Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Carpentry of Meditation

Meditation will only really work if you take the long-term view

Suppose a carpenter is to hammer in a nail. Consider these three elements: the intention - to hammer in the nail - requiring focus and awareness; the tool or tools of the job - the right size nail and hammer; and the carpenter to hammer in the nail, presumably you in this case. So these three: Intention, Tools, and the Carpenter. Of these three easily the most important is the carpenter. Without the carpenter there is no intention, and then the tools also remain inactive without the carpenter to handle them. But how often, for example, does the carpenter underestimate the intention, or more to the point think too much about the tools and not enough about the skill of the carpenter?

It’s the same in meditation. Easily the most important is the practitioner - that’s you again. Then there has to be the intention. And then there are the tools of the trade. As there are many tools in carpentry so there are many techniques in meditation. It helps to have a clear understanding of your intention, and then there needs to be some knowledge or experience of the techniques of meditation available before selecting the right one. That’s hard to come by on your own. Some training is necessary. The best way is find a meditation teacher you can trust to guide you without imposing their own ideas at the same time, like a carpenter apprentice.

The point to understand here is that the techniques of meditation, any technique, are tools to help make possible what the practitioner intends, but they do not do the job for you. It’s not the technique that does it, the work is done by the practitioner, with the help of the technique which acts as a catalyst. It’s the practitioner that has the experience, it’s the technique that awakens the experience which is already lying dormant within you. 

It’s a delicate and a subtle difference but it defines the way we approach meditation. The intention, the tools we select, and the way we use them, all have a very telling effect on the outcome and therefore also on our sense of satisfaction with our practice. And it works exponentially, meaning that any small misalignment from the original intention leads to greater misunderstanding and frustration later on. 

Okay, so returning to the intention to hammer in the nail, the right size nail has to be chosen so that it doesn’t split the wood because it’s too big, or it won’t penetrate because it’s too thin and just bends etc etc. Then choosing the hammer which again is neither too big nor too small - too small and it’s just tippy-tappy with no effect, and too big bends the nail and possibly crashes into the wood as well. Not a good carpenter. 

Okay, so again, when the nail is hammered in, what then? I take it home and say, look what I did today, to anyone who will listen, I hammered this nail into this piece of wood! No, the wood, the hammer and the nail are part of a larger purpose, part of a broader intention. We don’t do this I know, but put yourself in the mind-set of someone who is only hammering the nail in the wood just to put it on show (even if only for oneself) to admire and say I did that, celebrity-culture like.

Now broaden the original intention, so that now the hammering of the nail is only a part of the more fulfilling project of making a cabinet. Then the mind-set will be completely different. Consider those differences - in patience, steadiness, long term focus, maturity. Then take a long cool look at the way you approach meditation. 

What is the aim, short term, long term, or even just when you sit down at the beginning of every practice? What is the aim and then what are the expectations, because there’s a huge difference between those two? The aim is the long term goal, building the cabinet, which inspires and gives direction and steadiness to keep at it. And the expectations are the mass of influences we bring to every meditation practice trying without knowing we are doing it to influence the outcome according to, well, our expectations. The same as imagining our hammered nail sitting on the mantelpiece, while we are hitting our thumb with the hammer.

We may have these expectations in check in day to day life, or at least so that they are not visible, but I can tell you now, from experience and observation, that when entering into the inner life, the dimension of meditation we hope, we go in with the hoped-for outcome already outlined and it is very difficult not to bring that to bear as an influence in our practice. We know what the outcome should be so we press for it. Like trying to make a month’s worth of cabinet making in one day.

The meditation experience is natural and spontaneous. It needs no help from outside. What we actually practice until then, whatever the technique, is learning how to let the inner experience unfold absolutely naturally, but at the same time under the closest observation. It’s the confluence of these two: the absolutely natural, under closest observation which is at the heart of our preparation for that meditation experience. But to bring the point home again, watching closely almost automatically brings with it the desire to control the outcome, so if that happens immediately the absolutely natural is lost. We don’t get the experience we desire, frustration sets in, meditation doesn’t work!

So how to overcome that? First get a clear handle on your aim in meditation. To help fix that, let’s be quite categorical here and say, meditation is about self knowledge not self improvement. This has come up in other places in this blog so we’ll leave it at that for now. But the aim should take that into account. Because if you practice for self improvement, self knowledge will still come, and it may not be easy to handle because the way it happens will be way outside the expectations of the self improvement mind-set, with the impatience of expectations not being met - trying to make a cabinet with the hammering the single nail mind-set. And, as it happens, if you practice for self knowledge, self improvement will also come with the self knowledge in the same proportion as your ability to let it unfold absolutely naturally and observe it very closely at the same time, maybe just not in the way you expected.

Letting the mind be itself and not letting the mind have an influence on the mind is the trick. And at the same time observe very closely, then the trickery of the mind’s expectations begin to show up against the neutral backdrop, and so they exert less and less influence - you just watch the tendencies. This is the luxury that meditation brings: the best circumstances, the best inner environment we can manage which we visit regularly like a gardener to prune and weed wisely. Think of it as a training ground where you learn from the same mistakes over and over until you get it right. Awareness is the method and here we are back to the practitioner, you, with your overall aim, which you know and have chosen as a constant and you, not waiting for something to happen but seeing the happening in every moment.

After all the cabinet you are making might also be intended for the house you are building.


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