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Why Traditional Meditation Can't Work

It's a slippery thing, meditation.

You read a book on it. You take a course. You feel inspired. You sit down and - whoosh!

Thousands upon thousands of thoughts stampede through your head.

So you pull yourself together. You strengthen your resolve. Your clench your jaw. You determine to concentrate, to give it your best.

And for a few seconds everything is clear and then whoooooosh once more!

You're mind get sucked off into daydream land.

On and on, over and over, it seems that no matter how hard you try, no matter what techniques you use, you can't silence your mind.

One moment's inattention and you're lost - lost to a never-ending froth of mental chatter.

Why It's Not Your Fault

If all this sounds familiar, then it's not your fault.

The fault, instead, lies with the method.

A method that goes against our very nature.

A method that attempts to do the impossible.

Because trying to silence the mind is like trying to turn a lion into a herbivore.

No matter how much you explain to this lion that grass is nutrient rich, no matter how many plump blades of grass you hold out to its face, it's still going to munch on the hand that offers them.

Because the mind, in essence, is a thought-producing machine.

It is a computer without an off switch, a computer set to hyperdrive.

And its job is to solve problems and anything will do.

Boyfriend just left you?

Great. Let's stew on that few a few hours.

Eating tropical fruit on tropical desert island?

Great. Let's think of that time your boyfriend left you.

Boyfriend never left you?

Great. Let's think of what might happen if he did leave you?

The mind is like a greedy man getting paid by the thought. And it doesn't matter how perfect your life is he'll think of something to say.

Because your mind actually has two modes: problem solver and dream weaver.

It'll spin you a solution to your woes if you have them; but it'll also give you the sales pitch. Sell you the dream. The dream of a better life. The dream you could have if only... ...if only you listened to it a little longer while it lays down its plan.

So here's the problem. Happy or sad, the mind is always going to have something to say.

If you're sad it'll tell you how you can feel better, and if you're happy it will tell you how you can be happier still.

And since we'd all like things to be better than they are (no matter how good they are), it's hard not to pay attention when our mind whispers in our ear.

And in that way we continue thinking - even when we're meditating.

Because yes, we might tell ourselves our mind should be silent. And yes, we might will our mind to be silent. But one way or another it always seduces us with a bigger and better deal.

'Sure, silencing the mind might be good' it tells us, 'but just listen to me a little longer and I'll show you something even better!'

And like that we believe it - time and time again.

The silly thing, of course, is that our mind has spent a lifetime promising us glorious things that never materialize (or at least never in anything like the form we are led to believe) - and yet we're still always ready to give it one more chance.

We're like little gullible children without any powers of discernment, without any ability to overcome the allure of the present promise.

So, my recommendation if you want to improve your meditation is to do one of either two things:

  1. Remember how unfulfilling all of your mind's past promises were and don't believe it when tries to sell you a better deal while meditating, or
  2. Try a meditation technique that doesn't involve trying to shut your mind up - because it is unlikely to work, at least not for too long.

Smarter Meditation

If you're able to follow point one, then you need not continue reading as your meditation will flow gracefully into an endless sea of silence.

If this proves impossible, however, then you'd better follow the advice of point two and try a new form of meditation - one that doesn't fight the inherent nature of the mind. One that works, even if you can't stop thinking!

To do this requires a radical shift in perspective. Because now the aim isn't to silence the mind, but rather observe it.

Now you are not trying to eliminate thoughts, rather watch them as they rise and fall in the mind.

You are like a man standing on the bank of a river watching a swift current sweep by. The current can rage and froth, but you are safely out of harm's way. So long as you remain on the riverbank, its dramas can never touch you.

It's not that they aren't there. When you look down the current might be heaving and swirling; but from where you are positioned it's nothing more than a curiosity.

Another - now famous - way to see it is like this: imagine your thoughts are like the images on a movie screen. The characters on it can weep and laugh, they can ride life's richest dramas; but their troubles remain distinctly theirs. At no point can they ever jump off the screen to harm or interact with you in any way.

As such, while you may enjoy the spectacle, there is always a safe gap between the observer and the observed.

And if you can cultivate this gap, if you can cultivate the gap between you (the observer) and your thoughts (the observed) then they will lose all of their magnetism.

They will lose their ability to suck you in their wake, to make you lose yourself in the dream they weave.

Better still, by not trying to stop your thoughts, by simply observing them from a safe distance, you avoid the stress and tension that traditional meditation sometimes brings with it: The stress of trying to silence the mind and not being able to.

The stress that comes from trying to transform the mind into something it can never be.

No, from now on you are not trying to change anyone or anything.

You're simply going to relax, let whatever arises arise, and watch on like a god.

Jeremy O'Carroll 2011

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The Monk and the Little Imps

One of my teachers (Frans Stiene) once told me an anecdote that went something (but not entirely!) like this:

Once upon a time a determined young monk headed off deep into the Himalayan Mountains to meditate uninterrupted for three months straight. After hiking for several days he came to the top of a craggy ridge where he found an isolated cave that would be perfect for his purposes. Immediately, he set up camp, sat down in full lotus position on the icy stone floor and, without delay, began to meditate.

