Insights often arise during meditation. Sometimes they are truths vaguely understood, now gleaning with clarity. As they burst into consciousness, their simplicity doesn’t quite match the intense feeling of resonance.
On the spiritual path, simple truths return, with added vigour, over and over, each time their meaning more profound.
This morning’s meditation provided one of these moments. For a number of years, I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation. The anchor is attention on the breath and sensations in the body. From early on, I’ve practiced the Buddhist concept of the Middle Way — an equanimous approach to all phenomena, including thoughts, feelings, sensations.
Gently guiding the mind away from extremes of aversion and indulgence revolutionises the relationship with thoughts and emotions. It’s a practice to be repeated, over, and over, and over, and over. Each time, bringing attention back to the anchor. This is the basic premise of non-attachment.
Not To Strike Or To Obstruct
For a few weeks I’ve practiced a new technique. Guided by my teacher, I’ve meditated on the first of the ethical precepts (Yamas) from Advaita Vedanta — Ahimsa. It’s the precept of non-violence, its ethos not to strike or obstruct the present. Striking or obstructing are similar principles to aversion and indulgence.
Applied to mind, this form of non-violence is subtle and effective. At the beginning, the mind’s pattern of aversion and indulgence can be painfully clear. But refining meditation practice, especially beyond beginning stages, requires a nuanced awareness of the intricacies of thought, the ever-so-subtle ways the mind deviates from equanimity.
When an unpleasant thought arises, we strike to remove it from consciousness. I was experiencing severe anxiety and panic when I first started meditation. I was so keen to strike at thoughts, my mind resembled a hyperactive game of piñata. I was metaphorically blindfolded, feverishing striking unpleasant thoughts as soon as they appeared.
Over the years, meditation, and the practice of balance, has transformed this relationship. I realised early on how much unnecessary suffering I was causing myself. In part, this was easier because the pattern was pronounced. However, I find it trickier to detect when I’m indulging in pleasant thoughts. My tendency is to indulge more than I resist.
A Pleasant Thought Is Still A Thought
The practice of not obstructing led to an important insight into this mechanism. Indulgence is still interference; I’m not allowing the natural rise and cessation of thought. I become attached to the drama of mind. This is where the metaphor of theatre comes in.
The practice of meditation is to become a detached observer, like a member of the audience watching the play unfold. The first leap of awareness is making the separation between the play and our place in the audience. From this perspective, striking is the equivalent of running on stage and wrestling the villain to the ground. It’s quite easy to see the issue here.
But what about indulgence? I like the this metaphor because it highlights the impact of interfering with pleasant thoughts. Obstruction is the equivalent of cheering loudly at regular intervals, jumping on stage and dancing with the lead actor, hugging members of the cast, taking selfies, and asking if you can all become friends.
With this metaphor, the troublesome nature of indulgence is just as clear as aversion. It obstructs the natural cycle of thought. So next time you sit in meditation and find yourself carried off into a pleasant fantasy, remind yourself you’re a member of the audience. Audiences observe, but they do not interfere with the unfolding of the story.