Becoming familiar with yourself, becoming intimate with yourself, that’s meditation.
A dharma talk by John McQuade, co-founder of Miksang Photography and Shambhala Buddhist teacher living in Ontario, Canada. Excerpts follow below with my commentary. Follow this soundcloud link to listen to whole talk.
“As beginning meditators, there may possibly be a common thread, in that you expect to find in meditation practice some kind of solution or resolution for some kind of issue in your life. And often that’s articulated in some version of finding some version of peace or relief. Or harmony. Or workability in your life. If that is indeed your motivation, you’ve come to the right place – that’s our business…but, this is the little twist, turn in the road—that’s what we do, that’s what will happen, but it may not be in the way you imagined it would be or you wanted it to be.”
The beginning meditators in the room were silent when John said this. The more experienced meditators began to laugh. But in a compassionate way. Nothing ever goes the way we imagine it to go, right? Meditation is the lab where we really see that face-to-face.
“Often we have this idea that peace is a place where our issues will be resolved…That’s not (the dharma) teaching. The meditation teaching is more this: we can find a place where these issues become workable..so they’re not so overwhelming and oppressive and depressive. That’s kind of a sort of a negative way (of saying it). A more affirmative way is to say that these issues become what we call the path. They become your way for The Way. When you get to that place, where your issues are your way for The Way, then you are a meditator. You may not be there now, but that’s kind of the template for how it works.
Beyond your life being workable, your life can be complete. You could have a completely fulfilled life, as your life. That’s really what meditation is. So now the question is, how’s that going to happen?”
Again, here the more introductory students—some of whom had just received their very first instruction—got a little nervous. But folks who identify as more experienced practioners always glad for a few more hints, and also happy to have reflected back that faith in something has worked.
“Probably you’ve already discovered that there’s been a disjunction between what you might have expected and what’s happening. You might have expected that meditation was going to help you deal with these issues, and you might have expected the way it was going to help you deal with these issues is that everything was going to be smoothed out somehow..and that you would, very soon, be experiencing some version of what you think of as peace.
Already, you’ve probably discovered, that’s not happening, and now you are in a quandary: Is there something wrong with your meditation practice? Or have you come to the wrong place? You’re not quite doing it right? Or I need to go to find the place where that will happen? If I may say so, you are never going to find the place where that is going to happen.
Your experience may be that it’s getting worse. Rather than finding this place of peace, equanimity, harmony, tranquility, what you are experiencing is a number of things. You can’t do the practice, you cannot do what you think is the practice: holding your attention to the breath—that’s not happening too often. Simultaneously, rather than having less disturbance in your experience there’s more. A lot more. Worse than ever. I’m here to tell you, if that’s your experience, that’s a sign that you’re now becoming a good meditator.”
There’s probably nothing more powerful to me than to have a teacher say this. So helpful that someone who’s been along the path further can come back and say “Hey there! This is tough. And that’s ok.”
I sometimes tell my contemplative writing students—especially my memoir students—”Let’s just assume this is going to be difficult, ok?”
In other words, let’s not come up with some fantasy/ideal idea of how things are going to go. Let’s assume it’ll be hard, and be grateful when it is not and know it is normal when it is.
“Fundamentally how it works is that it puts you in a situation where you can be you with you. The actual translation of the word meditation from Tibetan is gom…it translates as ‘becoming familiar’. Not becoming harmonious, not becoming enlightened, not becoming insightful, not becoming peaceful. Becoming familiar. That’s the translation. What it is to become familiar?”
This is my favorite definition of meditation. While the adage “Eskimos (sic) have twenty words for snow,” is factually incorrect (not to mention racist), it is true that languages with a lot of exposure to particular experiences/nouns will have other and more nuanced ways to express it. Gom is the most basic word for meditation in Tibetan. Such a good way to view meditation practice.
“We often have difficulty getting to a day-in-day-out practice… As long as you have the view that you should do it, we know how that works…you’ll be setting up a barrier that will become more and more resistant…(the idea that) it will make you better, get you somewhere, you are now empowering your own obstacle to meditation. (Let’s) entertain another view: meditation practice is a way for you to enter into intimacy with being completely alive and human.”
This same teacher, John McQuade, tells a story about his teacher, Vajra Regent Ozel Tenzin, who, when John told him he didn’t want him to leave at the end of a teaching visit, told him “The only thing between you and me is you.”