Having trained for many years, the young monk soon entered into a deep state of meditation. He remained in it for over a week, only getting up a few times to eat and relieve himself. Then, late one night after the moon had already set, his meditation was disturbed by a band of impish creatures who crowded in around him, curious to find out what he was doing.

At first he tried to ignore them, but inside he grew more and more restless, more and more distracted. In fact, the more he tried to ignore them, the more irritated he got. Eventually, using all the calm he could muster, he explained to the little imps that he'd came to this far away cave to meditate undisturbed and would appreciate it if they left him alone.

Unfortunately, the imps ignored his plea for peace and continued to press in around him, often coming so close that once or twice they even bumped into him, knocking him halfway to the floor.

For a little longer the young monk forced himself to meditate as best he could, then, overcome by a wave of anger, he decided that if asking the imps to move nicely didn't help, he would get so mad with them that they would be frightened off.

No sooner had the young monk decided this than he jumped up from his lotus position and started screaming and waving his arms. Given how big he was compared to the imps, he expected them to flee in terror, but instead they seemed amused by his outburst and, before long, dozens more of them crowded into the cave.

When he realized that getting angry wasn't working, the monk decided to change tack. He decided that perhaps he wasn't being spiritual enough and that what was needed was a bit more love.

With this in mind, the monk calmed himself down and started thinking as many loving thoughts as he could towards the little imps. He opened his heart chakra as wide as he could, he imagined hugging them, he filled the cave the most positive emotions he could find.

Having gone into 'love mode', the monk certainly felt better than he did when he was angry, but the little imps obviously liked this new state too, because the longer the young monk continued to generate his loving emotions, the more they squished their way into the cave. Soon there were so many of them that some were literally forced onto his lap for lack of room.

Irritated once more, the young monk took a few long deep breaths and thought things over. He'd tried forcing himself to ignore the imps. He'd tried getting mad at them and scaring them off. He'd tried being loving to them – and nothing worked! If things kept going like they were he would soon need to pack up and leave.

Determined not to be outdone by the little imps, however, the monk decided to try one final approach: doing nothing. He decided that if everything he did only increased the number of imps, then the only real alternative was to do nothing at all.

With this in mind he decided not to resist the little imps. He decided that whatever happened he would simply sit with the emotions that arose as they crowded in around him. If they irritated him, he wouldn't try not to be irritated, he wouldn't try to go deeper into his meditation so he could forget about them; rather he would simply observe his anger with total passivity. He would watch his thoughts and emotions from place of total surrender. And if he felt the urge to change his state of being, to be rid of the little imps and the irritation they brought with them, he would simply repeat a special mantra: 'I will not try to change anything' – and then do nothing.

Armed with this new approach, the young monk resumed his meditation as the imps jostled about him, bumping into him regularly. This annoyed him, but instead of pushing the irritation away, he simply let it flow unimpeded through his body until bit by bit it dissolved.

The young monk continued to observe his thoughts and emotions without trying to change them for several minutes. Over this time he noticed that he became more and more settled, until he actually didn't mind whether the imps came or went. It was at this point that a miracle occurred: the imps gradually began to lose interest in him and leave the cave – until less than half an hour later he was alone once more.

For the rest of the young monk's retreat he continued to apply the same practice of non-doing / non-resistance to any troublesome emotion or thought that arose in his body or mind, until he was so relaxed and at ease that he would have been happy to stay in his cave for many years to come. It was precisely at this point, however, that his master came to fetch him with the news that he was now ready to go out into the world and teach.

The practice of non-doing / non-resistance is one of the great secrets of meditation. You can use it to heal the past, clear blocked energy and connect with your true Self. Try it and experience your own miracle!

Jeremy O'Carroll 2011

The Secret to Meditation

Let's start with babies.

No, not because they're meant to live in the moment. We've all heard that but it hasn't helped, has it?

After all, when was the last time a person told you to check out some in-the-moment-dwelling-bub, a light bulb went off and flash! you were catapulted into satori – a profound glimpse of deep Zen?

Probably never.

But we have all observed babies doing something else which can help, and that's fall over, glance up the world, think about how they should act and then – laugh or cry.

It's like the world pauses to give them a chance to decide how to interpret falling over.

Well, if you have a modicum of awareness – and I know you do, because otherwise you wouldn't be reading this article – then you will have experienced a similar thing. Someone, say, insults you and a little gap in time opens up where you can choose to be offended or shrug it off.

It's a little pause where freewill beckons and we can choose our fate: to suffer or not to suffer.

Of course, even with the gap most people still can't help giving in to the magnetic pull of pissed-offness. But every now and again we do manage to look down on the situation with a sort of aloof calm and discover that the insult (or, as the case may be, car crash, house burning down, girlfriend leaving you etc. etc.) can't touch the good feelings that we're experiencing.

