Tag Archives: Meditation

Meditation ain’t no ancient thing

We’ve made up meditation out of thin air and desperate need. But that only makes it more important.

“Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice passed down in unbroken lineages from enlightened beings like the Buddha.”

This is a bad idea.

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And this is the first in a new series of critical essays by me, Damien Walter, playing my part as “The Critic”. I’ve been looking for a new way to do high quality critical writing for a while now. Maybe this new place called Substack is it? We shall see.

Head over to Substack and get a free membership to my mailing list before I introduce paid subscriptions.

I think we need to be brutal in taking apart bad ideas, and inspired in opening up good ones. I intend to do just that in these essays. They’re going to range from political theory to spiritual practice, stopping off at sci-fi novels and superhero movies along the way. For now it’s free to subscribe, but at some point I’ll tick the box for paid subscriptions and only those kicking in a few $$$ will be able to answer me back.

Until then.

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I’m ten years into a Buddhist meditation practice, which means I’ve gone through the peaks of belief, out into the dead calm of a crisis of faith, and am now docked in the harbour of this over extended metaphor taking some time to consider the journey behind me.

“meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020”

I can’t even begin to prove that meditation is any good for anything. It might be nothing more than sitting around doing…nothing. And the scientific evidence otherwise is…sketchy at best. I suspect – my intuition and experience both tell me – that meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020.

But I can’t prove it.

What I CAN say about meditation with relative certainty…

…is that it isn’t old.

The fake histories of meditation.

Lineage is a great marketing strategy. It gives the student meditator confidence that the practice is worthwhile, and it gives the meditation teacher ownership of what they are teaching. Unless you’ve had the mantle handed on from some dude who got it from other dude going all the way back to Buddha, you ain’t the real deal.

This is bullshit. In the technical sense of the word…IE information that we believe because it appears to be highly salient to our situation.

Here’s a more honest appraisal of what’s really happening between meditation teacher and student. The teacher is just a regular fucked up human being, who has struggled through a lot of life’s suffering, and found some relief in meditation. And the student is much the same, and they’re working together to see how meditation might help.

That’s it.

You can read all about the histories of various meditation lineages. There’s a convenient wiki on the matter. I’m not disputing that meditation goes back some way, maybe to to the historical Buddha (whoever that was). Most of the techniques of meditation taught in Vipassana or Zen were developed in the 19th or 20th century as part of religious revivalist movements, or even as part of the New Age movement.

But none of that matters. Lineage or no lineage, scientifically proven techniques or no, meditation presents every person who studies it with the same challenge.

Only you can teach you to meditate.

What’s happening inside your head right now? Maybe you’re lost in a maelstrom of thoughts? Maybe you have a mind like a crystal labyrinth? Maybe the whole damn cosmos is unfolding inside the nexus of consciousness called You.

I can never know. The essential nature of being You is that only You can have any true insight into You.

“Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.”

“Know thyself.” Through history echo the words of the oracle at Delphi. So apparently simple, so deceptively hard. Who are you? Are you your name? Are you your nationality? Are you the process of evolution that birthed you? Are you the outcome of the Big Bang? Once we start to ask this question, we’re thrown into a depthless ocean.

Meditation is a set of useful tools for learning who you are. Mindfulness. Concentration, Compassion. They’re useful. They’re very, very useful. A good meditation teacher can show them to you, and talk you through part of the journey they might take you on.

But from there, you are on your own. Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.

Meditation is a 21st century survival technology.

Ancient lineages as marketing strategy isn’t just a bad idea. It’s a bad idea that stopes us seeing the really, really good idea about meditation.

The Nine Dot Puzzle is a famous psychological example of “frame breaking”. To solve the puzzle you have to break the frame that your mind projects over reality.

Life in the 21st century is an endless series of frame breaking exercises. Are you frustrated, desperate, overwhelmed and angry with the circumstances of your life? The answer lies entirely in how you frame those circumstances, your ability to break that frame, and to construct new frames as you change and grow.

