or the word ‘mindfulness’) can cause complications. Almost inevitably, we start thinking that that this is something special that we have to do. We get the impression that there is this ‘thing’ called meditation, this ‘thing’ called mindfulness, which we somehow have to learn to practice. On the face of it, this does of course seem like a pretty fair assumption! After all, if there wasn’t some kind of a thing that we had to learn to do then we’d just carry on as before and therefore this wouldn’t be mediation. It would just be ‘us carrying on doing what we always do’. There is a glitch in this thinking however, no matter how sound the logic might seem. If meditation is ‘being with ourselves without trying to change ourselves’ (which is another way of phrasing our original definition) then there is no way on earth we can ever change ourselves to be this way. And yet this is a very big glitch for because changing stuff (i.e. doing stuff) is all we know, all we understand…
What we always do is ‘try to be in control the whole time’ – this is what we know and understand. This is what makes sense to us. What we do in our day-to-day lives is to constantly attempt to obtain some kind of ‘purchase’, some kind of ‘hold’, some kind of ‘angle’ – both on ourselves and on the world around us. As we have said, ‘control is all we know’. Control doesn’t just mean regulating outcomes however, which is how we usually see it; on a more essential level ‘control’ means that we are putting what is happening into a context that makes sense to us. We are putting life in a framework, so that everything that happens to us gets to be understood within the terms of this framework, and this trick straightaway puts us into the position of being ‘one up’ on the proceedings. As soon as life is understood within the framework (of the conceptual mind) there is this immediate sense of security because once life has been ‘put in context’ in this way then – by the very nature of what we have done – everything that happens from this point onwards has to be understandable to us. This seems so very straightforward, so extremely obvious to us that we never pause to consider how strange it is that we imagine that we ought to be able to ‘understand’ life. We never pause to wonder what exactly we mean by this word ‘understand’…
Understanding means that we have found the ‘purchase’ on our situation that we were looking for, and this represents a very fundamental form of control, even if we can’t actually ‘do’ anything about this situation. So what we automatically try to do under just about all circumstances is to find the angle, find the ‘right approach’ (because we don’t feel we can do anything without it) but the problem with this is that when we try to find the right approach to practicing meditation this is – as we have been saying – ‘making things more complicated’. We’re ‘playing it smart’, we’re trying to be ‘clever about things’, we’re trying as Alan Watts says to get ‘one-up on the universe’ and this defeats the whole point of the exercise. Our brief was not to find an angle, our brief was not to play it smart and look for some kind of advantage. Our brief was ‘to be with what is going on without conceptually processing what is going on’! We’ve missed the point because the point was just too simple for us for us to get…
The very idea that we should be meditating or practicing mindfulness is an obstacle, a source of confusion. The very word ‘meditation’ is a source of confusion and the idea that this is what we should be doing is yet more confusion – straightaway we are wrong-footed because straightaway we have got the idea that there is something special that we should be doing that we were not doing before. Straightaway we get the idea that we should be making an effort to be different. It may sound a bit odd to be stressing this point so much but given the fact that we are almost invariably harbouring some kind of mental construct which is governing what we seeing and doing and given the fact that ‘having an idea about what meditation is’ an absolute obstacle, it cannot really be stressed enough!
We can take the idea of ‘mindfulness’ to further illustrate what we’re saying here. Hearing about mindfulness, we naturally think that there must be this thing which is called mindfulness and so we start turning it over in our heads and wondering about what exactly it is. We want a handle on it. We want to know what it is. We want clarity. Once we think that mindfulness is a thing then it is natural that we will go looking for it. When we do this however we’re in trouble because we will never find it! Because we will never find it (since there’s no such thing) we will quite possibly spend an awful lot of time fruitlessly looking for it, which is clearly not time well-spent. Or on the other hand, we might find something which is not mindfulness at all, and devote ourselves to practicing it, and this is also going to be a terrible waste of time! We might as well be watching day-time TV, or gossiping with our friends over coffee, or playing ‘Jewels’ on our smartphone, or amusing ourselves putting bets on horses. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with these activities, just that they have nothing to with being mindful!
Trying to figure out what mindfulness is (or fooling ourselves into thinking that we know what it is) is just a game that we play, and like all games it can go on and on forever without getting us anywhere. This after all is the whole point of games. Games create the illusion of ‘getting somewhere’ without the substance!
