Introduction to Meditation
Class Four Notes
Thoughts—the Outer Ring
As I said in our first class, we can look at our process through this series as if we were exploring our direct experience in different concentric rings of awareness. At the very center of our physicality is the breath. Around that is the body. In our last class we explored the ring where the mind and body meet at the level of emotions. And here we are at the outer ring—thoughts and the process of thinking itself. Notice how we’ve also expanded to successive levels of subtlety as well.
We spend so much of our time in this outer ring of thinking—the furthest place we can be from our center. And it gets wobbly out here. Our thoughts are often firing off like popcorn strung together by mindless trains of association. First we notice our shoes are tight. Then we think about buying a new pair. Then we remember the shoes we saw when we were in that thrift store in Oregon. Yeah Oregon. That’s a cool state. I’d love to go back there. To the coast. Sometimes you see whales there. I know someone who thinks whales are aliens. How ridiculous. Like Area 51 in the TV show Roswell. The guy who starred in that had a cool haircut. I should trim my nails come to think of it… Do you find this at all familiar?
We become lost on a ludicrous ride on the train. And this is how we spend so much of our lives. Lost in thought. Mindless. What a waste. Especially as we open to the rich panorama of the present moment that is expressing itself in a kaleidoscope of sensations and aliveness.
This is not to say that thinking is not a powerful tool. When guided towards a task, it can produce miraculous results. I’m pretty happy about this computer I’m using. A lot of thinking went into its production. Wow. Our job is to get curious about thoughts and the thinking process itself, so that we can feel it for what it is and develop a skillful relationship to it.
If we wait with a mindful awareness (rather like a cat at a mouse’s door) for the next thought, we discover something miraculous. With intimate scrutiny and honesty, we ascertain that we can’t fully predict the next thought. They arise on their own. They are impersonal. Not in our control. Whoa. Do we think our thoughts, or do they simply arise based on our predispositions, habits, and conditioning?
Like a sound arising and being heard by the ear, thoughts arise and are sensed by the mind. They come and they go. Where do they come from? What is their substance? How long do they stay? Where do they go? They are like the most diaphanous of blips. Yet, they trigger so much, and we take them so seriously. We believe that we are our thoughts and that we are the thinkers of them. Does this bear up under investigation?
With our thoughts firing off like popcorn—way away from our centers—we become unbalanced, stressed, and distracted if we follow them too closely. We believe we will be able to think our way into getting more of what we like and keeping away what we don’t want. Most of our thoughts relate to our being the star of our own movie. How was I? How am I? How will I be? And, most of them are reruns. As Chogyam Trungpa said, “looking into the mind is just one insult after another.” Ouch.
Tonight and throughout this next week, we look at thoughts with a sense of freshness and exploration. What is a thought for us? Do we think in words or images or both? What is the process of our thinking? As we attend to thoughts with a mindful awareness, what patterns do we notice? Can we see the conditionality? The train of association? Thoughts can be a challenging meditation object. They are so fast and whispy, they can sneak right under our mindful awareness and whisk us away. Take thoughts as an object of focus for shorter periods of time and reground the mindful awareness in the breath as needed. Be playful and easy with yourself. These little blips have been running your life almost unseen. It takes time and interest and often humor to befriend the world of thinking.
Living a Sane Life—the Noble Eightfold Path
Last week we performed an exercise that showed us how stressful and unsatisfying it is to lean greedily towards what we want and aversively away from what we don’t like. Our peace, we found, was in meeting life just as it meets us. That’s where our balance and freedom lies. Even though the leaning towards and away is so deeply conditioned, the good news is that we can be free if we lead a life that brings us into harmony with how things actually operate. That is articulated in the Noble Eightfold Path.
If we have a skillful orientation to life, informed by the wise understanding that our actions have consequences for our happiness in a vast web that we cannot fathom, we naturally lean towards non-harming and skillfulness. When we show up with a mindful awareness and see that everything is changing moment by moment and that it isn’t in our control or even “personal,” we recognize that if we attempt to hold on, we will suffer. We are vigilant about the stress of leaning towards and away, which is the first step towards holding on. We feel that clearly. These elements comprise a wise view that gives us a good direction in which to be pointed.
Next, we need an engine to take us on our journey to freedom, and that is wise intention or resolve. Intention is the mother of actions. It is like a drain in a sink. The surface is inclined so that everything is drawn down to the drain. When we have a strong intention, it literally draws to itself the energies needed for the manifestation of its aim. Wise intention is to be very clear about wise view and to firmly resolve to live by its wisdom and allow freedom to emerge.
If wise view provides our direction, and wise intention is the engine, wise action is the running of that engine. We resolve not to cause harm in speech, action, or livelihood. In so doing, our minds become calm, restful, and at ease because we have nothing to regret. With an undisturbed mind, we are well set to meditate with a balanced, consistent, sustainable effort. When we cultivate the mind this way it naturally settles and unifies into concentration, and, at some point, our minds stay in a state of mindful awareness, freed from holding on. At peace. Liberated. It’s possible. In fact, now that you are here, it is inevitable. You’re doomed to awaken. Wow.