Because yes, in that moment where we choose to simply look down on the situation, to observe the scene, rather than get emotionally sucked in to it, we feel pretty darn good.

In fact, we can feel so good we feel connected – connected to our Essence, to a really deep place within us.

Why Do We Choose to Suffer?

At this point a good question arises: if in the gap moment we truly have a choice between getting upset or not, why do we so often choose to get upset?

There are quite a few theories on this, all of them, perhaps, being different ways of explaining the same phenomenon.

Eckhart Tolle, for instance, talks about the pain-body that wants to nourish itself on negative emotions.

In some forms of shamanism they talk of 'mud shadows' that also feed on our negativity.

And science, of late, has begun talking about the neural pathways that are created each time we have an emotion – both good or bad – neural pathways that need to be fed to stay alive.

And how are these neural pathways fed?

By the same emotion being repeated time and time again.

In other words, different parts of you want different things, and some parts can only survive if you get pissed off.

And if you try starving these parts then they really get mad!

In fact, they get so mad they'll do everything they can to get you to lose your inner balance so they can have a really good feast.

So, we choose to suffer because parts of us benefit from it, because most of us would be committing mass neuron slaughter if we didn't!

Meditation and the Way Out

Now, I'll be upfront: escaping from addictive misery will involve torture. The torture of all those innocent little misery-loving neural pathways we previously spent so much time feeding.

But if we can accept that some parts of us are expendable in the quest for ever greater joy, then we should cast our mind back to the gap moment we talked about earlier.

Because it is the gap moment that holds the key to our inner Self, to our ability to connect to a deep sense of wellbeing, transcend suffering and enter into profound meditation.

A lot of Westerners, of course, will have trouble understanding how the gap moment connects to meditation.

After all, in that moment where you are looking down upon yourself as an observer, your mind is often busy.

It's telling you that you've been insulted, that losing your house means your life is ruined – that all sorts of things – and that doesn't appear to have much in common with the deep states of inner silence we usually imagine meditation to equate with.

I mean, if your mind is squealing like a wounded pig, then how can that be meditation?

Yes, it is hard to believe; but what if meditation is actually about ceasing to identify with thoughts and feelings?

Because when you have found yourself in that gap moment, in the role of observer, haven't you noticed that same energetic feeling of wellbeing you get when we you do experience deep, meditative, inner silence?

Check it out next time. You'll probably find this to be the case.

In that moment you'll be like a tropical water scuba diver who looks up from deep down in the ocean at the turbulence on the surface. Yes, you can see the waves tossing and crashing and swirling – but it doesn't affect you. Cocooned by the snug warm padding of the water around you, you're untouched by the turmoil above.

Cultivating the Gap

Okay, so the gap moment and meditation share a lot in common.

How then can we consciously cultivate them?

How can we improve our chances of living the gap, rather than getting sucked straight into our emotions and thoughts?

How can we experience deep meditation when our mind is abuzz with chatter and can't slow down?

There are a lot of different techniques taught, most of them involving an ability to simply observe our thoughts (and feelings).

The problem, of course, is that this is easier said than done.

How often have you sat down to meditate, to observe your thoughts, only to find yourself sucked deep into them a moment later, oblivious to the gap you are trying to create between observer and thought?

That is why I came up with the idea of thinking meditation.

Because what I discovered through introspection, through observing the gap moment and my regular meditation, was that you could – as we have mentioned – have thoughts and yet still remain in deep meditation.

As a result, I started playing around with things and discovered that you could actually cultivate gap moments by consciously forcing yourself to generate an unceasing string of thoughts.

This process of consciously generating thoughts made it easy to hold the observer in place without getting sucked into the thoughts and, as a consequence, maintain a deep sense of meditation no matter the activity of the mind.

Not surprisingly, this helps teach the key point that we are not our thoughts, rather the observer behind them.

The Reiki precept meditation I've developed does the same thing for our feelings. It allows us to deliberately stir up certain feelings, only to impassively observe / feel them (after which they begin to dissolve). In the process we realize that we are not our feelings but, once again, the entity observing them.

This skill of learning to be the observer is therefore the critical one for meditation.

Since sitting back and trying to watch our thoughts and feelings without any guidance is a bit tough, however, we tend to need more intelligent tools to help us. It is these tools or techniques – like thinking meditation – that I'll be teaching at my upcoming meditation course.

And since I know that for learning to stick it needs to be consolidated in the weeks beyond a course, I've create a post-course structure (e-course and online learning portal) in which to practise these skills, because without this it is almost impossible to have the discipline to consistently operate as the observer for all but the fewest of fleeting moments.

Whether you attend the course or not, however, your task is to cultivate the gap moment, to cultivate the gap between thoughts, feelings and the observer of these things. Because creating the gap is like building a tunnel to the Source. It is opening a portal through which the Divine Light can shine down on your Earthly existence.

Jeremy O'Carroll, 2011

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