Turning the mind on itself

Meditation, (like Yoga), has experienced an incredible boost of recognition and acceptance in the past few decades. For centuries it had been just a mysterious, obscure religious activity hardly anybody knew about, but in our times it suddenly was discovered and evolved like a fashion, penetrating deep into all mainstream cultures all over the world. In fashion an original idea typically loses its initial genuine quality very quickly and goes through an explosion of blind cancer-like growth in which it burns up. The beauty about fashion is its inspirational creativity; the ugly side of it is its apparently unavoidable destructive energy. Fashion kills even the most beautiful idea through blind replication and mindless imitation. If something is “in vogue” it caught the fire that kills it.

In my own life meditation played and continues to play a huge role; and to see it burn out like in a fashion fad touches me.

For years and years I resisted to seriously write about meditation, but the mind has its unique amazing tenaciousness, (it is in meditation that you learn to deal with this). Eventually I had to come up with something to give the nagging Self a chance to be heard, (compassion with yourself is also a result of meditation).

When I present some of my thoughts here in my blog I prove to myself that there really is nothing inherently new, nothing objectively creative about it. It is personal, and the whole blog is. So, in case you, dear reader, are really interested in meditation, here is a serious but personal opinion. In order to learn how to meditate you don’t really need it, in order to get to know a bit about Klaus Kommoss go ahead and work through these 2500 words.

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 Turning the mind on itself

Some ideas about meditation

 by Klaus Kommoss

As meditation is an attitude toward the mind itself it may essentially be impossible to understand it intellectually. True understanding of meditation can only come from actually doing it.

There seem to be times for all of us in this world, in this life, when we would like to run, but sooner or later one has to see that it is not possible to really run away. So we want to change things. We all have tried to change the world to our own liking, some with horrendous aggressive power, some with bitterness, some with wonderful compassion and ingenuity, and yet, I’m convinced, it never works. No one can change the world, you have to change yourself, it’s the only option that works.

I was always interested in self-change – at first I didn’t really know why – and at young age, quite intuitively, I discovered meditation, perceiving it in the beginning as a tool for just that, for self-change. These early experiences with meditation changed me in many ways, but I only noticed and understood the changes gradually and reluctantly when I rediscovered this “mind-exercise” in mid life again as not merely a tool, not just a technique, in fact, in a deeply mysterious way, not a purpose-oriented activity at all, when it gradually revealed itself in a pretty dramatic, ongoing, life-changing way, as much more: as an attitude, a way to relate to the world, a way of being.

My interest in self-change led me to meditation, but meditation quickly taught me about the amazing adventure of perception in general and then not about self-change but instead about the illusive nature of self. If self is a mirage why this hopeless struggle to change it? If thoughts, emotions and all the rest of it are just impersonal empty phenomena, why take them so seriously? Meditation did not give a direct answer to my questions, however, in a forever mysterious way, over a long and for sure not finished practice, it instead gradually revealed what I “unknowingly” really wanted to know. What I wanted to know more than anything but couldn’t even think up as questions, and it revealed that a vast treasure of knowing was lying inside of me in places where words were not spoken, where thought cannot go.

Meditation is an attitude in which the mind can actually see itself. To find that this is even possible, I believe, is one of the most powerful lessons one can ever get in life. Meditation – many call it a state of mind – is the best condition I know of, objectively reproducible and formally and universally accessible, in which one can learn and practice to see things as they really are. Meditation is a way to see, maybe a strategy to see without eyes, a way to see before the eye, even before the brain gets involved. Meditation is a quite simple but time-tested, reliable way to learn how the mind works, how we consistently and pervasively do not see what is real but instead see what we think is real, how we perceive and unknowingly “process” reality all the time.

I think, contrary to quite common views, meditation really is not a technique. There are techniques, methods, and skills that can support meditation in important ways, but they should not be confused with meditation itself. Even though meditation can dramatically deepen the stability of attention, it is, in its essence, not an attention-regulating psychological strategy. Nor is it typically a relaxation technique, even though it can induce deep states of relaxation and feelings of peace and well-being. You can meditate in order to calm down, but when you eventually get in touch with the essence of meditation you see that meditation doesn’t so much cause the calming directly like a drug or a real technique like deep, slow breathing for example. Meditation pulls you out of the content of your experience and makes you aware of your choice of identification. Outside of meditation you are, for example, agitated, it is your experience, inside of meditation there is somebody who is agitated, or, phrased even more to the point: there is agitation. It’s you but there is a difference, and this difference, as inconceivable as it may seem, changes everything. If it’s not your agitation, why should you be stuck with it? That realization calms you down.

