Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on June 17, 2014

[This is a long one folks, for which I apologize, and probably not for everyone. However we can all enjoy this photo of flowering chives taken very early one morning.]

I'd like to discuss how to tell if we are making progress in meditation or mind training. I am surprised that there is not more information available on this topic, but I find that in many spiritual disciplines there are few recognizable mile markers, no way to know where we are at, much less how far we have yet to go, and most of all where we are going to! Where is that?

One thing about Buddhism is that it is list-prolific, with endless lists of the exact steps for just about any spiritual experience we could imagine. There is only one problem with that, which is that lists are by nature condensed versions of more elaborate procedures. The upshot is that unless you have had the particular experience being described personally, simply reading a one-line description will give you no clue. So Buddhist slogans and lists are more confirmatory than anything else. I often can kind of figure out that I have had a particular experience (if I have had it) by looking at a list, but I am mostly clueless as to what it is about if I have not yet had the experience. It makes looking down the meditation road pretty much impossible. And this brings me to my point in this blog, clear transition points in our mind practice.

I can't speak for other spiritual approaches, but I have at least found one major mile marker in the Tibetan Buddhist path that we all can measure our progress by and that is called "Recognition," being the recognition of the true nature of the mind -- our natural mind. The Zen Buddhists call it 'Kensho'. I first heard about recognition when someone said to me: "If you have any questions about whether you have recognized the true nature of the mind, than you haven't." That piece of advice immediately troubled me.

I am not used to having such a hard line drawn and would much rather feather that line a bit so that I don't have to be discouraged by somehow not having made the grade to one realization or another. Anyway, this idea of "recognition" being something like a switch brought me up short because I was used to just leaving things a little bit vague so that I can kind of have it my own way. It took me years to understand that lineages exist so that we can't just do whatever we want with this information. And now a (hopefully useful) digression:

Starting anything requiring practice takes faith and energy, faith that we will get across the learning curve and energy to make that journey. This is no more-true than with meditation and mind training. And spiritual practice is more difficult than, say, guitar practice, learning to play the guitar, and I will explain why.

As I like to say, if I want to learn to play the guitar I can put on some guitar music and remind myself what I am trying to attain. I can hear the music. I know that practicing scales, chords, and guitar fingerings is not the same as just playing music, but at least I know what music sounds like if I could play it. However, this is not true with spiritual realization and meditation training.

The technique of learning to meditate is at least as difficult to learn as playing a musical instrument. In fact it is more difficult because we can't just put on a CD or DVD and hear or see what realization or enlightenment is all about, and this difference is huge.

If I am honest, I have no idea what enlightenment or realization is like or even "sounds like" until I actually experience it. Whatever books we have read, people we have talked with, teachers we have listened to, etc. perhaps help us to form a concept or picture of "realization" in our mind, but it is all made up as we go along. I fear it is mostly whatever we think and lacks the defining experience of realization until, of course, we have that realization. This point is worth some serious consideration.

I am not sure how useful it is to just shine ourselves on in all of this. I wasted at least thirty years supporting my own self-made ideas of what I was supposed to be experiencing in meditation, with no proof whatsoever (like: no actual realization). I endlessly compared my daily meditation against the map I had drawn in my mind of what I thought progress was supposed to be like and what I was supposed to measure up to. If I would have any good meditation session, I would try to repeat the experience for months afterward, of course with no success because comparison of that kind is a meditation killer.

And in the end those concepts I basically made up about realization were nowhere close to the reality. In fact, I was just plain wrong! How could I have a real idea of something I had never experienced, which is what I am trying to communicate in this post.

And other dharma students (and everyone around me) also unintentionally shined me on. We were all in the same boat. Here in America we are so shy about sharing our inner "spiritual" experience and path that it is a wonder we ever realize anything at all. And this is no fault of my Buddhist teachers. No way. They laid the dharma out very clearly, but I interpreted it according to my own understanding, which was in the end no real understanding at all. Talk about the emperor's new clothes or the elephant in the room!

All was seemingly very good until I came up against the hard line I mentioned earlier, something the Tibetans called "recognition." Now recognition is not enlightenment or anything close to it. In the long graduated path of dharma practice, "recognition" is very much closer to the start than the finish line. If you don't know about it, you probably should, because in the all-too-often vague world of spiritual experience, it is the one hard line or at least the one that we beginners will rub up against with certainty sooner or later.

