By following the instructions in this article, you will be able to meditate on an international top level.
You are being called to the podium. Spotlights dazzle, the applause is thundering. It’s all about you now: The recognition, the admiration. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. In the coming years, it will nourish you. It will provide energy and motivation. It will make you a surplus person, a generous partner, a skilled worker and respected professional.
The road to the top is short. You’ve already followed a basic course and learned the technique. Now all that remains is the finishing touch. The elite division is within reach.
The pull towards being the best of the best has fostered great feats and correspondingly large abysses. Ideally, the meditation is a refuge, where the ambitions that ride us in life – recognized or unrecognized – can get some air. The quiet acceptance of the meditation makes it a little easier to be a human being. If the technique is a tool for existential processes, does it make any sense to talk about a world championship?
In our meditation we challenge ourselves. We challenge our ability to be present. In order to meditate better, we must be better at failing. The more of our own shortcomings we are able to accept in our meditation, the easier it will be for us to re-establish a free mental attitude.
In developing a meditation career (if one can speak of such a thing) there are three main milestones we must pass in order to benefit from the technique. All three are about acceptance – at different levels and with different consequences. Seen from the meditator’s viewpoint, they are often experienced as obstacles rather than milestones, and understanding them on a practical level – i.e. in relation to our own practice – is the first step in the process of overcoming them.
The first obstacle is called spontaneous concentration, and is the periods of meditation where our acting self is set aside by thoughts or impulses. This happens for the first time already when we learn to meditate, and then, later on, during every meditation – as long as we meditate with a certain level of free mental attitude.
At the beginner’s course, we are told that spontaneous concentration is a part of the process, and that we should accept periods where we lose the meditation sound. This is easily understood at a theoretical level, but spontaneous concentration might nevertheless still be perceived as disturbing.
Too many thoughts, too intense thoughts, wrong content, too much physical disquiet, excessive fatigue. This arouses impulses to avoid spontaneous concentration. The most obvious avoidance strategy is to repeat the meditation sound harder. But there are also more subtle ways to avoid spontaneous concentration. Some of them are unconscious.
So even if we are over the first hurdle on a theoretical level, it might reappear in other shapes on a later stage of our meditation career. That brings us to the second obstacle: actualization – unprocessed psychological material surfacing during meditation.
Our psychological defence – which has been built to protect the ego from pain – is mobilized during actualization. The meditation might all of a sudden be a less comfortable experience: body pain, restlessness, disquiet, unpleasant thoughts, anxiety, aggression. The peaceful silence crumbles. And with it, the feeling of accomplishment evaporates, along with the sensation of being en route to the podium.
In order to pass the second obstacle, we have to accept that discomfort is a part of the meditation process. The strategies of avoidance are many, but they have common traits: they all contribute to the limitation of actualization, or even to it coming to an end. They may consist of cutting back meditation time, or to stop meditating altogether (very effective). They may be an increased pressure on the meditation sound – turning up the volume. Or they might be an absent repetition of the sound; uncommitted, letting it scuttle along.
Benefit from exploration
Sometimes concentration/laxness are the results of choices on a conscious level. But more often the limitation of the meditation’s effect happens through semi-conscious or even unconscious processes. It takes time to discover how we limit ourselves during meditation. Nevertheless, when we first become aware of an area in our meditation where we have tweaked our practice, there’s always a potential benefit from further exploration.
The first two hurdles can be overcome with experience. Gradually, we can meditate with more openness in areas where we might have limited ourselves earlier. The tendency to condemn spontaneous concentration is the easiest to put off. Dissatisfaction with the actualization is unlikely to disappear, but it doesn’t take many retreats to establish an understanding of how actualization is interwoven with quieter phases of meditation.
The third obstacle to mastering meditation is not about the basic interaction between action and letting go. Nor about accepting what comes from the unconscious (in various derivatives). The third hurdle is about the ability to see – and then recognize – the climate encompassing our meditation. It is about metathoughts.
Here we are at the core of the ambitious meditator’s striving for a place on the podium. Our notion of the ideal meditation is closely linked to the experience of ourselves as a good person, someone acting correctly, someone mastering. In our meditation, mastering has a different content than elsewhere (where it is linked to the notion of being successful). We would also like to master meditation – but we’ve just discovered that mastering implies something else.
It shouldn’t be like this
When actualization makes our meditation deviate from the ideal, the pressure from the metathoughts increases. The assessment we make of ourselves is no longer neutral. It is judgemental. “Now I did like that again!” “There is something wrong here!” “It shouldn’t be like this.”
The dissatisfaction may be a roaring torrent of accusations. But more often it is a frown, almost imperceptible, yet enough to turn our perception of the meditating self into something negative. We tend to experience the metathought’s perspective as valid and correct. It is closely related to who we are – and activated by who we do not want to be. The ideal on one side, disdain on the other. And the person who tries to repeat the meditation sound is caught between the two.
All three milestones in understanding meditation – acceptance of spontaneous concentration, acceptance of actualization and discovery of metathoughts – are rarely reached unless we have been in an exploratory dialogue around our meditation practice.
The themes nested within the hurdles hardly exhaust themselves. But we may grasp that they are natural parts of the process – and find that it is possible to make progress where the practice had reached a standstill.
This happens faster if we engange ourselves in longer meditations, as is possible during retreats, where we also have access to qualified meditation guidance. Acem’s offer for those who have learned meditation is well developed. It is a community that can encourage exploration and insight. Welcome to the elite division?
Copy editor: Ann Kunish