Friday, January 16, 2009

Backdoor Meditation Instructions

In his book, "Wake Up to Your Life," Ken McLeod presents a set of explicit meditation instructions that go through all the usual details of how to sit in shamatha and work with the body, breath and mind -- instructions that usher us into meditation through the front door, so to speak. But then he adds a set of "backdoor instructions" -- short, metaphorical directions that "go through the back door and elicit the appropriate effort while avoiding the confusion often generated by a set of explicit instructions." McLeod's backdoor instruction, drawn from the yogic tradition in Tibet, is:

Body like a mountain.
Breath like the wind.
Mind like the sky.

I've often found it useful, in my own practice, to reflect on these kinds of poetic, pith instructions. Sometimes, contemplating one or another of these instructions will help me identify an obstacle that is arising in my practice and apply a remedy for it. Here are several backdoor instructions that I find myself returning to again and again.


This instruction points to the urgency of truly being present and attentive to this moment, this moment, this moment. Imagine if you suddenly became aware that your hair was on fire, and how you might react to that situation. In an instant, everything else goes out the window and you pay complete and total attention to the crisis of the moment. When you realize your hair is on fire, there's no time to remain lost in daydreams or to react sluggishly.

Pema Chodron tells a story from Himalayan folklore, about a proud and ambitious woman who wanted to attain enlightenment. Everyone told her, if you really want to attain enlightenment, you should climb that mountain and go see the old hermit lady who lives in a cave at the top of the mountain. So, after much effort, the woman finally reached the top of the mountain and found the cave, where she glimpsed a saintly old lady sitting inside, meditating with a beatific and peaceful expression on her face. Overcome with awe, the woman prostrated at the feet of the old hermit and said, "I want to attain enlightenment. Please show me how." The old lady regarded her shrewdly and said, "Are you sure you want enlightenment?" The young woman, somewhat taken aback, said, "Yes, of course I'm sure." Whereupon the peaceful old lady transformed into a terrifying demon who brandished a stick and began to chase the woman out of the cave and down the mountain, shouting: "Now! Now! Now!" For the rest of her life, the woman was never able to escape this awful demon who was always chasing her and exhorting her to be present now, now now.

"Meditate as though your hair were on fire" evokes a similar feeling of the urgency of paying attention to each moment. We don't need to jump up from our meditation seat and run screaming out of the room (although sometimes, when wrestling with monkey mind, we might feel like doing exactly that). Rather, it's a question of how we apply ourselves to our meditation. Sogyal Rinpoche talks about how sometimes we find ourselves meditating in a kind of fog, as if we have a hood over our head, and how important it is when we notice that to cut through it and energize ourselves and reinvigorate our awareness. If we go on meditating with the hood over our head, it can grow into a habit, and a habit like that could become a big obstacle for us on the spiritual path.

Trungpa Rinpoche once talked about the quality of that moment when you've just stepped in dog shit. There can be no question about it, no ambiguity. That moment is sharp and vivid and precise, and cuts through everything else. Every moment has that quality, if we are awake to it.

This instruction is pointing to something similar. In this very moment, your hair is on fire, burning with the brilliance of the present experience of consciousness, which has never happened in quite this way before and will never happen again. Are you going to pay attention to it or let it pass by unnoticed?

It reminds me of an advertising slogan I once found inside a bag of cookies. Printed on the little paper that separated the cookies was this word of advice:

"If you're going to have a cookie, have a cookie."

If you're going to meditate, meditate. Don't go about it in a half-assed way. Be present for this moment. And this one. And this one. And this one.


A somewhat related but slightly different instruction is to meditate as though there were a snake in your lap. Imagine how you might react if you discovered, at this very moment, that there was a dangerous, poisonous snake coiled up right there in your lap, staring at you, flicking its tongue. You would remain as still as a mountain. Your eyes and your attention would not wander for one moment from that snake. If your arm or your ear began to itch, you would not jump to scratch it out of reflex, but would remain utterly mindful of every movement -- you might even let it go on itching, rather than risk disturbing that snake with any sudden movement. And though it might sound like a contradiction in terms, you would probably relate to that snake in your lap best if you could just relax with it. Rather than sitting there unmoving in a stiff and frozen way, which would only provoke the snake, you could sit there unmoving in a totally relaxed way.

