Friday, May 8, 2009

What's Happening Here?

For the past couple of weeks, our daily three-hour meditation session in the morning has been a roller coaster ride, an object lesson in the ups and downs of my own mind-state.

My meditation instructor has me doing a meditation inventory practice that is very interesting and worthwhile. At first, I resisted the idea; my ego resists anything that seems like more work -- but after doing the practice for a couple of weeks I'm becoming a big fan of it. The idea is twofold: first, to more accurately gauge how present and mindful you really are (or are not) in your meditation, and second, to inquire into what your mind habitually does when it's not being mindful, or not staying with the meditation object.

Doing this type of inventory requires that you don't try to fix what you see or complain about what's wrong with it (that being said, be warned: what you see when you do a meditation inventory may shock you). Simply observe and report, just as you would if you were doing an inventory for your business -- don't cook the books. Simply keep a notebook near your meditation cushion, and at the end of each session, jot down a few notes -- keep it brief and simple. Do this for a couple of weeks or more. Applying this type of systematic way of evaluating your meditation can peel away layers of preconception and reveal what's actually happening in your mind in a fresh, surprising way.

The first part of the inventory involves an honest appraisal of how mindful you were during the session. The idea of evaluating a meditation session and rating your experience may seem like a bit of a heresy -- in meditation we are encouraged not to place value judgments on what happens but to simply look at our experience objectively, however it arises. Here, however, for a certain period of time, it is really useful to throw that rule out the window and engage in a very systematic evaluation of what's really going on (not what you think might be going on, or what was going last year, but what's going on right now). You can use whatever system feels right to you here. At the suggestion of my meditation instructor, I chose to use a simple scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning almost totally lost in discursiveness or daydreams, not even in the room most of the time, and 5 meaning almost totally present with not much discursiveness or distraction from the meditation object. I was stunned and humbled -- but not really surprised -- to see how low on the scale most of my meditation sessions rated.

The second part of the inventory involves seeing what happens in your mind when you "exit" mindfulness. Is there a dominant theme to the kinds of thoughts or emotions that tend to pull you away? What's actually happening in your mind when you're not with the object of meditation? Where do you go? In Buddhism we talk about the "Six Realms" (the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, the jealous god realm, and the god realm); these can be viewed as actual realms inhabited by beings, but they can also be viewed as psychological factors or mind-states in which we all find ourselves at various times. We tend to have one particular "realm" that is our favorite haunt, the realm we inhabit in our minds most often. Using the Six Realms as a reference point, if you are familiar with them, is a good way to determine what your mind is doing during meditation and postmeditation. What surprised me in doing this part of the meditation inventory for a couple of weeks is that the realm where my mind tends to go most often is not the one I would have expected.

Our daily three-hour meditation marathon here is divided into four sessions, and for me one of the really interesting things about working with the meditation inventory, these past couple of weeks, has been seeing how wildly my experience fluctuates from one session to the next, seemingly without cause, and how I can go through a whole funhouse ride of mindfulness and distraction and mental realms -- all in a single morning. One session might seem like the worst session I've ever had, completely swamped by mental chatter, and it gets rated as less than a 1 on my rating scale -- but then the next session is suddenly very good, with very little wandering from the object, and it gets a 4. What triggered the difference? By isolating variables I can begin to really see how different factors affect my state of mind. Even a subtle change in posture can have a profound effect.

The point of all this is to begin to apply some real curiosity to your experience, and attempt to figure out: what is actually happening here?

Photo: Pema Chodron with Gampo Abbey residents, May 5, 2009.

1 comment:

Tyler Dewar said...

People do so much deep work on themselves at Gampo Abbey. Gampo Abbey is a place of deep and beneficial work. Dennis's posts have reminded me of this.