‘So, just lie down and relax and breathe real easy. Count your out-breaths, one to ten, then ten back down to one. Ten, fifteen minutes or so, just counting your breaths, ok?’
I was introduced to meditation in 1979 by a lady called Elspeth Heilpern, a Jewish Californian who bore a striking resemblance to George Burns. Elspeth was working at the Cambridge University Counselling Service and I was one of the clever but paralysingly self-conscious, self-censoring, socially inept and directionless late adolescents whose unbosomings made up her data-base, for she was doing a Ph.D. on privileged neurotics who didn’t know how good they had it. A parenthesis here: the year after I became one of Elspeth’s cases, she died, but there was no causal connection that I’m aware of. An obituary for her actually made its way into Punch magazine’s ‘Country Life’ column, a collection of unconsciously funny excerpts from the provincial press of the kind you now hear on Radio 4’s ‘The News Quiz.’* I shouldn’t have told you that, because I can’t remember what the obit said, or why it was unconsciously funny. Anyway, I attempted to meditate in the manner Elspeth had stipulated.
What was the point? I didn’t see it then. It is in fact to quieten what Buddhists call our ‘monkey mind’, the mind that goes tearing from one thought to another like an ape swinging from branch to branch, one thought leading to the next by association, the process often causing our mood to plummet. I hadn’t come across the term ‘monkey mind’ then, but I remember in my diary characterising my thoughts as fleas, giddily pinging and boinging through the brain:
‘Nine o’ clock: I’m bored stiff with ‘Madame chuffing rotten Bovary’, maybe Michael fancies a pint? / But he’s in his room with just the anglepoise thingy switched on, so he’s busy, course he is, he’s so much more focussed than I am so he’s obviously more intelligent than me / everybody’s bloody revising except me / I bet nobody will want to come to the bar / they’ll despise me for wanting to go / tell me they have too much on / I shouldn’t really be here, known it all along / sod it I want a drink / what a loser; I’m like Puff the Magic Dragon after everybody’s grown up.’
‘How’d you get on with the meditation?’ Elspeth would ask.
‘I kept losing count,’ I’d say, apologetically.
‘But I’d get to ten, then start again at one.’
‘That’s not a problem’
‘I fell asleep!’
I was mystified that this was a technique you apparently couldn’t fuck up however ‘wrong’ you got it. Ah, that dogged concern with the letter that blinds one to the spirit!
I stuck with the meditation on and off for a few years after Elspeth, and started to read about Zen. I pored with fascination and frustration over old stories of the Japanese Zen Masters, and longed for Enlightenment. This condition I took to mean having no ego-self to get angry and depressed, and being eternally and blissfully happy in an oceanic, amniotic, centreless, undifferentiated kind of way, i.e., I hadn’t a fucking clue what I meant by ‘enlightenment’. A recurrent motif in these old Zen tales is of a troubled young man who comes to ask a venerable Zen Master or roshi, how he is to attain enlightenment, or satori in Japanese. The master will answer his question with a non-sequitur or maybe hit him over the head, whereupon his questions vanish and he is completely satisfied with the Master’s response. What in hell was this all about?
It did not help that the Japanese term satori is translated as ‘enlightenment’ rather than, say, ‘insight’, for that would at least have led me to wonder what it was you saw into. (‘Your own nature,’ Zenists tell you, whatever the hell that means.) To friends in the pub whom I bored with my half-arsed Zen talk, 'enlightenment' could only mean a divinely-mandated downloading into the brain of facts about life, the universe and everything, and I was a credulous idiot to entertain the idea. ‘But that isn’t what it means!’ I would protest, although I had absolutely no idea what it did mean. (We couldn’t have used the term ‘download’ in 1982, but it’s a better term for what was meant than anything we could have used.) It did not help my understanding that I had read Alan Watts’s The Joyous Cosmology and Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and hoped that meditating would allow access to that apprehension of phenomena mediated through, or revealed by, LSD. Nor yet did it help to read newly-satoried North American Buddhists who wrote gush like this:
‘Tears of joy and amazement well up at every sight and sound – the ring of a teacup as the spoon lightly touches the side... my hands as they collate papers to be stapled together, a red tomato… Am I mad to think that I alone have created heaven and earth?’ (Kapleau, 1978)
Well, Sugar Britches, you might well be. It didn’t strike me at the time, but rereading that passage quoted in Roshi Philip Kapleau’s Zen: Dawn in the West for the first time in twenty-seven years, it strikes me now that it belongs in the same stable as:
‘I felt completely filled with joy, peace and love. I knew God loved me, right then, and I still know it, despite all the suffering in my life. I know how precious I am… I am perfect in His eyes, and so are you.’
It would not surprise me to learn that the author of the first quote had grown up among the folks who churn out reams of the second type, stuff I’d heard dozens of times and angrily rejected. Such Buddhist ‘testimonies’ encouraged me in the hope that by sitting and breathing, stilling my thoughts as much as possible, in due course I too would be rendered gobsmacked with wonder at teacups and tomatoes. I couldn’t wait. Brad Warner has most astutely characterised writing of this kind as 'enlightenment porn'.
