adventures in meditation, part 2 – (aka: SH*T JUST GOT HARD.)

David Hockney "Garrowby Hill" 1998
David Hockney “Garrowby Hill” 1998

I was all set to put a little note up here apologizing for the repetition in content and insanely long posts. And maybe even the cussing. And in the past few weeks I have found myself brooding over topics for the blog (how much is too much talk about Buddhism and my classes? Can I post little snippets of art I’m working on without discussing it and explaining it? How often should I post? Does anyone care? etc.), length of time I should let a post “marinate” before putting another post up, how I probably should alternate rambling posts with art-focused posts to keep the artsy lovelies from running in fear…

But then I realized- NO. These little ruminations are exactly why I always stop writing and need to take breaks from this site. The minute this online journal (and that’s what it is- I’m not cut out for the brevity that is implied by the term “blog”) became more about statistics and readers (remember those old NedStat counters, if that’s what they were even called?) and less about me writing into the void, I kind of lost the intense interest I had in doing an online journal in the first place. I lose my sense of self in the effort to make this other than what it is- a brain dump. A place for me to document life, work some ideas out.

In 1997, when I started this online journal, there was NO software for blogging, no templates, and no comment forms. There was just HTML and publishing stuff on your web page.  There were only a handful of people doing it, and everyone one of us varied greatly in length, subject matter, humor, lifestyle, etc. There was no right or wrong. So I had no idea who was reading, why they were reading, what they liked and didn’t like. I just wrote and posted and let it go. And I really want to do that again. But doing that requires me to let go of thinking too much about who is receiving this. (Thus, why the comments are not turned on.)

And that means writing whenever I feel like, about whatever I feel like.

Unfortunately, for you, that means this is another post on mindfulness and meditation. Because that’s what’s on my mind today.


Almost directly after I wrote my last post, I remembered why it is I keep taking breaks from meditation.

It’s because it gets really frustrating and hard.

Every. Single. Time.

It all came back to me a few days ago- I go through these flings with meditation and mindfulness where I do it and it’s amazing and sort of blissful and I get a little skilled at it and I see the influence it has on my life. Then it gets even better and turns into a little honeymoon kind of thing and I feel like I’ve found this profound habit that will change everything and I get all the fuss and want everyone to have some of that bliss.

But then all of the sudden meditation stops being good. It turns into this weird half-hour wrestling match with my mind that I can’t make heads or tails of. And because I’ve always used meditation as a way to achieve calm, the minute the whole “wrestling” phase starts, I have always stopped seeing the point in sitting in a chair and riling myself up.

This time, I’m meditating for different reasons, so I’m more determined to ride out this next stage, even though right now it feels like listening to a TV station tuned to static.

Basically what happens is that I’m able to focus and get my head quiet of the BIG THOUGHTS, but then I become away aware of this low, underlying jumble of stuff going on way way below, and any time I try and clear my head and get into the present, I can’t do it. It’s like this little weird broadcast of brain dump that I only tune into when I’m meditating.  I don’t know what those “grumblings” are, and they aren’t loud, but they distract the hell out of me. It’s like those factories in old-timey cartoons that keep chugging out square clouds of smoke from an animated smokestack.

You know that thing when you talk on your phone and sometimes you get an echo of your own voice and you cannot have a conversation because all you hear is yourself? And the harder you try to ignore it, the more you notice it? I suppose this is very similar to that. (And I’m sure there’s a lesson right there <—- that I’ll ponder and figure out later.)

The upside to this experience is that I have heard experienced meditators and monks talk time and time again about the “meditation gets hard” stage a lot. So there’s a precedent for this.

In my Foundations of Buddhism class, we just finished studying a bit about the Abhidharma, which is basically the collection of writings that created the foundation for Buddhist ontology (the nature of being). After Buddha passed away and left his years and years of teachings in the hands of his followers, the monks began to organize the huge breadth of the Buddha’s teaching a little bit to make it easier to access as far as their own teaching of it. It was a completely oral tradition for several hundreds of years after the Buddha passed, so kind of had to process it a little so it would remain correctly preserved. In the process, they also began to speculate on the very nature of life because some of the followers were beginning to ask new questions due to changes in society and culture.