If meditation is ‘being with what is going on without conceptually processing what is going on’ then thinking that we can find this state of affairs is absurd since looking is conceptually processing. No matter how much we look, no matter how much we think, we will never shed any light on the subject, nor will it get us any closer to being in that uncomplicated state of mind that comes about when we do stop conceptually processing everything in sight. In his article Wu Wei (Non-doing) and the Negativity of Depression Siroj Sorajjakool reproduces the following passage from Chuang-tzu:
The Confucian and the religious Taoist jump too far and fall on the other side, while the hedonist, the Buddhist, and the recluse fail to get on it at all. Chuang Tzu would smile at this situation and say, “You folks are too drunk with all those ‘isms’ of yours. Just be yourself in the world, neither trying (wu wei) nor not-trying (wu–pu-wei), and then you will find yourself on the horseback. For the ‘horse’ is none other than ‘yourself-in-the-world”.
What Chung Tzu is saying is that this state of ‘being ourselves in the world’ is both a lot subtler and a lot simpler than we think it is. Our first approach is to make some sort of ‘special effort’ to do things differently and this is no good because it equals ‘jumping right over the horse’. Our second approach is to withdraw and refrain from doing what we usually do, and this is us playing clever and trying not to make the error that everybody else makes. This doesn’t work either however because it equals ‘not getting on the horse at all’! We can’t be clever about it because there is nothing ‘clever’ about the state of being ourselves in the world – any fool can do this, and when it comes down to it a fool can do it better than we can!
What we’re really trying to do in being ‘clever’ is (as we have said) to wangle things so that we are ‘one-up on the universe’. We’re trying to beat the game. Any time we try to ‘get it right’ we are trying to be one-up on the universe. We are looking for the advantage, and we are trying to avoid the disadvantage (which would be where we ‘get it wrong’). This is our way of doing things – this is our way of doing everything. Even if we see that this automatic business of ‘looking for the advantageous position’ is causing us to jump right over the horse every time this doesn’t necessarily help because straightaway we try not to look for the advantage and so ‘not looking for the advantageous position’ becomes the new ‘advantageous position’! There is simply no way to correct the flaw of ‘always looking for the advantage’…
The crux of the matter lies in the fact that all this manoeuvring, all this seeking for advantage, reaffirms the central illusion that is keeping us from just ‘being ourselves in the world’ . This ‘advantage-seeking’ activity arises from what the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra refers to as ‘baseless discrimination,’ which follows on from ‘inverted thinking’, which in turn follows on from ‘non-abiding’, which according to Vimalakirti in the Sutra is the source of all our troubles (klesa).
‘The more we try to accord with the Dao the more we deviate’, as it says in the Dao de Ching. The more we try to be in harmony with the world the more disharmony we create. Why trying to be in harmony should be the cause of disharmony is so very simple that we are almost guaranteed never to see it! This is like the question that has to ask in order that the Fisher King might be healed from his wound – the wound that no one else has ever been able to heal. If the Fisher King is healed, then so too will be the blighted Kingdom he rules over, the Waste Land. According to Robert A. Johnson, the question has to be asked by ‘an innocent’, by ‘a fool’, or – we could say – by someone who is making absolutely no assumptions . This Sir Perceval is eventually able to do (after messing it up the first time), although the question he asks may not seem to make much sense to us. One version of the question he asks is: “Who is the master that the Grail serves?” Various meanings have been ascribed to this question (and it has also been claimed that it doesn’t have any meaning) but if we say that the two possible masters that might be served in life are the self (which is not who we are but who we think we are) and the not-self (which is an impersonal reality which we generally have no connection with at all) then Sir Perceval’s question can of course be seen to be profoundly meaningful. We have been serving the wrong master and because of this we will never get to see the Grail…
Being able to see the Grail has nothing to do with ‘being pure’ (or ‘being free from the taint of sin’), which is of course the way that we have been brought up to see it. What it means to be ‘pure’ has been distorted and complicated by traditional Christian dogma! What ‘purity’ really has has to do with is the being free from the illusion that one is this mind-created self. The assumption that we need to drop if we are to understand why trying to accord with the Dao causes us to deviate (or if we are to ‘see the Grail’) is the assumption of the self, the assumption of ‘who we think we are’. It is the self which seeks advantage – it is the self which may on the one hand get it right, but which might also (if it is not careful) get it wrong. But both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ equal the self and since the self is the unfounded assumption that is tripping us up every time (and preventing us from getting on the horse) both right and wrong are meaningless considerations with regard to ‘being ourselves in the world’.
As Wei Wu Wei says:
As long as there is a ‘you’ doing or not-doing,
thinking or not-thinking,
‘meditating’ or ‘not-meditating’
you are no closer to home
than the day you were born.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.