Talking about Meditation
Since I have been living at Uttaraloka I’ve spent more time meditating and consequently meditation experiences have been a larger part of my life. We all, I guess, like to talk about what goes on in our lives so the question arises about how does one talk about meditation.
Meditation experiences are highly personal although often they fall into traditional categories. It is not problematic to say that one was physically uncomfortable or mentally distracted, or consumed by – hopefully mild – craving or hatred or any of the well know hindrances. However what is the best way to communicate experiences that are associated with deeper levels of concentration or positive emotion, or to put it another way, with higher states of consciousness.
In Buddhist literature withdrawal from the realm of the senses, the kamaloka, is described as entering on and abiding in various states of jhāna.However, because of generations of merely academic study, these experiences are often described in a very formal manner or understood exclusively as a rigid hierarchy. As a consequence of this, talking about jhāna in these terms can seem theoretical or stiff. Meditation experience – like all experience – does not seem to fall into neat categories, nor even into a normal chronology. Each ‘higher’ jhāna may indeed be higher but that doesn’t mean that one has to climb them like a spiritual ladder. It is possible to have a glimpse of infinite space lying on a beach at night, feel overcome by ecstasy when listening to music, or for a while be overwhelmed by a profound wish for the happiness of all beings. Many people have had spontaneous spiritual experiences – as the Buddha did under the Rose Apple Tree – but the aim of the spiritual life is to take inspiration from these experiences and take them ever deeper. Such experiences can always go deeper, and then deeper, and then even deeper. As has been said there are no such things as higher teachings, only deeper experience and realisation.
So, I find I am on the lookout for the various varieties of jhāna and even degrees of insight. But even so meditation seems so chaotic. I was recently told that although each of the colours of the rainbow has a different wavelength there are some colours that do not correspond to a single wavelength. Purple for example is a mixture of red and blue – there is no spectrally pure colour purple. Similarly I believe that actual meditation experience is not generally spectrally pure jhāna but a mixture.
Withdrawing from the kamaloka and entering the rupaloka, of course, means the imagination takes over in a variety of ways which are invariably highly idiosyncratic. Spontaneous thoughts; visions of many varieties; divine sounds and perfumes; sensations in the psychic body; and so on can arise. In the arupaloka, of course, the ‘objects’ of experience are universal but the way they are recalled after the experience is still subject to individual interpretation. Christian mystics get it easy, they have but one God and a handful of Angels to convey news from the higher realms but we poor Buddhists have a vast range of images, and insights at our disposal.
So, how is one to talk – if at all – about these experiences. It is said that the dakinis are not pleased with talk about meditation and I can see that this is true for many reasons. I have talked about some of the images that have accompanied my most interesting spiritual experiences and have received a wide range of responses. A few understand and are even inspired, some are intrigued, some dismissive, some try to analyse them according to Jungian or post traumatic psychology, and some are totally confused. In the most upsetting cases some think that their own meditation is not going correctly because their experience is not similar. And it is clear that too much talking definitely drains the life out of spiritual connections. So, I hope I am learning to be much more sensitive about what and when I say anything about my inner life. Perhaps a lesson can be learned from Bhante. He did talk about his meditation experience but, perhaps other than to close friends, only after some quite considerable time had passed.
Perhaps this is where artistic expression comes to the fore. It is perhaps better to convey one’s experiences rather than talk about them. Show rather than tell. This has the further advantage in that by it’s very nature it needs to be less personal – even when expressing something very personally felt. Art lifts communication to a non ego centred, more universal level. Unfortunately it requires skill and talent which some of us lack.
I don’t know! I’d be interested to hear what those of you who regularly conduct meditation interviews think. However I am going to continue to try to write and talk about meditation in such a way that I hope communicates effectively. I will keep my journal in which of course I can write just for myself but I will also try to communicate something of my inner life in these sketches.