“Or if that seems a little too much, it’s a way of you being your own best friend…what is it to be or have a best friend? (Various answers: honesty even when it might hurt, supportive, steadfastness, always there, deep trust, deep compassion, trust as a foundation, willingness, openness, wiling to forgive/overlook, long-term relationship, get through the rough patches, patience both ways.) That’s meditation practice. Meditation practice is your ultimate best friend—it holds all those qualities—is your opportunity and your place to be your own best friend. I know it sounds a little new-agey, but that’s actually how it works. It’s a very profound and intimate thing and it will save your life.”
Let’s just pause here.
He didn’t say it will “change”your life—he said it will “save” your life. That’s a big claim. But isn’t that all what we want, at some level? To be saved? The key is that the practice is being your own best friend. That’s how you save your life. Your best friend(s) have probably saved your life at least once. So why can’t meditation?
Then it doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched idea.
“You’ve been given meditation instruction. It’s very important that you not confuse the technique with the meditation…it’s a common mistake…if you think the technique is the meditation, you will now be in the project of seeing how much you can stay on the breath. If you can stay on the breath, that will be a good meditation session, and if you are completely lost in the swirl of thoughts or your body is full of pain, that’s all you can think about, that’s a bad meditation session. No…there’s no judgement involved – it’s not about seeing how well you can twist yourself into the technique. It’s just a form for you to become familiar with yourself, show you to yourself, become intimate with yourself. Becoming familiar with yourself, becoming intimate with yourself, that’s the meditation.
John also asks us what intimacy is in the talk—and at the end of our answers he laughs. “No one said ecstasy!” So often we focus on “intimacy issues”—intimacy is also intensely rewarding.
These thoughts are your thoughts. They’re not someone else’s thoughts—they aren’t being beamed in by the Russians. It’s you. And your experience of being present is you. When you’re being present, what’s that mean? What does it mean to be here? Be now? It means you are here now with everything…with it all.”
And also your not-thoughts are you. No separation.
“Meditation is processing. That’s really what we mean by path. It’s much more specific than that. Now I’m going to start talking about enlightenment. So far we’re talking about—the technical word is Maitri—it means becoming friends with yourself, becoming intimate with yourself. There’s that sense that you are ok. Well, you are way more than ok. You are the Buddha. Now we are going into warp drive.
And here’s how it works…What I am saying now is coming from Shambhala Sacred Path of the Warrior (by Chogyam Trungpa) We covered how to become friends with yourself. Now we’re talking about how we can actually garner the kind of strength and intention to radically transform your life and help transform the life of the world. I know that it’s kind of way beyond the thought that maybe I could get some peace. But you may as well know. Here’s how it works. This processing simultaneously is recoding your basic being towards being an enlightened person, even if it is not your intention, you’ll be kind of re-coded as a Buddha. Here’s how it works. The view is that it is really getting back to your original DNA—you were always a Buddha but you thought you were pathetic, so we’re moving back to the source.”
This is a crucial component of Buddhist belief: we are all already Buddha/the Buddha/have bodhicitta. But we have dragged clouds over our sun and we think, because we can’t see it often, it doesn’t exist. Back to the source, not adding something new.
“Meditation practice is very precise, it’s very deliberate and very systematic. It engages a deep wisdom called prajna—discriminating awareness. What it actually means is knowing what you need to do and how to do it. Also, it’s developing a quality of heart connection—mind and heart. Almost all the Eastern languages mind and heart are the same word…insight and being in touch.
How does your practice work? You’re lost in thought, and you come back. How does that happen? You don’t think ‘We’ll gee, I am lost in thought, I should probably get back to following my breath.’ No. You jerk back somehow, and then you say “Oh, I am lost in thought, and I should get back to following my breath.’ What’s the jerk back? All the dharma is that. Somehow there’s something in us that will not allow us to drift endlessly. That’s the good news of the dharma…being awake trumps being asleep. Not by a lot, but by enough.”
Good news and big news: increasingly neuroscience also says that it is that moment, when we become aware of what we are thinking, that counts the most.
Not the following the breath, not the thinking, but the space in-between, the gap, where we “jerk” awake and realize what we are doing, and, most importantly, choose to come back.
That’s when we are re-wiring our neurons.
“There’s non-judgment. And also there’s a quality of insight – we see the thought, we see what it is, that thought. It has a content and we see it. A clear seeing of who we are. I know for myself that this was a very hard part for me as a beginning meditator. I was a PhD student when I began and I had a self-image of myself as a brilliant person with brilliant thoughts. But as I meditated, when I came out of the thought process there were not a lot of brilliant thoughts. And I said, am I really as boring as that? Turns out I am. But this is the other part: gentleness. A soft touch. You don’t just kind of wake up and jerk out – a soft touch, gentleness to the whole thing.”
You are cultivating non-judgment, insight and gentleness. Those are the qualities of an enlightened person.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise