Q. This is my question: Meditation practice has always had a strong attraction for me, but after a few decades of meditation practice on 2 or 3 different techniques, I don't see any progress in the ability to hold steady concentration. As soon as I close my eyes, my mind becomes more active than when they are open. When I half or 3/4 close them, within a minute or so they have closed without my being aware of it, and the 'endless stream of consciousness' thought pattern has arisen. There is no rising of a single thought and watching it pass away. It is a constant stream and has always been so, from the moment I become settled on my cushion and turn inwards. With eyes open and the need to concentrate on some subject, the mind seems to behave 'normally', i.e., I have always been able to concentrate and focus and study like anyone else. Have you met anyone else who experiences this kind of continuous excessive mind activity in meditation, and for so many years? Do you have any comments or suggestions? Please feel free to condense or paraphrase the above to make it suitable for your forum page. It is an honest question. I have done meditation on breath awareness, focusing on the heart centre, seeking the witness to thoughts, and way back in the mists of time, worked with a TM mantra for a little while. But I am seriously wondering if, after all these years, I should give up meditation as not being suitable.
A. It is not easy for me to make specific comments, simply because I don't know you or your practice as a whole. My reaction on reading your question was to wonder if you have focused solely on sitting meditation practice all these years, giving little attention to the rest of your day, and not looking at it through the eyes of practice? I often come across people that have difficulty in achieving a concentrated meditation practice. Usually such people have little or no regard for practice in the rest of their daily life. To come to the meditation cushion without daily practice makes our sitting meditation shallow and one-sided. Even if we do manage to have a fairly concentrated experience, I am convinced that the fruit of such a lopsided approach will never produce anything necessary for genuine and permanent personal change. If you care to browse through the Q and A Archive on this website you will soon see that I emphasise the importance of cultivating a practice that is not just on the cushion, but one that is visited again and again throughout the entire day. I emphasise discovering that, off the cushion, the essence of practice is not at all different from the one that's on it. By cultivating the practice throughout the day, we become familiar with the central feature of coming back to ourselves, over and over again, in all situations. This allows us to begin to gather ourselves up in a more focused way, exactly as when we meditate. Because of a growing familiarity with practice, now when we come to our cushion we are at a point where we find it easier to apply extra commitment – to really gather ourselves up and enter the concentration we all expect to get from meditation. To bring practice to the whole of the day is crucial (and when I say practice, I don't mean just ethics). Practice with a teacher and a sangha. Wholeheartedly commit yourself to the Dharma, and I'm sure the expectations you have of meditation will come to be.
Q. Can the group suggest a Dharmic way to survive living with being the object of another person's obsessive and destructive focus on a continual basis? In particular, can the forum point to a way to cope with fear which will not overcome me but which does not bottle up the emotion? They say everything springs from fear. How can one keep one's heart warm and open and appreciate all the blessings one has in life while acknowledging the fear within? What would the Buddha do?
A. From my understanding, the only true way of dealing with difficult emotional situations is to work with them through a committed practice. There are no fixes for particular situations in Buddhism, as you may get in therapy. We have to learn to cultivate a practice that we take to all situations without regarding one situation as more important than another. If a particular situation is proving very difficult, indeed overpowering, to the extent that it takes you away from any sort of practice that your teacher could help you with, then seek advice from an expert on the subject (outside of Buddhism). We cannot pick and choose and 'tailor' our Dharma practice to suit our wants and needs. Through patience, perseverance, a wholehearted and complete practice, we learn how to work with life's fears and with difficult emotions. We discover that many of life's difficulties can be solved.
Q. Could you talk about the correct way to practice humility? Sometimes I think us westerners can confuse it with feelings of servitude or guilt, especially if we have a strongly theistic religious background.
A. Cultivating humility is something that westerners need to be careful with, as it is something that doesn't come easily to us. If we 'try' to be humble, we enter the danger zone. Who is it that wants to be humble anyway? We could so easily become one of those self-righteous, not to mention judgmental, types of people, ending up with an even bigger ego. So how do we bring this essential quality into our practice? Humility is that quality that begins to grow of itself through time in practice. Our willingness to contain our habitual outflows and to not go down the familiar road of reactivity is to deny the self, to deny its desire to reinforce itself and to be in control. This containment is the actual surrender of self; so the turning away from the self's desire for fulfillment in this way naturally becomes the cultivation of humility. Not as something you do, but the natural consequence of not bringing the grasping nature of self to whatever the situation may be. By practising in this way we slowly begin to become familiar with the experience of not wanting to have things our way all the time. And we begin to waken up to the reality that not wanting things our way actually begins to open up a freedom of being that can genuinely change our lives. To encourage the development of this quality still further, I've discovered that the act of bowing can be of profound support. Humility is to accept that there is something far greater that is beyond 'me', my possessions and my desire to control. Whilst bowing in front of a Buddha rupa, in your mind gather up all possessions and notions of self and hand them to the Buddha. All of them, including those possessions that you regard as spiritual insight and wise. Unload yourself of everything and ask the Buddha to help you to give up all of these sticky possessions. In that emptying, there will not be the void that you may imagine, but the warmth of humility when you realise that beyond the blindness of self, a vista of something profound and far greater than 'me' opens up. Oh, and don't forget also to hand over the one that is doing the handing over!