I’ll also continue to record some of the aspects of life in general at Uttaraloka.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been occupied with more ‘worldly’ affairs – Guhyaloka finances, registration and check ups with my local doctor, vaccination, chainsawing dead almond trees, clearing out the woodshed ready for next year’s firewood and renewing the electric power cable to the two wooden huts on the lower terrace. I’ve also been exploring secret places and hidden byways in the mountains on a new electrically assisted mountain bike. A bike also means that I notice things like the perfume of the orange blossoms near the coast, and the pine trees in the mountains. I visit the Guhyaloka community once a week and we have just started a bi-weekly chapter meeting at Uttaraloka, so with this and Zooming around the world I’ve had more social contact than normal.
In June I hope to resume a retreat program when Nagabodhi comes to join me – if covid restrictions allow. And also in June Guhyaloka is hoping to host a five week post ordination retreat for fifteen men – followed by another three month retreat in the Autumn. I’m also hoping to host an Autumn ‘Forest Retreat’ at Uttaraloka for a few men. It will be good to have the facilities here used for retreats again although I think we have all enjoyed the simple steady forest life with very few visitors.
My spiritual interests have been mainly about exploring the views that I mentioned in my last ‘Sketches’ more deeply. I am reminded that Bhante once said that there are no higher teachings only deeper understanding. Again and again I come back to the same old ideas, or experiences in meditation, but realise that I am appreciating them on a progressively deeper level. I have recently become much more firmly convinced that my world is rooted in my mind and that the idea that space-time and objects are fundamentally real, is an illusion. By investigating the material world, in the belief that it was real, physicists have actually moved well away from the common sense idea that space-time and matter are real. Objects resolve into atoms, atoms resolve into elementary particles, elementary particles resolve into perturbations of fields and what are these fields anyway. The material stuff that we perceive is known to be less than 5% of the energy of the universe – 72% of the energy and 23% of the mass of the Universe are totally inaccessible – dark – to us. Could it be that physicists should start from a different basic premise? Are they not investigating perceptions and indications emerging from fields of something more like mind. Why should we base our idea of Reality on this 5%. Is it possible that new dimensions can be discovered by confidently abandoning the primitive view that reality consists of a single space-time occupied by things – including conscious minds – for the view that space-time and things are merely illusions – albeit very useful illusions – representations of authentic experiences of a multi dimensional Mind. Can we abandon the idea that the material universe exists at all? The Buddha talked about the Elements being Great Spirits – which like all spirits, great or small, are empty of ultimate existence.
It was useful to think of this planet – flat or spherical – as the centre of the universe, and we still do when we watch the sun rising in the morning, but we know this is not how things are. It is useful to think of space-time and things as being real but we can learn much by going beyond that view.
The investigation of the mind as the basis of reality has, of course, been the domain of Buddhist meditation practice since the time of the Buddha. Meditation practice has found expression and inspiration from psychological analyses, philosophical views, and rich multidimensional images for millennia, and although it is unlikely that there will be widespread acceptance of the profound value of this rich culture in Western culture in our times, it is so important to guard the legacy, so that it will be available when the time is ripe.
I have been gaining confidence from the Culasunnata Sutta (MN121) recently. In it the Buddha tells Ananda about leaving the disturbances of the Palace life for the disturbances of the village life; leaving the disturbances of the village life for the disturbances of the forest life; leaving the disturbances of the forest life for the disturbances of the perception of Earth (and perhaps the other four elements); and in the same way the disturbances of the base of infinite space; infinite consciousness; nothingness; neither-perception-nor-non-perception; and signless concentration of mind from where the Buddha realises impermanence and Liberation.
I’ll end with an image. A Whale is floating on the Ocean under a Sunlit clear Sky. This is a simple image of consciousness supported by the element earth, which is maintained by the elements of water, air and fire; all within the element space. Space and consciousness are not visible – one is ‘inside’ the whale the other is ‘outside’ the picture. So, this is an image of the six elements – which are all illusory representations of something unfathomable. I don’t know why I like it but I do – an eco-stupa perhaps?