This is the task that meditation has evolved to help us with.

As 21st century beings we’re uniquely challenged by change. 21st century life means re-inventing ourselves many times over, titanic changes of self and circumstance that our ancestors, who lived and died in one place and as one person, could barely have imagined.

Meditation isn’t a practice passed to us by our ancestors. It’s a technology we’re innovating right here and now in the 21st century. The best meditation teachers are nothing more than your fellow passengers in these times of change and upheaval, who’ve learned a few techniques you might find useful.

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Taking apart bad ideas, and opening up good ideas, is essential. Meditation as ancient tradition is a bad idea. Meditation as 21st century survival tech is a good idea. Because the good idea is a much better place to start learning.

The job of criticism and the critic is to ruthlessly take apart bad ideas to make space for good ones. I’ll be publishing high quality critical essays via this Substack newsletter as and when I can. The more subscribers I gather, the more time I’ll channel into the task. Help spread the word. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies.

My name is Damien Walter…and I am The Critic.

Head over to Substack and get a free membership to my mailing list before I introduce paid subscriptions.

I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.

Yesterday I spent the evening with the Green Papaya sangha at the Yoga Tree in Chiang Mai. Around forty people where there, many regulars, some visitors like me. The sangha – a Buddhist term for a spiritual practice group – are in the Plum Village meditation tradition. A little different from vipassana meditation, which trains students to analyse their thoughts, Plum Village is more slanted towards engagement with the present moment.

We did three sessions of meditation – one guided, one walking, and one silent sitting. For the walking meditation the meditation leader recited a chant to help pace our footsteps.

I have arrived.
I am home.
In the here.
In the now.

Being in the here, in the now, is at the heart of – not just meditation – but all spiritual practice. But it is soooooooooooo hard! And another load of oooooo’s and it’s sill harder than that. The mind – my mind, your mind, our mind – isn’t very good at being where it is. It likes to be in either the past – remembering what has already happened – or in the future – imagining what is to come.

If you have some spare minutes, sit quietly for a while and watch what your mind dos. Label the thoughts that arise. Are they of of the past? Of the future? Are you perceiving the present moment? You’ll find that very little of your time is spent in the here and now.

What you remember of the past is not real, just a memory. What you imagine of the future is not real, just a projection of your hopes or fears. The only thing that is real is where you are, in the here, in the now. There is no past or future, just the ever changing now.

The first time I encountered this idea was through the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. It’s the pivotal idea in his now world famous book The Power of Now. But I heard it in a recording of a four day retreat conducted by Tolle, published as the Journey In To Yourself. I was 30 and, by any measure, deeply unhappy. I’d been pushing down a lot of horrible emotions from a damaging childhood, grief from many losses, and had trapped myself in a life I didn’t fit in to from a desperate need to fit somewhere, anywhere. I had no kind of spiritual practice at all. I was a standard issue atheist, and any encounter I had with religion was edged with inherited and unexamined scorn. Consequentially, I really had no tools to process the pain I was feeling. Today, my argument with the radical atheist rhetoric of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – both of whom I had read heavily at university – is that it leaves the bulk of its believers utterly amputated from their own emotional reality. It certainly had me. I was miserable, and in trying to escape from the causes of the misery I’d driven myself, repeatedly, to the borders of emotional collapse where I had, at long last, collapsed.

So downloading a talk by an odd sounding German guy from Audible was probably, on the level of latent spiritual instinct, a last ditch attempt to pull myself out of a very dark place. For some reason I lay down on the floor of my apartment to listen to Eckahart Tolle’s characteristically odd voice as it pipped out of my laptop. And the next thing I knew, I was caught up in uncontrollable laughter…not that I was making any effort to control it. Not the laughter of scorn and anger that so much modern humour is rooted in. Not truly the laughter of humour at all. But the laughter of release. Massive, explosive, unexpected release, like a lock had been unpicked to the chain holding my emotions in place. And the key was Eckhart Tolle’s words about past and future, and our mind’s obessive need to escape to one or another, away from the present.

