Meditation is a household word, everyone has their idea of what it is, but does this mean that it is more misunderstood than understood?
In Meditating: A Buddhist View, released in July, Jinananda describes meditation as ‘the setting up of conditions for an ever more positive mental state to arise.’ The aim of meditation, he explains, ‘is to develop a continuous flow of positive mental states.’ And the key word here is ‘continuous.’ ‘Everyone has positive mental states from time to time,’ Jinananda writes. ‘We all know what it is to be happy, content, joyful, kind and generous. Meditation involves consciously sustaining a continuous flow of such positive states.’
This may feel very far from our current experience with all its difficulties and frustrations. Yet Jinananda believes that the starting point of meditation is our current experience, just as it is. ‘Buddhist meditation is about being true to your experience,’ he explains. ‘The starting point of meditation is to become aware of the flow of what is going on in the mind – whether positive or negative – so that we can learn to direct that flow.’
In this way, meditation can bring us great freedom. It can also bring us great joy as we realize that ‘satisfaction, happiness and absorption are not the end-product of some gratifying thing or experience, but a way of going about things. Happiness is something we bring to life, not something life delivers to us – meditation is the practical application of this simple idea.’
So can you identify a condition for the arising of a more positive mental state that you could put in place now?
‘Meditating: A Buddhist View’ is available to purchase at your local Triratna bookshop and from our website.
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.
“There is no one experiencing our mental states from the outside. We are them. If we want to experience different states, we have to become them. And that process begins the moment we form an intention to meditate.”
Start this process now by reading an excerpt from the book, or by purchasing ‘Meditating: A Buddhist View’ from the Windhorse Publications website.
On the 16th July Windhorse Publications will be releasing the new revised edition of its bestselling guide to meditation by Jinananda.
Here’s a short quote from the book which we think gives a good sense of the book as a whole, as well as of the changes Jinananda has made to the new edition:
“Buddhist meditation is a practice of being true to your experience. This may sound like a fine idea, but there is a good reason why it tends to remain an idea, and why therefore we tend to avoid meditation. Being true to your experience means getting behind the idea of what is going on, behind the label, the interpretation, to the inchoate, ungraspable, unfathomable experience of this moment. In meditation we slow down the current of thoughts that tells us a familiar story of what is going on in order to experience something much more mysterious and difficult.
Something I often notice when I am teaching is that people want to know what is supposed to be happening, what they are supposed to experience, to feel. Now it is true that there are certain things that people who meditate may sometimes experience – and we shall be looking at these – but the way towards these states of mind is to be prepared to sit with what is actually going on, however uncomfortable, confusing, and messy that may be.
The method actor Robert de Niro observes of his approach to acting, ‘People don’t try to show their feelings, they try to hide them.’ That is, his truth as an actor is in revealing an attempt not to reveal something. If he is right, our complaints of being misunderstood are a bit of a smokescreen. We are afraid of our cover being blown, of being found out, of not being who we are supposed to be. Which in a way is okay. Except that the conspiracy goes all the way to the top – we inevitably buy into our self-image. We buy into a grand myth of being real: karaoke bars the world over echo to the words ‘I did it my way.’ It is a comforting delusion. A saying by a Jewish mystic called Zushya of Hanipol offers an alternative path; he says, ‘When I get to heaven, they won’t ask me, “Zushya, why weren’t you Moses?” They will ask me, “Zushya, why weren’t you Zushya?”’ The question isn’t rhetorical. It is not a reproach, I think. It wants an answer: what is getting in the way? We can’t jump straight into being true to ourselves. First we must sit with something rather messier. All the stuff that stops us being ourselves.
Even when people try to express the truth of their feelings, they may best do this by not being able to do so. Eloquence is convincing, but there is a deeper truth in incoherence, in language breaking down. The deepest truth of us is always unutterable. And yet instinctively we refer our experience to our thinking for its validation. We trust our thinking to tell us the truth of what is going on. And this is where we manufacture our suffering. It is also where it can be relieved. In meditation we work with the fact that the mind produces suffering.”
A number of books have been written on the life of the Buddha. What makes yours stand out from the rest?
