“If we try to become, or be, it always brings in obstacles. Not becoming anything, is key. Don’t even try to remember what Paramatman (The Supreme) is. Have absolutely no thought of ‘becoming’ anything.”
~ Siddharameshwar Maharaj
In most esoteric systems and consciousness therapies, meditation is a goal-oriented process that may involve any number of strategic techniques directed at a positive and beneficial modification of the meditator’s state and condition, from the gross level that seeks material acquisition, skills enhancement, and physical life extension, to the mental plane where the attainment of unusual powers (siddhis) and fascinating transcendental experiences are sought, and ultimately to the fulfillment of an ideal of enlightenment, peace, and bliss at the so-called “spiritual” stage.
Regardless of the particular system to which one ascribes, some form of meditation is typically considered a prerequisite practice, both to calm the mind, and then to direct it towards the achievement of some desirable personal outcome, whether that be an awakening insight, a pleasant and unusual bodily sensation, a glimpse into other levels of consciousness, or simply a temporary state of heightened clarity that could prove advantageous in the realm of business competition.
In the spiritual arena, there are innumerable texts composed by teachers and masters extolling the virtues of this or that method of meditation, with elaborate instructions for various beginner, intermediate, and expert levels of application. Moreover, one will also find detailed critiques of one particular sect’s meditation practices in comparison to another sect’s methods, in terms of efficacy and potency, and general efficiency in the attainment of the goals set forth by the umbrella religious/spiritual system.
Much of that competitive aspect is simply the usual human vanity expressed as “my way is better than your way”, played out in the religious arena. At its extreme, such attitudes predictably lead to religious conflicts and the type of sectarian strife so sadly evident both today and throughout history.
A number of examples (though thankfully mostly non-violent) of competing meditation programs could be found within Buddhism, with its various schools and sub-sects. For instance, in the school called Zen (Chan) Buddhism, which is known primarily as a meditation sect, one can find several diverse methods, each championed by its own sub-sect, and each typically going to elaborate lengths to differentiate itself from the others, as well as from other Buddhist “vehicles”.
One Zen sub-sect (Rinzai) favors the use of koans, or challenging and seemingly irrational enigmas drawn from classical “cases”, which the teacher provides for the aspirant to work with, in order to break through their mental rigidity and stimulate some trans-rational insight experience. Another Zen school (Soto), will instead focus on following or counting breaths, or else will employ a “just sitting” technique, derived from an earlier process called “silent illumination”, which involves observing one’s thoughts without any gaining idea, and which regards the assumption of the posture itself (a rather formal yogic position) as a manifestation itself of the very enlightenment that the Rinzai school is seeking to obtain via their koan program. Occasionally, another sub-sect might arise that seeks to combine the two techniques.
Within Hinduism, there are even more variations on the meditation theme, which may include breath control, sound attenuation, mantras and magical incantations, numerous yogic postures and manipulation of subtle bodily energies, objects of concentrated contemplation and visualization, prayers and supplications to deities, and more advanced explorations of subtle and mystical realms achieved via mind control and various austerities, the potent intervention of a guru or spiritual preceptor, and numerous other approaches.
Regardless of the strategy, scheme, or method, the one common foundation of nearly all meditation programs at the very outset is the assumption of the inherently substantial reality of the meditator – the subject, or person (even if the eventual goal is to transcend that illusory identity). The proposition is to transform that person from a deluded being into an awakened one, from a suffering, bound, and conflicted individual into a free, peaceful, and happy one.
Essentially, all meditation programs are based on a desire to have things be other than they are, different and more agreeable. All of the many supports, such as special meditation environments, special clothing and accessories (such as incense, bells, statues, pictures, and prescribed cushions), special diets and exercises, select groups and teaching aids, and various elaborate rituals and trappings, are enthusiastically employed to dress the stage with the props believed necessary or conducive to accomplishing the purposes of the particular meditation of choice. All in all, it can become a rather elaborate affair, and more often than not, such props can actually get in the way of the very liberation being sought after, primarily by confirming the solidity of the aspirant and necessity of their ritual tools.