The Buddhist monks decided that life- both the physical things that exist and happen and the mental states we experience-  is basically combinations of small bits called “dharmas” (little “d”. Dharma – big “D”- is defined as the culmination of everything the Buddha taught). These itty bitty dharmas basically combine and re-combine to form everything we can see or feel or experience.

Since everything is always changing, the dharmas keep mixing it up, too. They form combinations that pop in and out of reality for various stretches of time. Some combinations last longer than others, or some combinations repeat – that’s how we get a sense of continuity in life.

When I heard this, I was totally shocked. And so incredibly impressed. Because while it’s not *exactly* how the physical (and mental) world exists, it’s pretty frickin’ close. Especially since it came from a bunch of people who lived 2000 years ago and had no modern scientific equipment or any sort of way of examining the world on a microscopic level. In addition, these people came from ancient traditions that emphasized a solid and unchanging world created and orchestrated by a divine figure. So for these Buddhist monks to come out and say “you know what, we think the world is actually composed of little bits of things that come together to form larger things, and the human mind is similar…” is pretty jaw-dropping to me.

And as far as the human brain, science has shown that it’s basically is a vat of chemicals and neurons that change from millisecond to millisecond as circumstances change.

So the whole idea of “dharmas” is not really that outlandish at all. I quite like it, to be honest. It’s a lovely way to make sense of life. It sort of means that nothing is truly personal -it’s all a lot of cause and effect and changing conditions that influence other conditions.

ANYWAY, those little dharmas are sort of bubbling up in response to whatever is happening and then reconfiguring as soon as anything changes. I’m wondering if the little “grumblings” that some people encounter when they are meditating are actually those dharmas (or functions of the brain) at work, collecting information, identifying it, and reacting to it. Over and over and over and over. And as you practice meditation more and more and more, and shut down the BIG LOUD THOUGHTS that mask everything in the mind, maybe you can begin to identify those smaller bits of data that are creating the BIG THOUGHTS

For instance, you see something that annoys the crap out of you and the “annoyance” combination comes up. There’s actually a bunch of different little brain functions (and smaller base emotions, like anger and frustration, etc.) that form that particular emotion. And just as soon as “I’m so annoyed by that noise!!” comes up, your attention goes to something else and there’s another set of brain functions going. It may be a repeat of the “I’m so annoyed by that noise!!” or it might evolve into “Oh my God, can’t he turn that car alarm off?” or even “Oh, it’s just a car alarm. Not something cataclysmic.”

So when you meditate, you get more and more adept at recognizing the whole “I’m so annoyed by that noise!!” thought as soon as it pops up. And the more you meditate, you more skilled you get at recognizing what’s behind it: the “I’m annoyed because I can’t understand what’s happening, I’m scared of what might happen, I don’t like not having control over this, and I can’t concentrate.”  So I’m wondering if what I’m experiencing is yet another level of that stuff underneath- the “dharmas” at work.

I have no freaking idea. This is why a huge part of meditation is finding a teacher to have a personal relationship with- because when this happens, they can tell you “yes, it’s normal” or “no, you had really better go talk to a doctor…” And as they get to personally know you, they can say “you’re the kind of person who obsesses, so I bet that’s what’s happening, Try and focus on ____ instead while you meditate.” And you don’t spend years trying to figure out if you are doing it right.

So yeah, I need a teacher. There are a few options – I’ve signed up for education with Sravasti Abbey which starts in April, and part of the class is doing a lot of checking in and response writing, so I’m hopeful that I’ll get some feedback. There are also several online teacherswho are available to assist students. So that’s an option if my classes don’t provide what I need.

It’s funny, this all sounds extrememly complicated and a part of me is, just, “go back to the guided meditations and call it a day,” but a much bigger part of me is thinking, “yes.” And I rarely think a simple “yes” about much of anything, besides loving cats, swimming, tea, my family, and those sorts of things. So if a “yes” pops up, I try to embrace it.

Have a wonderful weekend, if you’re still out there reading 😉