"Recognition" refers to the recognition of the true nature of the natural mind. Yes, it can come in glimpses and peeps, but that is not how it usually is described. Recognition is usually something we learn directly from our main or root teacher through what are called the "Pointing Out Instructions." In fact, what is called our "Tsawi Lama" or root teacher is typically defined as that teacher who successfully points out to us the true nature of the mind so that we recognize it. All our dharma practices (all of them) end in the leading edge of that hard line I mentioned: recognition. And recognition is really hard to grasp without having the actual realization, like impossible IMO.

And it is also faithfully reported in almost all the Buddhist texts that I know that we (by ourselves) cannot successfully point out to ourselves the true nature of the mind… period, end of sentence! There is that hard line again, and underlined. We can't just fudge our way through recognition. And it gets harder yet.

Recognition is a way station on the dharma path where, like some of those video games my kids play, we pick up certain blessings and powers, and the energy to go forward. And the funny thing is that without that energy we can't move forward, but only endlessly forward to the edge of that hard line of recognition – a true line of demarcation. So we can't fake recognition and we can't move forward without that energy, without actual recognition. In truth recognition is what they call in the western occult traditions a "Ring Pass Not." You cannot get around it, but can only pass through it, and to pass through it is to be changed forever, almost like a definition of an LSD trip. That's what I mean by a "hard line." Like death, we can't wiggle out of it.

In fact, it is taught that we do the common preliminary Buddhist practices and then the uncommon preliminary practices (and a lot of more advanced practice) to prepare us for one and only one thing: recognition. We can't somehow get grandfathered in, buy our way in, or fake our way into recognition. Let's just say, like one of those customs-offices between countries, the line at the recognition-station is very long. Traffic is backed up and few get through.

There are no fake passports to recognition, and you can imagine you have had recognition if you wish, but there you will sit until you actually do have it. We can perhaps fool other people for a while, but in the end, we can't fool ourselves. This is part of the beauty of the dharma; it is by definition authentic.

What's the benefit of my laying out for you some hard and fast rules about the facts of "recognition?" Isn't it just a bit depressing? I agree that it may sound like tough love and perhaps it is, but it was helpful to me as a wake-up call to learn that my own made-up ideas of enlightenment and what-not were just that, something I imagined. I had no real experience with enlightenment and everything I had imagined was just about wrong. Worst of all, after a while my made-up ideas about enlightenment became the main thing holding me back from actually having authentic realization. What a Catch-22 that is!

It was not until I began to deconstruct my fixed ideas about enlightenment and admit to myself that not only had I not had any realization of the nature of the mind myself, but that the standard I held up in my mind as to what realization or enlightenment was, itself, was nothing more than whatever I had scrambled together from books, teachings, hearsay, and mostly my imagination.

And the mistake I was making was holding up these imagined concepts and comparing my actual daily meditation experiences to that phony standard and judging myself. "Nope, that's not it" and "Nope, that's not it either," and on and on. Instead of learning to rest in the nature of the mind in the present, I was doing this endless comparison all the time – thinking about it. Of course that only further obscured my mind. What was I 'thinking' aside from just thinking? Not much.

For me the first real step toward "recognition" was acknowledging to myself that I didn't know the first thing about enlightenment or realization because I had never experienced it. And there is no shame in that. How could we know what we don't know until we know it?

But in the run of dharma folks I hung out with, we all kind of tacitly supported each other in the impression that we knew what we were talking about. We certainly spent zero time telling one another that we did not know or that we had no idea of what enlightenment was like. I never heard that, not even once. Not ever.

And when, through the fog of my understanding of the dharma teachings, I gradually came up against the hard line of recognition, I was not used to acknowledging what I did not know, in this case anything about recognition of the mind's nature, much less actually recognizing it.

And the tricky part was that I could pretend I kind of knew and I am sure others would not wake me from my dream of that, but the downside is I would still actually not know. And I want to know.

The path to even having the glimpse of recognition I eventually managed was long and arduous, and certainly mostly unnecessary if I would have fessed up early on. Most of all it involved nothing more (or less) than actually going and looking at the mind for myself, which of course is exactly what the Buddha did.

Buddha is said to have turned the wheel of the dharma and, since I was raised a Christian, I assumed this was like Christ dying for all our sins. Buddha did that for us. However I come to find out that Buddha did that for Buddha and that we each have to eventually do it for ourselves – turn the wheel of our dharma. Otherwise it will just sit there forever waiting for us to do something.

I probably have more to say about "recognition," so bear with me please.