Why I’ve Almost Stopped Meditating (part 1 of 2: personal issues)
…hope is a psychological mechanism unaffected by external realities. —Gene Wolfe
That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin. —Gene Wolfe again
By temperament, inherently by birth, I tend to be a bad meditator.
I remember long ago walking through the University district in Seattle, and a person stopped me and asked if I’d like to take a personality test. (The person was proselytizing for the Church of Scientology, but I didn’t join, and that part is irrelevant anyway.) I like taking tests, so I took it. The test was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI; and when I received the results I was surprised and a little confused. My scores under all categories except one were well up into the healthy range, near the top even, but in one—the category of “nervousness”—my score was so low that it was literally off the chart, well below the rating of “very unacceptable.”
This confused me at the time because I’m not a habitually jumpy or fidgety kind of person, and in fact I’m lazy as hell and can sit still for hours. For years I’ve been able to give a talk to a room full of strangers without much stage fright or apprehension; I just sit down and give the talk. I remember when I was a kid my mother, who was lying on the couch watching TV at the time, suddenly announcing, “I feel nervous today,” and at the time it made no sense to me, considering that she had no obvious reason to be nervous; but now I understand. Over the years, as I’ve professionally observed myself, my mental states, and my behavior, I’ve come to understand what the test was indicating, and what I have inherited from my mother. I have a hyperactive or supercharged brain that usually does not tolerate much stillness, even though my body may be lazy as the proverbial hound dog. I’m more of a compulsive thinker than even the average westerner.
When I first started meditating as a high school student, and when I started a second time after giving up, and shortly before going to the monastery, even sitting still for fifteen minutes with my mind concentrated on a meditative object was an ordeal. Nevertheless, I have long felt that it was my destiny or “fate” to become some kind of meditating renunciant monk in this life; and it has been as though an invisible hand guided me in that direction, protecting me from such disasters (ahem) as marriage, children, drunken car crash, drug overdose, a big scholarship from the Navy (on condition that I train as a nuclear technician and join the Navy), a brilliant professional career, etc. I still have no regrets in that regard, although I do occasionally daydream about what it would have been like to marry and raise a family.
Despite my early floundering in meditation, as a very junior monk I even cultivated a strange idea that I could master jhāna within around six months of being a full-time meditator. The idea was that all I had to do was practice practice practice, and before long, with intelligence and unwavering perseverance and determination, I’d be able to master it.
I tried hard, went radical, went to Burma, and lived alone in forest caves practicing meditation. I also spent some time at Panditarama as well as other, less famous meditation centers. In those days I was extremely strict, partly with the notion that of sīla, samādhi, and paññā, I might not have enough of the latter two but could at least max out my morality by conscientious self-restraint and by following the rules of monastic discipline. During my first ten years as a monk I would not be surprised at all if I averaged six hours a day of formal sitting meditation. It was certainly more than four.
But despite all the sitting practice, in full lotus position, and often alone in forest caves, I eventually reached a kind of impasse. It was as though I had reached some kind of limit; I was like a bird that just can’t fly any higher. It got to the point that I had to practice hard just to maintain my place and avoid backsliding. Even before then my meditation was very sporadic and unreliable in its results. I have attained meditative states which, at the time, made just a few moments of it seem well worth decades of sweating, floundering, and struggling; I’ve attained states that probably most meditation teachers have not—but even so, it came and went, and I had no mastery over it. My consciousness expands and contracts like the Buddhist cosmos, although more quickly and less regularly; and when my mind is contracted trying to meditate is somewhat like trying to balance a marble on the tip of a sharpened pencil. I even experimented with taking Prozac for a short while, because it’s supposed to reduce excess activity in the frontal lobes, but it didn’t work. It just made me sleepy.
So, I was continually crashing from relatively good meditation back down to practically a beginner’s level, and it was damned frustrating having to return to the ABC’s, labeling my breaths and so on. My situation was a little like that of the monk Godhika described in a Pali sutta: He was continually attaining jhāna and then losing it again, until he finally became so desperate that he committed suicide. But I doubt that I was as good a meditator as venerable Godhika. I remember in one of the books of Saint John of the Cross, who himself was pretty clearly a great meditation master and father confessor to many others including Saint Teresa of Avila, San Juan says that contemplatives who are continually getting to real contemplation and then losing it again are just not intended by God to become proficient in it. So apparently, from a Catholic perspective anyway, God has other plans for me than the high station of a contemplative adept.
And so, in large part because I was at this impasse in my practice, practically beating my head against an invisible stone wall, I decided to try a change of lifestyle. (Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity: Trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.) Consequently in 2011 I returned to the USA, with the intention of interacting with other humans and maybe teaching what I had learned. But anyone who has been reading my blogs over the years will understand that my strategy of knocking loose some spiritual blockage was not entirely successful. In some respects my progress became retrograde. One strange thing that I learned about karma from my own experience is that after twenty years and more of living in seclusion, most of it in tropical Asia, upon return to America and hanging out with American laypeople, my old habits from pre-monastic days quickly came back. In Pali Buddhist philosophy this is called anusaya, or karmic underlying tendencies that don’t just disappear through lack of use but rather lie dormant, awaiting a convenient opportunity to revive.
My situation with regard to meditative sitting practice hasn’t improved recently, and I haven’t enjoyed any first rate meditation in literally a few years. I experience the occasional glimmer of good meditation, but that’s about it. This impasse combined with frustration has resulted relative loss of motivation, and in my sitting practice being much reduced. Since returning to America especially I meditate usually only once a day, and often that amounts to less than half an hour. There is one mitigating factor though: Decades of mindfulness practice have improved my basic awareness of my own mental states etc., so in a sense I am meditating to some degree most of the time simply by being aware of what’s happening in the present moment. Or as some meditation masters say, even knowing that you are being unmindful is itself a manifestation of mindfulness.