It never happened, of course, and I got fed up with the Zen masters and their paradoxes:
Questioner: If I understood you correctly, and I think you were quoting the Buddha, you said that nothing exists.
Roshi: You didn’t get that straight. I quoted the Buddha as saying that things neither exist nor non-exist. That is quite different from what you said. (ibid.)
I mean, let's all of us come off it - that reply is meaningless. It took me a long time to realise that all these non-sequiturs and punches in answer to questions were intended to jolt the questioner out of his habit of rationalising and discursive thinking, and that these stories belonged in medieval Japan, not 20th century Britain. Here, we are expected to develop and be proud of our analytical, discursive way of thinking, and deliberately pointless responses and slaps upside the head are more likely to provoke feats of discourse than deflate them.
The 6th century Chinese monk Bodhidarma was one of a number of somewhat unhinged Zen loonies of whom apocryphal tales abound. One of the most famous is this one, in which the monk Huike comes to seek wise counsel:
Huike: I have a restless mind and beg Master to settle it for me.
Bodhidharma: Show me your mind and I will pacify it.
Huike: But when I look for my mind, I can't find it.
Bodhidharma: There. I have already pacified your mind.
This is too pat to be taken seriously as an actual exchange, but it illustrates an important fact about the mind. It took me ages, but I finally understood the story a while ago. Last summer I had a ten-day period of wall-climbing anxiety. I realised I had pretty much screwed up my life financially, that I was not yet an old man but no longer a young one, that my father’s mind and body were wrecked with Alzheimer’s and that any one of us remaining could go the same way, dying by inches with no hope of reprieve. I felt as though I were on a journey into oblivion that would become increasingly cold, monochrome and comfortless before the final and nevitable snuffing out. Thinking of the Bodhidharma story, I decided that I needed to resume meditation if I was to handle this onslaught of depression and roiling fear. So I began to sit counting the breaths again, and realised something that had escaped me through the 80’s: that meditation is not running from fear, but staying with it, knowing it, watching how it arises and abates. Where does it go to when it isn't occupying the mind? Nowhere. It is in reality just a brief coming together of outer and inner events – light and shadow, reactions to memories, reactions to hormones and electrical impulses and whatnot - things whose confluence we name ‘fear’ and having named it and given it an identity, we try to escape it, our own creation. You can choose simply to let it arise and abate without struggling to push it away, for the struggle is the sensation of fear.
Or perhaps that's bollocks.
Well, it’s something I can work with, at least. I am reminded of a recurring dream in which I’m standing in a dark room in front of a mirror, face lit from below by a candle, and making terrifying faces at myself to the accompaniment of crashing horror movie music. ‘You are the creator of all this,’ it tells me, ‘and you can stop it any time you choose. You just never bloody learn.'
So, forget enlightenment, oceanic states of consciousness, teaspoon-induced ecstasies and astounding tomatoes. Just maintain constant vigilance, lest you be fooled by your own emotions and self-created demons. That’s what meditation is for me at the moment.
My preferred source of information on the practice and effects of meditation these days is Pema Chödrön, a wise and gentle North American Buddhist nun. She utterly lacks the masculine, military zip of Japanese Zen, which is no loss as far as I'm concerned. Pema, you feel, meditates alongside you, not over and above you. She's been at it longer, she's been where you are, and she invites you to accept your frailties with humour. Elspeth did pretty much the same. That thought has only just occurred to me. 'Late Developer' is my middle name.
Any other meditants out there? Please add your own reasons why you sit on your arse for long periods.
* One 'Country Life' entry I do remember was: ‘Saturday Night Disco for sophisticated people only! Free pie and pea supper.’
I like this excerpt from The Practice of Zen Meditation, an interesting if rather po-faced book by the late Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, Jesuit and Zen Master. He quotes Harada Roshi on the practice of shikantaza or 'sitting in awareness': 'It is like Mount Fuji majestically towering over the East China Sea.' Lassalle comments: 'Make use of this image. When you sit, become Mount Fuji. Just let your thoughts come and go, and remain unmoved, as if they were passing clouds. Whether the sky is clear or overcast, the mountain stays the same.'
Right. Most of my meditation lately is spent trying to ride the tide of rage caused by the moronic, repetitive hooting of pigeons, which drives me nuts, or which I allow to drive me nuts. I try to be as Mount Fuji, but keep getting distracted by thoughts of creating silence by machine-gunning the bloody things to buggery. Enlightenment may not be on the cards for this incarnation.
Enomiya-Lassalle, H. (1995) The Practice of Zen Meditation, London: Thorsens.
Kapleau, P. (1978) Zen: Dawn in the West, London: Rider and Company.
Warner, B. (2013) There is no God and He is always with you, Novato: New World Library.