In contrast, true meditation begins with the recognition of the two-fold emptiness of both self and phenomena, the direct realization that subjects and objects exist purely by virtue of conceptual designation. Upon their arising, all thoughts, self-images, memories, beliefs, sensations, emotions and perceptions are revealed in true meditation as impermanent and empty of substance, like holographic phantasms. There is no requirement for some special costume or ritual in true meditation, nor any strategic plan for self-transformation and personal ascendance. The one who would accomplish any of that is recognized as an imaginative figment of a fictional story right from the beginning.
In fact, true meditation is actually non-meditation, since it has nothing to accomplish, and hence requires no effort geared towards a change of state or attainment of something extra. Nothing has to be developed, fixed, or resolved, but only recognized. It adds nothing to nor subtracts anything from experience. It simply consists of being aware of being aware, or directly noticing mind’s true nature – our native awake awareness that is self-existing and spontaneously present, open and spacious, lucid and transparent.
Nisargadatta Maharaj put it this way:
“To be aware is to be awake. Unaware means asleep. You are aware anyhow, you need not try to be. What you need is to be aware of being aware. Be aware deliberately and consciously, broaden and deepen the field of awareness. You are always conscious of the mind, but you are not aware of yourself as being conscious.
The mind produces thoughts ceaselessly, even when you do not look at them. When you know what is going on in your mind, you call it consciousness. This is your waking state — your consciousness shifts from sensation to sensation, from perception to perception, from idea to idea, in endless succession. Then comes awareness, the direct insight into the whole of consciousness, the totality of the mind. The mind is like a river, flowing ceaselessly in the bed of the body; you identify yourself for a moment with some particular ripple and call it: ‘my thought’. All you are conscious of is your mind; awareness is the cognisance of consciousness as a whole.”
When left unrecognized, the thinking, concept-forming, and interpretive activity of dualistic mind arises, and a continuously existing “person” is first fabricated and then taken to be who and what we are. Once we recognize this basic awareness, however, the passing parade of thoughts loses its power to seduce us into a trance of identification with a habitual state of craving and aversion — the same trance which in turn creates the illusion of a separate and enduring self — and so simply dissolves. In such recognition, any emotions, thoughts, preferences, perceptions of good and bad, and so forth are naturally released without effort. As the western teacher Adyashanti wrote: “When you rest in quietness and your image of yourself fades, and your image of the world fades, and your ideas of others fade, what’s left? A brightness, a radiant emptiness that is simply what you are.”
In true meditation, there is a clear knowing space in which thoughts arise, linger, and disappear. Once noticed, true meditation is simply relaxing into that space of silent knowingness, the transparent awake awareness between thoughts, rather than pursuing and then identifying with any thought. In the recognition of this subtle awareness, or in the knowing of that which is knowing, there is a complete absence of any conceptualizing, memory association, or anticipation. By relaxing into the pure empty clarity of this knowing awareness again and again, true meditation eventually becomes stabilized. As the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa noted: “In the gap between former and later thoughts non-conceptual wisdom shines continuously.”
With every inward glance, we can notice that awake aware quality that is both empty and knowing, while remaining totally unaffected by any thoughts. True meditation is just staying with this recognition. It does not require studious analysis nor complex and progressive cultivation. Rather, it is merely a matter of recognizing, as our own mind nature — this very wakefulness of natural knowing that is self-existing and spontaneously present. Regardless of whatever thought forms arise in the mind, the essence does not change but remains a fresh, basic state of naturalness, which can be neither improved or corrupted by the play of consciousness.
In true meditation, attention merely shifts from its chronic obsession with mental fabrications and emotional moods to the natural state of changeless aware knowingness and silent presence. It is an effortless noticing, or as the Dzogchen teacher Mingyur Rinpoche notes:
“It is easy to recognize it. You just have to drop thinking and it is right there. There is not a lot to be done. You do not have to do this and that and the other. It is like the example of trying to touch space with your finger. To touch space, you do not have to move your finger at all, do you—it is already touching space, isn’t it?”
“It is as though your eyes are looking backwards instead of forwards as they usually do. You are looking out with your eyes but are looking back at the same time. Do not try too hard with this though, otherwise you will really make a big mistake. You just sort of look back at your mind and say, ‘Who am I? Where am I? What is this?’ When you do that, do you see the thing that is thinking? That is enough!”