Walking in meditation with the Green Papaya sangha I remembered that first moment of radical contact with the present. The first time I had arrived, home, in the here and the now. And in the studio of the Yoga Tree, I found myself there again. “Home” is a very good word for the here and now of the present moment. When you come back to the present, even for a second, and regardless of where you are, however foreign it may be, it feels like arriving back at home. It’s why I think meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices are so common among travellers. Once you have found the present moment, you carry your home with you wherever you choose to travel.

It is easy to wander off the path and loose your home though. For some months after getting there, with the help of Eckhart Tolle, I felt elated, ecstatic, barely part of the world any more. Liberated, in a very real sense, from the sadness I had been carrying around. As I later discovered from the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, this is a common period in a meditation practice. Inevitably, it is followed by a return to normality. I spent the next four years trying to understand that experience, reading widely about Buddhism and other spiritual paths, and learning to meditate. That period culminated on a trip to California in late 2011, where I spent most of three weeks meditating and running on the beach in San Diego. In the two years since then that spiritual practice and meditation have settled in to the background of my life. I’ve returned to more worldly pursuits, spending more time on my writing career again.

Padding in circles at the Yoga Tree, I realised I had lost the moment for a long time. In day to day life it’s so easy to stay wrapped up in your memories and imaginings of past and future. It’s easy to sit down and meditate and spend an hour thinking through your hopes,fears and ambitions and never hit the here and now once. This is both natural and sad. It’s like being right outside the front door of your home, but never going in, staying on the cold steps outside instead. Last night, for a while at least, I came home again.

I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.

There is a 21 day meditation retreat at Doi Suthep, the temple above Chiang Mai. Later this year, I’m going to go and do it.

The poem above is by Thich Nhat Hanh. You could read it and an extended talk by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher here.

How to be in the moment and write better words

Where is your mind when you write?

We immediately think that our mind is far away. Away with the fairies. Gone to another world. The world of the story. Our mind is inside the thoughts, feelings and emotions of the characters. Inside another mind.

Have you ever begun to write and realised you’ve been just staring at a blank page for an hour or more? Your mind may have started out in the story, but it was enjoying the sights without noting them down. The it went off all together. Dreaming, scheming and worrying about anything and everything, as minds do. There might even be some words on the page, but they aren’t good ones.

To write well our mind needs to be right here, present and correct in the moment. Because it’s only in the here and now that it can focus on the task of writing itself. All the techniques that help shape good writing – sharp sentences, focussed paragraphs, well turned scenes, insightful narration – all need you to be focussed in the here and now even while you are also inhabiting the story.

Being present in the moment is often called mindfulness. To be mindful of what our senses are showing us moment by moment. Not hanging on to memories of what just happened, or imaging what might happen next. The more mindful you are of the present in fact, the more space you leave for the story, because the less your mind is cluttered with all kinds of other thoughts.

Mindfulness is a habit. You cultivate it by doing it. Lots of people today and through history use meditation to cultivate mindfulness. But that’s a long process, and I tempted you here with a “How to” statement that shouldn’t culminate in me telling you to go and read Jack Kornfeld.

Before you begin to write, set a timer for five minutes. Spend the five minutes mentally listing everything you see, hear, smell, touch, think or feel. If you hear a siren, add “Siren” to your list. If you feel hot add “Hot” to your list. If you start to worry about a work task make a note “Worrying About Work”. You can make the list on paper, or when you get good just make a mental list. The point isn’t the list. It’s that while you are making the list, you have to be mindful of your present, moment by moment as it happens.

For every hour you write, spend five minutes being mindful of the present. Often you will find the other 55 minutes become many times more productive. Try it out, and let me know how it works for you.