My friend Robert Hover was one of the first westerners authorized to teach Buddhist meditation. This was about 45 years ago.
As part of Robert’s training with his teacher, U Ba Khin, he developed a particular way of attending to painful or unpleasant sensations that not only led to the discomfort disappearing but also resulted in some amazing physical and emotional healing (find out more at www.imhealing.com … but realize that Robert was an engineer; his writing is extremely accurate but sometimes tricky to understand).
Over time, more Westerners became meditation teachers. And as they encountered Robert teaching this incredible technique, they would criticize him, saying, “Meditation is about accepting things as they are, not trying to fix or change or improve them. It’s not about getting rid of the pain; it’s about accepting the pain as it is!”
Now, I know this sounds like a good argument, but there are a couple of serious problems with it.
First, nobody ever asked the critics this question: “Why would you want to accept the pain as it is?”
If they were rigorously honest, they would answer something like, “So I would be okay with it.” “So it wouldn’t bother me.” Or, if they were really honest, “So that it can change.”
In other words, the only reason you would want to “be with it” is if you want something — you or it — TO CHANGE!
(BTW, I find the same thing with Life Coaches who say their goal is to see their client as completely perfect… so that the client will then change.)
In fact, if you ask 99.9% of all meditators, “Why did you start meditating?” you’ll hear the story of what they wanted to change and why they wanted it to change. Whether it’s as mundane as “I wanted to learn to relax,” or as strong as, “I was suffering and I needed a way out,” or as arrogant as, “I want to become Awakened,” the bottom line is: What got them on the cushion, and what usually keeps them on, is the desire for something to be different.
I’ve noticed that for most meditators it gets harder and harder to notice this desire because it gets buried under the “I’m just accepting things as they are” story.
The second problem with criticizing Robert’s technique is similar to when fundamentalists picket a movie they haven’t seen (where’s the fun in that mental-ism?). Most of the critics never did Robert’s technique.
With Robert’s technique, you simply start with what’s true — “I have a pain I want to get rid of.” Simple. Accepting that you want to change things is a profound kind of acceptance!
In fact, Robert explains, pain itself increases the amount of energy you have to available to you, an amount of energy you can’t get if you’re not aware of some pain. And the desire to get rid of the pain is like the lens that focuses that energy.
As you use this focused, hightened energy to attend to your pain (rather than trying to ignore it, numb it, or “be with it until it leaves”) something strange happens. Almost out of nowhere, you leap way beyond “accepting the pain” or “being with it.” The very ideas of trying to change anything, or of “pain,” or “accepting” don’t even have room to arise as you focus your attention on the subtle sensations of your body/mind.
Interestingly, Robert believes that meditation is actually a tool developed to imitate this natural process of Pain > Energy > Focused Attention > Healing.
I spent a good 20 years telling myself that I was merely “being with” or “observing” my sensations or my breath (whichever meditation practice I was doing), while the meta-goal was to get rid of the unpleasantness in my life. Didn’t work so good.
Then I stopped. I just couldn’t make myself believe that I needed to be different or “better.”
The next time I did a meditation course (14 hours/day for 10 days), someone said, “It looked like this was an easy course for you.” I replied, “When you’re not trying to accomplish anything, how hard is it to just sit on your butt?”
Eventually, as I could feel that my entire motivation to meditate was based on thinking it would improve me — and noticing how crappy that idea made me feel — I quit. From 2 hours/day to nothing. Cold turkey. Except instead of having withdrawal pains, I felt great! And why wouldn’t I? I stopped spending 2 hours a day subtly reminding myself that there was something wrong with me!
Four years later, it popped into my head to meditate.
“Oh, this won’t be very good,” I thought, remembering how it took some time and practice to really get that meditation ball rolling. “Well, whatever.” I sat on my cushion, closed my eyes, and had one of the “deepest” sessions I’d ever experienced.
When I wasn’t trying to improve myself by “accepting things as they were” that inner world was VERY interesting 😉
(and, what happened next is what became the Instant Advanced Meditation Course)
[tags]meditation, vipassana, U Ba Khin, Buddhism[/tags]