In the parlance of Tibetan Dzogchen (Great Perfection) teachings, this state of true meditation is called “rigpa”. A contemporary master, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, says of it:
“What is this non-meditation? How do we meditate without meditating? Whatever situation mind is in, whether there are discursive thoughts of good, bad, clean, unclean, and so on, if you drop all of these so that you are without even a whisker of the conceptual activity of mind, the nature of mind will shine forth as non-stopped clarity and that is called self-arising rigpa. This does not need to be created or produced or purchased; when you let mind itself, just as it is, shine forth and stay in that, that is called self-arising rigpa. Someone who meditates using logical processes could never meditate on this, could never realize it.
To do this, you need to reverse your outwardly-directed attention inward and look hither towards the mind. This way of looking hither towards the mind means to rest self-settled in unhindered clarity. Having released all the bindings of passion, aggression, pride, and so on, abide in the state of this self-arising rigpa of non-stopped clarity, crystal clarity, like the sun shining in the sky. Not being caught by this and that but resting in the non-stopped clarity of whatever there is occurring in mind is called self-arising rigpa.”
“In fact, rigpa is coming all the time. It is always there so there is nothing to do. There is no meditation to do because it is there all the time. There is no need of mantra, no need to do anything in particular, no need to visualize something; it is just there.”
This natural state of thought-free wakefulness is the mind’s ever-present background and true nature, but for most of us it is obscured and so remains unappreciated, due to our compounded fixations with self and phenomena which produce the vicious cycle of grasping and avoiding that is our usual experience. However, if we then fabricate some project to remove the mind’s obscuration, we just move further away from true meditation, which is not at all about removing or improving or any of the busy work normally associated with spiritual practices, such as conventional meditation. Rather, attention is simply shifted to the knowing awareness in which the various thoughts and emotions are appearing, which immediately releases them from any binding quality. Mind need not be altered in any way. It does not require any addition or subtraction. It is fine just as it is.
Traditionally, aspirants deemed ready are introduced to rigpa through certain face-to-face “pointing out instructions” with their teacher. The contemporary western Dzogchen teacher Jackson Peterson shared an example of this direct introduction to rigpa from the Yeshe Lama by Jigmed Lingpa:
“Do not contrive or elaborate the awareness of this very moment. Allow it to be just as it is. This is not established as existing, not existing, or having a direction. It does not discern between emptiness and appearances and does not have the characteristics of nihilism and eternalism. Within this state where nothing exists, it is unnecessary to exert effort through view or mediation. The great primordial liberation is not like being released from bondage. It is natural radiance uncontrived by the intellect, wisdom unsullied by concepts.
The nature of phenomena, not tainted by the view and meditation, is evenness without placement …without premeditation. It is clarity without characteristics and vastness not lost to uniformity. Although all sentient beings have never been separate from their own indwelling wisdom even for an instant, by failing to recognize this, it becomes like a natural flow of water solidifying into ice. With the inner grasping mind as the root cause and outer objective clinging as the contributing circumstance, beings wander in samsara indefinitely. Now, with the guru’s oral instructions, at the moment of encountering awareness–without any mental constructions– rest in the way things truly are, without wavering from or meditating on anything. This fully reveals the core wisdom intent of the primordial Buddha.”
Thus, in true meditation, nothing is in need of renunciation or transformation. It is simply remaining present as this nondual awareness, the mind’s true nature, just as it is, without resort to schemes or strategies of some other, future attainment. It includes the realization that there is no difference between this moment now and supreme enlightenment. There is nothing beyond this basic state of wakefulness, nothing to grasp or avoid. This is why it is said that our ordinary mind, just as it is, is perfect and complete.
This very mind has always been fully awake, it is merely that we have not been clearly seeing our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions as they are, but instead have been adding conditional fantasies of interpretation to whatever arises, which have clouded our view and led to confusion. However, if we are able to recognize the true nature of the thought as soon as it arises, and leave it alone without pursuing it, then whatever thoughts arise all automatically self-liberated without effort or fuss. In this way, from the point of view of awake awareness, we recognize the innate purity and emptiness of whatever arises, without assigning any praise or blame, or indulging any motive to have things be other than they are.
“Buddhahood — the discovery of the Dharmakaya — is nothing other than the uncontrived and unadulterated essence of Awareness becoming evident. And because awareness is present in everyone without transition or change, I advise you to rest in the spontaneous presence of your uncontrived Awareness.”
(A deep bow of gratitude to Jackson Peterson, who generously provided the Dzogchen quotations)