For extra credit, try meditating as though your hair is on fire and a snake is in your lap -- both at the same time!


This instruction comes to us from the legendary Tibetan female yogini, Machik Labdron, who lived in the 11th and 12th century. In a way, this instruction brings together the previous two -- the alertness and urgency of recognizing that our hair is on fire, together with the relaxation and stillness of having a snake in our lap.

The Buddha once instructed a monk who was having difficulty in his meditation, constantly swinging between extremes of dullness and agitation. The Buddha knew the man had been a musician before he became a monk, so he spoke in a metaphor the man would understand. He asked the man if his instrument sounded better when the strings were very tight or when they were very loose. The man responded that the answer was neither: the instrument sounded best when the strings were not too tight and not too loose, but balanced between the two. The way to meditate, the Buddha told him, is the same: not too tight, not too loose.

In meditation, we search for a balance between alertness and precise attention, on the one hand, and relaxation and open awareness on the other. If we lean too far in the direction of alertness and precision, we can become agitated and trip ourselves up with too much effort. That's being too tight. If we lean too far in the other direction and don't apply enough effort, we can space out and get lost in daydreams or sink into that foggy state where we're meditating with the hood over our head, not really present for our experience. That's being too loose.

Wisdom and experience in meditation arise through a combination of relaxation and attention, not through too much of one or too much of the other.

As Machik Labdron's instruction suggests, the balance between alertness and relaxation, between not too tight and not too loose, is something we can actively work with in our meditation. When we find that we are being too spacey or dull, we can apply a different technique to remedy that: counting the breath, for instance, which brings in an element of precision that sharpens our mindfulness. Or if we find that we are being too speedy and agitated with racing thoughts, we can drop the whole thing suddenly and take a break, take in our surroundings, and start fresh.

Alert! Alert! Yet, relax! Relax!


One versatile technique we can try that works as an effective antidote to either agitation or dullness is the One-Breath Meditation. Just focus on being mindful and attentive to one single breath, with no thought of past or future breaths, no counting to ten or five or even two. Just one breath. This one. Being genuinely and wakefully present for even one single breath, with mindfulness and awareness, is better than sitting with a hood over our heads, lost in dullness or agitation, for a thousand breaths.


Another metaphor that helps me think about the relationship between mindfulness and awareness in meditation is the image of a fish in water.

I read an article in the New York Times many years ago about a laboratory experiment that had been done to study the different ways that Asians and Westerners perceive things. One of the means by which they tested this was to show both groups a picture of a fish in an aquarium and use eye-tracking technology to see what parts of the picture their eyes gravitated to first. By and large, the Westerners perceived the fish first, and then took in the context of the aquarium in which the fish appeared. Asians, on the other hand, perceived the aquarium first, and then perceived the fish in this context. I'm not sure what this implies about the differences in perceptual habits among the different ethnic groups, but I've always found it to be provocative.

In this image, the fish is like mindfulness: that quality of the mind that zeroes in on a specific aspect of this moment of being, this experience, and pays attention to that aspect. And the water, or the aquarium, is like awareness: that quality of the mind that takes in the total situation and environment in which mindfulness is occurring.


This is another pith instruction that comes from Ken McLeod's book, and although it's not as metaphorical as the others, I find it to be a helpful reminder about what it is that we're doing in meditation -- or, perhaps more to the point, what it is we're not doing.

Meditation isn't about cooking up something or creating some kind of experience that isn't already here. The present moment of experience is already happening and is just what it is. We don't need to add anything to it or subtract anything from it. We're just sitting here, taking in sensory perceptions, watching thoughts come and go. It's really very simple. No other ingredients required. We don't even need to breathe in any particular way; our bodies are breathing just fine on their own, without our minds trying to step in and manipulate the experience. When we find that our mind has gone off on a tangent, we can simply "return to what is already there and rest."