“Ten thousand words swarm around my head
Ten million more in books written beneath my bed.
Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different.
We love to talk on things we don’t know about.”
The Avett Brothers
At the moment, I have 31,534 emails in my gmail account. The new mail comes in like rain during the monsoon season. I ignore most of it but every now and then a subject line catches my eye and mind says, “Pay attention to this one.”
I am a member of an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) list-serve, which I won’t try to explain except to say it gives me access to an ongoing conversation among a few hundred professionals (researchers and clinicians) who, like me, are a bit obsessed with ACT.
The question was, “Is meditation necessary?”
Norm wrote, “I have been wondering if meditation is necessary when one is doing ACT as a therapist or as a patient.” Norm wanted to know if there were studies that compare patient outcome with and without meditation practice. He said it has been his personal experience that his patients who meditated regularly did better than those who did not. But, he wondered, is that because they meditated or because they were more motivated and committed?
Lara, a university professor and psychologist had a simple but profound response. She wrote, “I always refer back to the basic premise that one cannot guide to a place one has not been. All of the Mindfulness based EST (evidence supported treatments) writings concur: the therapist must practice what we teach. We must be able to guide out of our own experience with the practices we assign. So, at minimum, if we do not have experience with formal practice, we should not assign it.”
You know when you are caught. Like in the movies when the guy runs down a dead-end alley, there is that point (if he isn’t Spiderman) when he gives up. He has no choice. That was me after reading Lara’s response. “Damn,” I thought. “She is right. Damn.” I held my hands up and came out peacefully. “Don’t shoot! I surrender.”
All my life, it seems, I have been struggling with this meditation thing. I first intentionally sat in silence in 1973 in my room in our house on Crabtree Drive in Beavercreek, Ohio. I was sixteen. The walls were a creamy azure blue, the floor cool white tiles and there were posters on the wall: David Bowie, Black Sabbath, and a Hermann Hesse quote: “Those who are too lazy and comfortable to think for themselves and be their own judges obey the laws. Others sense their own laws within them.”
And I was reading Alan Watts, Huston Smith, Paul Williams and Ram Dass: trying to crack the egg of my own mind. Even then, I knew I was more than I thought but not all my thoughts agreed. They would argue. And I would listen. I wished I would make up my own mind but I stayed confused.
I studied the Gospels, the Bhagavad Gita, Zen. Lots of Zen. Took a yoga class. Wrote poetry like a madman. Went to a Metaphysical Church on Sunday mornings and The Church of the Golden Key on Thursday nights. Studied astrology at the Brotherhood of Light bookstore on the East side of Dayton and after hitchhiking in Europe for a few months spent a couple years at an ashram on the West side called the Ghetto’s Palace Yoga Institute where I taught yoga and studied under Wali Ahmed Sababu. And kept trying to meditate.
Eventually, I rejoined the world, which pleased my parents immensely, graduated from college, married, got into grad school, divorced, got my doctorate, moved to California, did a few meditation retreats at the Buddhist Abbey in Mount Shasta, got married again, started my practice, had kids, joined Redding’s Methodist Church, continued to read spiritual books by Thomas Merton and others and enjoyed an intermittent, inconsistent relationship with my meditation bench.
In late February of 2003, just before the Iraq War commenced, I nearly lost my mind. It’s a long story. Someday I will tell it. For now, this glimpse. After months of grinding stress followed by several weeks of unrelenting insomnia and anxiety, I felt completely lost and broken. I found myself for some reason standing in my garage with my precious wife Nancy by my side, trying to solve my mind like it was a Rubik’s Cube and I lacked hands or eyes. I was crying and begging her to convince me I was normal and would survive this madness. Like a desperate man hanging from a thin rope over a jagged cliff, I pleaded with her. I trusted her to give me hope and she came through. She did not flinch.
A few weeks later, I continued to engage in a futile struggle to exert control over my slippery mind. I was on an antidepressant for the first time in my life and it wasn’t working. That particular day in early April, I had picked up my daughters, aged 11 and 13, from school and had just turned the corner onto our street and was passing the gray mailboxes when my oldest asked if her friend Sarah could spend the night.
You would have thought she asked me to eat my own mouth. My brain locked. I was gripped with anxiety like two tight fists – one in my gut and the other where my heart should have been calmly beating in my chest and I heard myself yelling, “No!” I just could not imagine coping with any extra stress in my life at that moment.
My life had become unbearable and I could not wait to get home and find my bench. I fled to it like it was a boat in an angry sea. I dropped to my knees, sat on the bench, and instantly and totally gave up. I let it all go. I knew I had no control and there was nothing left to do but admit it. And so I did. Complete capitulation.
In the same instant of my surrender, I felt something else release. It was as if a powerful burst of energy just above my head let go like a punctured water balloon. But instead of being drenched, I felt a cleanness flow down into me, filling me with gentle warmth and deep peace. And I knew. In that instant I knew. I was back. I was ok. I began to laugh. My anxiety drained away. Sometimes we just have to give up all control if we ever expect to get back in control.
