Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 27, 2014

Looking back on some forty years of active meditation and mind training, I thought some readers might like to know what for me has been the single greatest obstacle to dharma practice that I have had. It might not be what you think it is. More likely yet is that you may not have any ideas about it whatsoever.

And this greatest obstacle did not come from outside; it did not come from the dharma techniques, learning the techniques, or practicing them. It came instead from the inside, from me via assumptions that I personally made about what the results of meditation (and enlightenment for that matter) were supposed to be like. Apparently I just made them up from the books I read, people I talked to and teachings I heard, but mostly from my own mind and imagination, literally made up out of whole-cloth.

Back at the beginning, of course I had no experience whatsoever of enlightenment or even what greater awareness might be actually like, but nevertheless I put together this idea in my mind of what meditation results should be like, to which I then compared everything related to my practice and proceeded to judge whether this or that moment (and experience) measured up. And this I did religiously, and for something like 30 years without fail! An open mind I did not have, but I would have been the last to know this. My mind was made up for me by none-other than my sincere ignorance and probably just wishful thinking. I seem to have a talent for that.

In all of that time I never once asked myself how in the world did I know what the results of meditation were when I had never experienced them. I guess I was so used to setting goals or expectations and then meeting them that I assumed spiritual goals were just like material goals. You imagine, you visualize them, and then you go after them. But there is a big difference, and here is the analogy I like to use to point out the difference.

Any new technique requires practice. If you want to learn to play the guitar you have to learn chords, fingering, tuning, and all kinds of other things and then practice those. Practicing all of the above is not the same as playing music. However, we can always put on a CD of the music we are trying to learn and hear for ourselves what our goal is, what music is supposed to sound like.

Meditation and spiritual practices are similar. We also have to practice, but there is one difference and it is a big one. Unlike music, there is no CD or DVD we can put on to hear or see or know (even a little) what the results of meditation (awareness, enlightenment, etc.) look, feel, or sound like -- none whatsoever. We literally have no real idea or guide as to what our meditation results should be like, except from our own imagination and what we've been told or read. And, as I eventually found out, my own imagination was not to be trusted. There is no blame, but I just didn't know anything about the results of meditation and, worse, I didn't know that I didn't know.

This is not a minor point, this idea that, unlike material things (like guitar playing where we can listen to what our goal sounds like), in spiritual training there is no way we can have any true idea ahead of time as to what we are trying to achieve. Again, this is a big difference. And I did not consciously admit to myself that I had no idea. Instead, I put together an impression in my mind about enlightenment based on what I had heard, read, listened to, and mostly imagined as to what spiritual results were supposed to be like and went with that. And then I promptly forgot (or perhaps never even realized) that all of this was just something I had made up as if I knew. As if.

Please don't just gloss over this point. We have to think about this very thoroughly because it explains a lot, and please don't try and tell me I am unique. With playing the guitar, we do have a real-life sense of what the music sounds like because we can listen to it anytime we want. But with the results of meditation, we don't have any way to preview it (except by hearsay), much less have a clear idea in our mind as to what is the goal of all our meditating. We would be much better off if we just imagined a blank slate and acknowledged that we didn't know.

So ask yourself: where did you get your ideas about the results of meditation that you hold up as what you are trying to achieve? Where did they come from? Who put it together and how are you using it? When, after a great many years, I finally began to have (almost by accident) some actual results, the first thing I recognized is that these real results were nothing like I had "imagined" them to be. Not even at all. And I immediately abandoned all my previous expectations because they were wrong and mostly worthless. Why did I do this?

I did this because for the first time I had something real to compare my meditation practice to. One of my favorite jazz tunes has always been the Gene McDaniels tune sung by Less McCann with Eddie Harris on sax called "Compared to What." As a sidebar, if you have never heard it, here it is:


Worse yet, my expectations had almost singlehandedly held me back from any authentic meditation experience for more years than I want to admit. And this single act itself, admitting I did not know anything, was very freeing. From the moment I first had some authentic results, I had an actual differential, something to compare to and with that I was on my way!

Meditation is not meant to be a blind gaze based on an imagined result. Meditation is not meant to be a long, long wait for something to happen. Instead, meditation is meant to be an ongoing and interactive, step-by-step, progressive path to greater awareness. In other words, we don't have to wait years to have some real experience. We are meant to incrementally gain control and experience as we go along. Buddhist practice is very much a pay-as-you-go affair that also involves getting something back regularly.

But without expressly being told, I assumed (and so it seems did about every dharma student I knew back then) that I did not discuss my meditation with anyone but my root teacher. When you only see your root teacher for maybe 15 minutes a year, that can be tough. Now, I am not saying that our inner meditational practice should never be private, but not at the very beginning when everyone is doing the same exact thing, learning basic Shamata meditation.

In my opinion, it should be just the reverse. At the beginning we should be discussing what is going on in our practice with anyone with more experience than we have, and even with one another. If nothing else, Buddhism requires that we test, test, test every bit of the dharma. That is the only way it works, by testing and doing it ourselves.

Otherwise what happens is what happened to me. I was in a self-made cocoon, pretty much up a blind-alley, and this for many, many years. Only I knew what was going on in my practice and I didn't know 'what' was going on in my practice. I really did not know whether what I was doing was right or wrong, and this for the longest time. It is worse than just embarrassing; it is a shame to waste that time.

My fellow dharma students and I would perhaps nod to one another, and give the equivalent of the thumbs-up sign back then, but in reality all of us were in what was pretty much airtight seclusion. And there I sat and sat and sat for many long years. What I should have been doing is chasing down anyone with more experience and plying them with questions, because I certainly had them. Like what am I doing? Why am I doing it? What am I experiencing? Am I doing it right?

In other words, I needed to let some light and air into that airtight place where I had secluded myself to wait. Wait for what? I didn't even know the answer to that, by definition, because as mentioned, I had no real idea of what I should expect. Enough said?

And then, many years later when, almost by chance, life threw me a curve ball that managed to break a window in my seclusion, I wandered out of my bubble and began to actually see what I should have been doing all along, which was something other than just sitting there and trying. I should have, could have, been progressing all that time, but I wasn't.

When I have mentioned all of this to a couple of more advanced practitioners, their every answer is that all of what I had been doing was just preparation for finally getting a little somewhere, you know: no wine before its time. I can agree that nothing was a total loss in what I did, but on the other hand a lot of time was wasted IMO, time I could have been on my way and making progress. In other words, I don't agree with their assessment. It is a partial truth.

In our practice, we need to breathe, especially at the beginning, just like a baby needs to breathe when it is born.
There needs to be give and take, breath in and breath out. Looking back, it seems to me that dharma practice is a series of investments and returns, practicing and then getting feedback on the results, and then investing that feedback and practicing some more. I can now see that meditation practice is meant to be a dynamic pulsing experience. My advice?

Empty that bowl of expectations so that it can fill with something authentic.

Questions and comments?

[Photo of a lily around the neighborhood.]