You wrote the original version of Meditating about ten years ago now. What is different about the new edition?
Recently in my meditation teaching, I’ve been getting the sense that a lot of people, especially at the beginning, do find meditation quite difficult – many just feel that they can’t do it. So in this new edition I really wanted to emphasize that meditation isn’t about getting into a particular meditative state but simply about taking an interest in our own experience. That’s something anyone can do, and something that is really useful and effective at whatever level you approach it.
In meditation we experience our own minds, and that means that we can’t just meditate in exactly the same way that everyone else does. So we’re all going to develop our own unique approach to meditation and my new book tries to encourage people to do that – I intended to introduce each reader to a sense of what meditating might be like instead of laying down the rules for what it should be. And at the same time I did want to put across the message that meditation is not meant to be easy.
Yes – you say in your book ‘A fundamental mistake that beginners make sometimes is to think that meditation should not feel stressful’ and that meditation is more than just a ‘safe, patching-up therapeutic tool’. However, meditation is often put forward in the West as a useful method to help us relax and de-stress. Do you think this is a misconception?
I think it’s a misconception to think that every time we sit down to meditate we’re going to achieve very relaxed meditative states. We will inevitably come across some difficult, contradictory aspects of our nature in meditation, and actually confronting them will probably be quite a psychically stressful process. In the long-term, I think meditation does clearly have a positive effect in enabling us to be more relaxed about life in general, but this doesn’t mean that we will completely avoid stressful situations, whether in meditation or in everyday life. Meditation is probably more like some kind of training in stress-management – we train the mind to expand so that it can hold more difficulty without becoming so overwhelmed by it, without cracking or falling apart. The stress is still there, but we can contain it and avoid identifying with it so completely. So I think there’s a subtle distinction to make here – meditation doesn’t get rid of stress, rather it changes you into a different person who can deal with it.
You write that ‘You don’t have to be a Buddhist to take up meditation… but I think it helps’. What is it that you think Buddhism offers in particular?
Meditating is part of Windhorse Publications’ A Buddhist View series, and I was happy that my book was to be included in this series because it meant I could be clear that Buddhist teachings are inextricably linked to the practicalities of meditation – meditation works in the context of these teachings, it’s not a self-contained practice that you can pick out and isolate from that context.
The Buddhist position is one that challenges our fixed views of the world, whether these views are religious or materialist or whether they are views we have of ourselves or of others. Buddhism consistently encourages us to experience the reality behind those views and this is what meditation is also all about – getting behind the idea of the thing to the actual experience itself. So Buddhism and meditation are deeply connected.
I think what Buddhism also offers in this context is the view that we, as human beings, have an infinite potential for development – that there is simply no limit to how we can develop. This can sound quite improbable because society is constantly giving us the message that we’re just ordinary people, that there’s nothing extraordinary going on in life at all. But actually, of course, there is – that we’re alive in this world is the most extraordinary thing of all! So Buddhism frees us from the common assumption that life is quite ordinary and that we’re stuck toeing the line. We’re not stuck, and meditation gives us the tools to really dismantle our assumptions from the inside, enabling us to take responsibility for our experience and respond to it creatively.
Some meditation teachers might say that it is important to bring acceptance to difficult aspects of ourselves and others. But you say that ‘acceptance is not really a Buddhist position’. Can you explain this statement? If Buddhist ethics are not grounded in acceptance, what are they grounded in?
The trouble with acceptance is firstly that there are a lot of things in the world that are frankly unacceptable. Some of our unskilful mental states are also completely unacceptable, and to accept them would actually be quite pathetic. I understand what people mean by acceptance of course, but as a word, I don’t think it’s strong enough. There’s a verse in Rumi’s poem The Guest House which goes:
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
So the problem with the word acceptance is that it’s begrudging, we’re saying ‘I don’t really want to invite you in but I kind of have to’, and that just doesn’t work. An awful lot of our energy goes into our dark thoughts, our shame, our malice, and in order to transform that energy, we need to embrace those difficult aspects of ourselves.
You could say that acceptance fits in to a more materialist point of view where there is the Self here and the difficult feeling or person there. Buddhism encourages us to go beyond this kind of separation and see that the difficulties are part of us, and I think this perspective is a lot more transformative.
In your book, you introduce two different types of meditation practice: Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana. Could you talk a bit about these two practices and the relationship between them? Is it important that we practise both?
For me, personally, both the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana are essential to my meditation practice. I had been meditating for about ten years before I came into contact with the FWBO as it was then, and discovering the Metta Bhavana was a revelation – I realized that it really was the missing link. And I think the two practices go together and feed off each other extremely well.
The Mindfulness of Breathing is about stabilizing and clarity, which is of course very important, but I don’t think you can really do the Mindfulness of Breathing effectively or fully without bringing metta to it – your emotional life needs to be engaged in order for it to work. Similarly, I think that the Metta Bhavana does need to be approached from a Mindfulness of Breathing point of view. I know that some people can find the Metta Bhavana quite difficult because it just seems like a mental exercise to them – thinking about this and imagining that and trying to have nice feelings – it’s all quite abstract. So one thing I have found helpful when I’m imagining the person in each stage is to have a sense of that person’s breathing – making the whole Metta Bhavana practice a Mindfulness of Breathing that resonates with a sense of another’s breathing, if you like. This helps to ground the practice in the real, physical, living connection between us, which is really what everything comes down to. It’s that physical experience of being here in the world which links every one of us, but it’s easy to forget that sometimes.
This strategy can be especially useful in the final stage of the Metta Bhavana because – and I speak about this in the book – there can be a danger of churning out a kind of airline commercial, with ethnic characters from around the world waving up at you in your love-jet as you cruise at 30,000 feet. What I think we really confront in the final stage is our difficulty truly connecting and empathizing with those beyond our own personal tribe – the ‘other’, if you like. We know that these people exist, that they are real human beings, but we still have this absurd attachment to our own, whether it’s our family, our national football team or even the neutral and difficult people in our life. If we can just sit there with that absurd contradiction, really take an interest in it, perhaps one day we’ll be able to stop hanging on, and ‘poof’, the attachment will just vanish. Then all we’re left with is an intense engagement with the welfare of all beings.
How can we live our lives in a way that supports our meditation practice? And how do we integrate our meditation practice into our everyday lives? Is this something that happens quite naturally, or does it involve effort?
Meditation is going to change you, so over time your experience of the world will also change. But I’m not sure that it’s a terribly good idea to be overly precious or self-protecting about what you do in your daily life, as if the aim is to purge it of all the things that might not support effective meditation. I think meditation is about being prepared to experience whatever your mind throws up – it’s not about controlling or limiting our experience but opening ourselves up to whatever is already there.
Of course you can go off and live on your own in a hut in the woods or in a monastery with its 250 rules so you know exactly what to do in any situation – that’s a perfectly fine approach, but if we’re going to be living within society and meditating for an hour or so each day, I think we need a different kind of approach to ethics, one that is more exploratory than rule-bound. Looking at people who meditate effectively, what you can always see is that they’re really relaxed in their everyday lives. When we meditate, we’re developing a quality of attention that is intimate, sensitive and experimental and so over time I think we will naturally cultivate an approach to ethics that is similarly aware, real and relaxed.