I meditated for the next several months and my life happily returned to the more normal crazy it was before. I was back to sleeping my 6 or 7 hours a night and my anxiety behaved itself. And as time passed, I became comfortable, complacent and then lazy. My meditation posture was causing me pain and numbness in my legs and rather than find a different position, I just quit sitting.
A few years passed and in 2008, I was nearly killed while waiting for the light to change; my motor scooter and body of glass no match for the menacing metal of a mindless driver of a speeding pickup crushing me like a packet of ketchup against another truck. I suffered multiple breakages in my wrists, left femur, ribs and several small bones in my lower back. Skilled surgeons and six months of physical therapy brought my body back but my mind lagged behind. I deeply resented a universe that would allow this to happen to me. I felt betrayed by reality.
And eventually, I again had to surrender. I had to give up my anger this time, my self-pity, my deep sadness and despair. I could no longer kneel on my bench – my left leg can’t bend that far – but I could still kneel in my mind. I could still mentally give up. I could still surrender. This time I spoke words, simple and true: “I am willing to receive this. I am willing to have this. Without reservation or condition, I accept it all.”
And again the whoosh of peace flowed in as if I had turned on a faucet. I felt healed. The division between my experience and my expectation disappeared. The idea that this should not have happened was gone. In fact, I realized and accepted that it “should” have happened because it did happen. Mentally arguing with that fact never worked. It never could. I was now completely free to accept my reality as it actually was and not how I wished it or thought it should have been.
When I read Lara’s words, it was an answered prayer in the sense that I had longed for the motivation to maintain a consistent meditation practice and now I had the key. Her reasoning made sense. I already knew this truth but I needed someone to speak it to me, to remind me of my responsibility to myself and others. I have known for years the numerous benefits of meditation but that was not enough. Lara’s words spoke to my personal and professional integrity. Do I believe this stuff or not? If so, could I commit twenty minutes of every day to standing up (by sitting down) for what I deeply know to be true?
As soon as I resolved to once again begin sitting in meditation on a daily basis, I knew I needed one more thing. A guide. So I chose Adyashanti, an awakened or enlightened being who has devoted his life to spiritual study and teaching and is the author of several excellent books on meditation and spiritual awakening.
I already owned one of them, True Meditation but had not yet found time to read it. I immediately knew I had chosen well when I read this: “True Meditation has no direction, goals or method.”
In other words, Adyashanti wants us to understand that we can’t fail at meditation if there are no rules to follow. It isn’t about what we do. In fact, it’s about not doing anything at all. Over and over, Adyashanti implores us to approach meditation by surrendering; by relinquishing all illusions of control and manipulation.
He states that if we attempt to meditate by trying to actively manipulate or control what happens or approach it as if “we are going to master a discipline – then the attitude gets in the way.” As a result, “It’s actually the mind or the ego that is meditating,” the very trouble-makers we are trying to transcend.
Many of my clients tell me they “can’t meditate.” What they mean is that they cannot control their thoughts. They cannot make their mind do what they think it should do. They imagine others are able to control their experience and manipulate the process and thereby achieve peace or tranquility.
Real meditation, however, according to Adyashanti, is the opposite of this. He states it’s “…not about mastering a technique; it’s about letting go of control.”
In other words, we let it be. Whatever happens is whatever happens. It isn’t good or bad or right or wrong. We can’t stop our mind from thinking so it is futile to try. So we step back and watch and notice and simply be aware. Notice thinking. Notice irritation if it is present. Notice impatience or frustration. Perhaps deep joy arises. Notice that too.
Our mind is not bad. Our thoughts are not bad. Instead, Adyashanti states, “It’s our attachment to mind that is the problem. It is an illusory pursuit to look to concepts and ideas in order to find truth, to find peace, to find that which will liberate us. When we let go of the thinking mind, we become open to insight – to what in spirituality we might call revelation, or the spontaneous arising of a deep wisdom or deep knowing.”
The clincher for me was what he had to say about posture and gaze. What is the right posture for meditation? What about people who can’t sit in the lotus position on a meditation pillow or kneel on a meditation bench?
He states, “Awakening and enlightenment can happen to straight, erect meditators and slumpy, slouchy meditators who sit on a lawn chair or however they are drawn to sit. Again, it is the attitude with which we meditate that is important.”
Adyashanti encourages others to connect with what feels intimately true for them. He states, “If you want to meditate with your eyes open, keep your eyes open. If you prefer them closed, close them.”
They key is to do it. Be willing to fail and you will never fail because there is no goal beyond the daily practice of sitting in silence and surrender. There is no better method for freeing oneself from the tyranny of the thinking mind than to sit and watch it for awhile without judgment or concern in an attitude of complete acceptance and compassion. Give yourself this gift. You deserve it.