My understanding of what is really supposed to be going on during meditation has gone through many transformations. Initially, I interpreted the notion of “stilling” or “quieting” the mind to mean I was supposed to stop thinking at all, that I needed to turn off the internal chatter within my head. But that was only half right. The result of that was I would be so focused on my breathing in an effort to force out all other thoughts that meditation became such a chore; it was like trying to push a giant boulder up a mountainside. The endeavor was so exhausting that I often fell asleep during a sit.
Then I learned to quit fighting my thoughts, just let them pass by like a float in a parade. This helped immensely with the ever-present song or jingle that would pop into my head during meditation. In fact, I am seldom bothered any more by a song stuck in my mind while I sit. Staying focused on my breath is much easier.
But it just doesn’t seem like I’m getting anywhere. Some of my most satisfying sits involved some very specific thinking going on in my mind. It wasn’t when I was floating in the absorption of my breathing. In fact, this buoyant state of my mind remaining aloof from other mental activities was bringing on the sleepiness problem I had in the past. Rather, my most insightful moments in meditation actually involved me fixing my mind on a thought or concept and following that thought through in what seemed like logical increments. On the rare occasions when this occurred, I reached a level of understanding about whatever it was I had been thinking about that was very satisfying. I might even say it was euphoric.
Having said that, my mind does tend to grasp onto thinking paths that are self-indulgent and irrelevant. Yet, increasingly I have become intrigued by how the Buddha describes the first Jhana, as a state of “deliberate and sustained thought.”
And then I read this extraordinary post at the Theravadin. He uses two very vivid – for me – metaphors to describe the functioning of meditation.
In the first metaphor, the Theravadin uses a common behavior to describe how we develop the mindfulness necessary for effective meditation: learning how to ride a bike. When first learning to ride a bike, we are very focused on maintaining balance so we can move forward, so focused on this single element that often – at least I remember doing this – we aren’t looking ahead at what’s coming and we run into other objects, like curbs or trees. But with persistence, we develop the balance necessary to keep our bicycle upright. When that happens, we ride with ease, able to look around us at the scenery as we peddle along. We’re still riding the bike, we’re still doing everything we need to do to maintain balance, but we are no longer “aware” of that – it’s automatic now.
It’s such a brilliant metaphor because developing the balance necessary to ride a bicycle with ease is very much like developing a fixed mind in meditation. Finding the balance needed to ride a bicycle with east is just like remaining fixed on a meditation object, such as the breath.
“Developing the jhanas is like learning how to ride a (mental) bike. When learning how to ride a bike there are two important things involved: First of all, you see others on the bike and see how much fun they have. You want that too. Secondly, almost everyone you see did learn it, so you are thinking: I can do it too. Third, when you are up on the bike, you learn to intuitively avoid falling – but that takes lot of practice. You know now, that the falling was actually part of the game, and it taught you how NOT to fall. In order to develop the skill to keep your balance your mind had to learn to avoid extreme movements away from the center. You also realized that eventually, once you started to keep going, the balance was easy to hold and the fun bike ride started.”
And what do we do when we have learned how to balance ourselves on a bicycle? We ride along and enjoy the scenery, never “forgetting” what we need to sustain doing to keep our bicycle upright.
Then the Theravadin introduces another powerful metaphor that really got my mind alert. Imagine being carried along by the powerful currents of a wild river. Out of sheer luck, you are able to grasp onto a rock. What are you going to do? You are going to cling to that rock with every ounce of energy you can, and if you are able to, you will pull yourself out of the raging river onto the rock.
“The attainment of the jhana, according to this simile, is achieved by a “not-floating away” or “not-drifting-away”. This is similar to a person in a wild river pushed along by the current who would try to hold on to a stone – long enough to pull himself out of the water and step on that stone. Such a temporary break (because he has not yet crossed the river but is still caught in the middle) on the steady rock in the middle of a wild river means also that no effort is necessary to maintain that calm position and one feels calmness and aloofness while the river/stream of the senses retreats.”
Once up on that rock, what would you do? You have a moment of relative ease to collect your breath, re-focus your thoughts and contemplate your next move. You can’t stay on that rock forever. At any moment, the raging river could send you a wave that will knock you off your perch. But it is, temporarily at least, a safe haven that allows you to determine how to extract yourself from this predicament.
So developing concentration is vital to meditation, but it isn’t the end. Once you learn how to ride the bike, you need to learn how to enjoy the ride. And once you’ve pulled yourself out of the river onto the relative safety of a rock, you must contemplate your escape to complete safety. Standing on that rock forever is not the solution. It is merely the vantage point.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.