Sunday, 19 February 2017

Meditation is not a skill

Doing a handstand is a skill. Not everyone can do it, but almost anyone can learn how.

There are different stages on the way to doing a handstand. Maybe it hurts to put weight on your wrists, but you can build strength. Then you can walk your feet up a wall but you can't kick up into a handstand. Then later you can kick up into a handstand against a wall, but you can't keep your balance away from the wall. Then later you can balance without the wall for five seconds, and you want to make it longer.

Everyone can find out what level they are at. And with practice, you get better at it.

Meditation is not like this.

Meditation does not have easily-defined stages. And there is no inarguable standard, no objective feedback which tells you whether you succeeded or not. You may feel that you had a good meditation or a bad meditation, but it's your own subjective mind which decides what counts as a "good meditation", and your mind is not always right. It's easy to kid yourself, or to put yourself down. With a handstand, you either succeed or you fall over. Meditation is not like this.

The reason is simple: meditation is not a skill. We talk about it as if it was. You go to a teacher, you are given instructions, told how to self-correct if the mind wanders away. Spiritual teachings talk about different "stages" the meditator passes through (five, ten, twelve... it depends who you ask). We look to teachers to evaluate our progress, and tell us when we succeed. But really, this is all a game. We only talk like this because, seemingly, we have to say something. It gets us started, it keeps us going, it helps to pass the time. But...

It becomes a problem if we start looking for signs that we've learnt something new. Sometimes we look inside our meditation and try to see if we've succeeded. Are the thoughts all gone? Am I fully relaxed? Sometimes we look inside our life. Am I always calm? Am I always generous? Am I blessed and holy and admired by everyone I meet? We look for things to criticise in the hope that one day we won't find anything.

Of course, I can't say that meditation won't make you calmer, more generous, more holy. It's just that holiness, or enlightenment, isn't a skill. You don't get better at it by practicing. You don't get worse at by neglecting it. It's a different type of thing altogether.

Sometimes we have to practice, sometimes we can't help trying. We don't have much choice about this. But there's something which reveals itself when we stop trying. Something becomes clear when we stop trying to make things into something else. Something like the way a flower grows, which isn't a skill or even anyone doing something, but just a part of the world.

Something like the way human isn't a skill, it's simply what we are.


We will have a meditation morning next Saturday25 February  in Ranelagh, all are welcome to attend.

10:00  Gathering
10.20 - 11:00 Silent meditation
11:00 - 11:20 Tea break
11:20 - 11:50 Silent meditation
11:50 - 12.50 Silent sitting / discussion
12:50 - 13:00 Final silence