Warrior of Peace is a historical account of the Buddha’s life, but it is also an imaginative account – it straddles the historical and the mythical, as it were. I wanted to do more than just produce an objective and historically accurate biography of the Buddha from everything that we already know about him – I wanted to focus on the Buddha’s inner experience to explore everything that we don’t know. And I think for us, as ordinary unenlightened beings contemplating the life of an extraordinary enlightened being, exploring the mystery of the Buddha’s life is, in a sense, the heart of the business. As Buddhists it is essential that we imagine being the Buddha, that we connect with our capacity to become a Buddha.
Is Warrior of Peace a work of fact or fiction?
It is certainly based on historical fact in the sense that the Buddha was quite clearly a historical figure whose teaching had a profound effect on human history in all sorts of ways. But more than being concerned with the Buddha’s place in history, Warrior of Peace is interested in asking the reader to connect with the story, to become part of it, and it is this that brings it into the area of fiction, if you like. The Buddha’s teaching continually brings us back to our own experience, and of course awakening can only be understood as an experience, not as an idea. So in some ways the most important thing is not who the Buddha was and what he did but what he represents for us.
What do you think it is about the Buddha’s message that makes it still so relevant and powerful today?
The Buddha’s teaching is about suffering and the ending of suffering, and this is a basic human message that is relevant to all times and to all places. The Buddha was very clear about the fact that everything in life is secondary to our basic humanity – we are human beings before we are Buddhists, Westerners or any other label that we may identify with. And it is this insistence of getting behind the label to our actual experience which is as a really important message for our time, as it is for any other, I think.
When we imagine the Buddha, do you think that it is most helpful to see him as a superhuman being or a normal human being like ourselves?
In Warrior of Peace, I really wanted to encourage the reader to think of the Buddha, first and foremost, as a human being. The Buddha wasn’t predetermined to become enlightened. In fact, for much of his life he didn’t even know what enlightenment was – he was confused and he suffered and in a sense he didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing. So I wanted the reader to be able to empathize with the difficulties that he faced and to know that the path that he embarked on was one that we can all follow.
However, I think that it’s equally important that we don’t lose sight of enlightenment as a radically different kind of attainment from our ordinary kind of attainments. Although the Buddha was a human being, what he achieved took him beyond where our human conditioning can take us.
So balancing the human and enlightened sides to the Buddha’s personality is a difficult project, but it’s one that I wanted to engage with in the book because I think it’s important to have a sense of all the different levels of the Buddha’s being.
You describe the Buddha as a revolutionary for his time. If we are also going to be Buddhist revolutionaries, which of the Buddha’s teachings do you see as being in most urgent need of expression?
Well, we live on a very small planet now, so we somehow really do need to be able to get on with each other as human beings. And I think one thing that the Buddha does emphasize is that if we are going to have any sense of the truth, we have to be able to let go of hatred, because truth and hatred simply do not go along with one another.
The Buddha’s opposition to animal sacrifice (which was a widely accepted practice of his time) is a specific example of the way in which he expressed this principle of non-hatred and non-violence towards all living beings. However, there was another reason for his criticism of animal sacrifice that concerned the efficacy of the practice. People were killing these animals in an attempt to change the weather patterns, or something equally crazy like that, and the Buddha was pointing out that animal sacrifice simply does not work on this level.
So I suppose if our aim were to become Buddhist revolutionaries, we would need to begin not only by cultivating compassion but also by cultivating awareness of the ways in which we’re going about trying to be happy and considering whether or not they actually work. We could look at the whole culture of modern capitalism, for example, because although it has perhaps achieved a limited amount of good in certain ways, there’s also something drastically wrong and even slightly mad about it. We’re chasing after things that simply aren’t going to satisfy us, but not only that – we’re destroying whole ecosystems in the process. So there is a lot of greed, hatred and delusion going on.
If your readers could take away one overriding message from your book, what would you like that to be?
I suppose I would like readers to come away with the sense that they can start from where they are – that whatever their present situation, they can begin to practice the Buddhist path fully. By simply doing something positive, saying something positive or thinking something positive we can really change things, here and now.