Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wisdom Quarterly - Kalyani: "Meditation Now" (1-2-3)

Some nice how-to info from Wisdom Quarterly on how to meditate, from someone who has mastered the practice.

Kalyani: "Meditation Now" (1-2-3)

Text, Seven; camera, Bright Idea; filmed on location in Southern California

It is not easy finding anyone who can explain Buddhist meditation after having succeeded. WQ tracked down and filmed a famed student of the tradition. Legend says that one initially makes an applied-effort. But generally no one gets much beyond this step. There are steps beyond, an entire Path, which result from sustained-effort.

The Buddha's meditation analogies

The difference between initial and sustained effort is explained by analogies to pouring, flying, and tolling.

  • Water pours in huge droplets, whereas oil pours in a more or less unbroken stream.

Initial-effort in meditation is a series of fitful attempts to focus and concentrate with fleeting snatches of calm/clarity. Sustained-effort is long, unbroken segments of serene, one-pointed awareness.

  • A bird wanting to fly leaps from a branch and flaps vigorously, whereas a bird in flight simply glides, rides an updraft, a rising sheet of air (thermal).

Initially there is great effort -- awkward struggling, and flapping. Eventually there is elegance and equanimity, majestic soaring with no apparent effort at all. One becomes unflappable once one gets the hang of it.

  • A bell to be tolled must be struck with vigor, whereas a ringing bell simply resonates with nothing being done.

One applies initial-effort like a person taking up a mallet and striking a bell just right. As soon as it is struck just so, a great effortless sound resounds. There is nothing to do but keep the bell producing a soothing sustained ring.

Without first applying initial-effort, there is no sustained-effort to maintain. One takes up meditation by focusing on a single object and bringing attention back to that object, attention that is freed of habitual thinking, evaluating, and reacting. Then one flows, rides, passively glides, and resounds at a harmonious frequency as the meditation does its part.

The art is BALANCING effort with receptivity (yang with yin energies), striving for with receiving what comes, struggling to achieve with acceptance.


How much effort is ENOUGH effort? Just enough effort is enough. Sit. Stay. Gingerly, singlemindedly maintain the object by cheerfully returning to it as often and as frequently as the mind wanders. When thinking starts, when the mind strays off, when one of the Five Hindrances makes an appearance, simply let go or apply an antidote and again passively receive/accept. Let the meditation happen. Do your part, and let the meditation do its part for you. Take a step towards it, and in turn it approaches you.

Traditionally, "striving" is spoken of simply in terms of Right Effort, which is fourfold:

  1. Abandon unprofitable states that are present
  2. Avoid new unprofitable states that might arise
  3. Cultivate profitable states that have not yet arisen
  4. Maintain until perfect those profitable states

What is "unprofitable"? There are three poisons that are obstacles hindering the mind and corrupting the heart.

What is profitable? Generosity, friendliness, wisdom, courage -- the opposite of the poisons. This is true in life but comes into particularly sharp relief in meditation.

Striving vs. Balancing

Rural children from the Midwest to India play a game that has no formal name. Call it stick-wheel. The goal of the game is to keep a wheel in steady motion by goading and tapping it with a stick. The art is to use the least amount of effort, seeming to keep the wheel moving on its own. Any excess effort causes the wheel to wobble, become unstable, and fall. Insufficient effort has the same effect. One loses control. One can get so good -- effortlessly good -- that the wheel seems to roll all by itself.

Children, walking for miles down country roads, expertly pace themselves, remaining steady. They achieve with practice. They become skillful without thinking or doubting.

Even if it falls (again and again), which it is SURE to do at the beginning, judgment-free they quickly set it right and carry on. Foreseeing bumps and potholes, obstacles and hindrances, they avert them or ride them out. The wheel remains upright, flowing with whatever comes its way for as long as they wish. Gliding along, they can go and go -- that's the point, keeping something that wants to be inert in motion, keeping something that wants to wobble steady, keeping something that wants to stray in check with the least stress or striving.

The same understanding of balanced-effort is found in most sports: Surfing is riding a wave as long as possible, neither being in control nor losing it. One finds the wave then lets the wave do all the work. Spinning a basketball on a finger is a trick of momentum; momentum provides the balance. The same is true of coasting on a bike or walking a tightrope or long distance running. Too much effort and one is soon spent. Too little effort, and one stumbles and struggles. Skill is toning down effort until all doing seems effortless. Look, the wave is surfing me! The ball is spinning itself. This wheel is accompanying me on the way.

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