In meditation it is possible to investigate our true identity, to finally look at Self as nothing but a mysterious phenomenon, to see our ego rather than be it, to see who we really are, to explore perplexing phenomena like desire and aversion, love and aggression, and to discover ignorance not as failure but as a neutral condition and wisdom as a miracle. In meditation one can see – very painfully at first and then with growing compassion – how profoundly conditioned we are, shaped by influences out of our control, in fact outside of our awareness, how illusive, entirely imagined our whole so called personality is, and therefore how quite “impersonal” our reactions and habits are. Through meditation one soon gets the undeniable evidence that we are quite deluded in our perception of reality.

One can of course never “see” one’s own delusion – it wouldn’t be delusion if we could. But in meditation it is possible, and not even that difficult, to see it indirectly. One can see the symptoms of delusion. Most people will say: “I’m not deluded, you are deluded.” Few may say: “Maybe we are a bit unrealistic sometimes, but it can’t be helped, that’s how we are.” Meditation is a most wonderful way of not at all trying to find flaws in the logic of such thinking but of becoming aware of the intrinsic insufficiency of the thinking mind, of the significant limitations of thinking as such. You can’t think yourself out of something that you have created by thinking. That’s why I find philosophical discussions about meditation mostly useless.

Meditation is an expression of one’s willingness to be realistic with life. In meditation you observe what’s really happening, you can see yourself thinking. When you see yourself thinking you create this interesting distance between you and the thinking. And that makes all the difference. By discovering that this is in fact possible (and not even difficult) you see that the thinking is not you. It only appears as if it was done by you, but it rather happens by itself, you are simply the witness of it, and therefore it’s not mandatory to take it seriously and react on it and make more thoughts about it. You are really free, after all.

It seems we are all born with the bad habit of paying too much attention to our thinking. It can make life hell. But we are also born with the capacity to shift our awareness – it’s effortless, it takes not more than intention – shift our awareness away from the thinking to something else; it’s our free choice to where. Don’t ask how this can be done! That’s ‘thinking‘! Don’t start thinking about it. – As much as you can choose what you look at with your eyes you can choose where to point your awareness. – It’s so easy that it is “unthinkable”!

In my version of meditation we use the sensation of breath as the primary object of attention. Did you ever notice that it is not really you who is breathing? Try to stop breathing, try as hard as you want, eventually you might even pass out, but breathing will resume in spite of your naïve effort. We are not breathing, something is breathing us. Simply by watching our breath we can see our direct connection to an aspect of our identity obviously on an entirely different level. What is it that is breathing us? By giving it names we almost inevitably already corrupt the authentic experience of it.

Meditation is a state of totally unbiased, calm, diligent, honest observation, observation without agenda, an entirely non-searching, merely receiving attitude, expecting nothing and everything at the same time.

From outside, meditation may look like something very close to sleeping. It certainly is a condition in which all activity is resting. But awareness doesn’t; awareness not only remains but gets super sharp.

Meditation is concentration, and – one learns this by doing it – concentration is relaxation. Concentration is not an effort to exclude what you don’t want to pay attention to; it is relaxation into what you choose to rest your awareness on, without doing anything with the rest. Concentration – dramatically different to what we usually think – doesn’t take energy at all, if it does it is not concentration but manipulation, it is changing what you see into what you want to see. The unskillful way of concentration focuses by wishing away everything outside of the focus, it is a force inevitably causing a counter-force, it wears you out, and it essentially never works. Real concentration doesn’t take energy, it is the cessation of wasting energy by jumping around with your attention. The essential attitude of concentration is disobedience, disobedience toward all urges to deviate, to let the attention wander elsewhere.

In gradually deepening meditation practice, with growing confidence in the possibility of original objectivity and innate natural intelligence – god forbid to call it wisdom – one clearly sees how almost entirely self-oriented our image of the world is and how embarrassingly unrealistic such a view actually is: We – and probably more or less all living organisms – have a built-in way to perceive a border around us, mostly our skin, and we interpret what’s inside as Self and what’s outside as Other. And this separation leads to a division of interest: we care more for what is inside than for what is outside. This is neither correct nor incorrect, however, it is just a view, it’s not chiseled in stone, it’s just a conditioned, subjective interpretation that can be changed.

Then, outside of meditation, by applying such insights in everyday life, one often sees with sobering clarity how much we are actually all the same. There is the phenomenon of individuality, but our perception of separation, of me-ness and other-ness is not the full story. To perceive a Self is an inherited attribute, but it is an inheritance that can be declined, it’s an option we can learn not to take. If a person is bad, be it myself or anybody else, he/she is hardly ever bad by conscious personal choice but bad because, due to pervasive conditioning, he/she doesn’t know any better. This can change the view on others.

This sounds so idealistic, it has been preached to death by virtually all religions, but no one ever really believes it. And yet, in meditation – like a mirror that mercilessly, as well as lovingly, simply reflects everything that is presented to it – I can see all this by looking deep into myself.

Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss or even just tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. Meditation slows the mind down, so that we find some space between the rush of ideas and moods. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deception, our hidden fears and hopes, in which we can climb out of our endless melodramatic stories into the clear stillness of just being.

The discovery of the unreliability of our mind, of the irresponsibility of our thinking is a powerful wake-up call, but it is also the key for a solution: We don’t need to do what we think, we don’t have to do what habit and conditioning prompts us to do. Again, disobedience towards the thinking mind is quite possible. We are so full of shit, and we were never consulted or asked for permission when it was dumped into us. But we are actually free to not do what we want, what this shit tells us to want.

It is hard to accept the world as it is – until you discover your own aversions and objections and your deep-rooted unconscious habits as almost entirely conditioned and then see that others are not any different.

In meditation what you do is paying attention and only that; you pay attention without trying to remember what you’re paying attention to. You pay attention as if your life depended on it but forget it immediately. The actual basic instructions for formal meditation are disturbingly simple: ‘Sit, shut up, and pay attention.‘ (In fact, even the sitting is not really essential.) A somewhat nicer way to phrase it would go: ‘Be still, don’t follow the suggestions of your thinking mind, don’t react, just observe and leave what you observe alone.‘ There are millions of other descriptions and much more sophisticated instructions, which are not without merit, but during the evolution of a practice one often comes back to the basic ones, the rest is mostly entertainment for the mind and therefore often ballast.

‘Be aware‘ – It’s a lot easier in relative stillness, it’s not quite so hard when you refrain from adding anything to it, anything.

When you practice this for a lifetime you can actually learn it. However, make no mistake, you can learn to pay attention, but that does not change what you pay attention to, not the slightest bit. Meditation doesn’t change things, if it changes anything it changes the way you relate to things.

A meditation practice usually starts with a good measure of curiosity and a little bit of honest but often naïve commitment. Sooner or later a sensation of having opened a can of worms can often almost overwhelm you and can easily break the original spirit. The real work begins when almost all what you had thought about meditation turned out to be utterly wrong, when making sense of it becomes harder and things like patience become more important. Some results come almost instantly, for the really good stuff you need the practice itself to fathom and enjoy it. Deep inside we all know how to meditate, we just don’t believe that it is so useful. A practice has to grow; I don’t believe it ever comes overnight with a heroic decision. A change of heart or a change of values without a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life.

In practical terms it’s obvious that meditation is a highly private business. One has to sit with and by him/herself. And one has to sit regularly!  But it is also immensely inspiring to sit with others who share the general commitment. A structured retreat setting with many participants creates a temporary, somewhat artificial but highly supportive atmosphere of protection and collective encouragement. Although very much aware of each other, it all happens without the usual social interaction, without the otherwise ceaseless collective drama. Needless to say, that it always takes place in deep silence.

In equally practical terms, having a teacher can be incredibly helpful, classes, courses are great; however, like with so many other things, in the end the actual learning has to be done by yourself. Teachers are not always those who tell you what to do, it’s also those who demonstrate what not to do. Books are only useful to some extent; again, what really matters is doing it. Meditation is not something to learn for itself, it is ultimately this unwavering willingness to learn as such.

I have no doubt that one can arrive at all these wonderful insights and wake up without ever meditating, without even knowing what meditation is. Meditation itself is also nothing but an empty idea. What really matters in the end is the practice, the gradual laborious process of intentional evolution, a potential long-term effect of it. Meditation may not be the only way to discover delusion and work toward liberation from it, but it sure is one. It’s been around most likely for more than 2500 years and not only recently introduced in the West by Eastern Buddhist philosophy and hyped up as a trendy sport.

One final note: I’m quite aware of the danger of presenting meditation here in a rather philosophical way, nonetheless, meditation is not an intellectual process. In order to really meditate it is not necessary to follow even only half of all these considerations. But, as it’s pretty impossible in these times, to come to meditation with a virgin mindset, I think, it can still be useful for us westerners to approach meditation on an intellectual path, chiefly in order to deconstruct already existing intellectual conditioning.

Awareness is the point at which the mind reaches out beyond itself into reality. In awareness you seek not what pleases but what is true.

It’s endlessly interesting and instructive to ask people why they meditate.

Here are some excellent reasons:

 I meditate because evolution gave me a big brain, but it didn’t come with an instruction manual.

I meditate because life is too short and sitting slows it down.

I meditate because I’ve discovered that my mind is a great toy and I like to play with it.

I meditate because I’m growing old and want to become more comfortable with emptiness.

I meditate because I’m composed of 100 trillion cells, and from time to time I need to reassure them that we’re all in this together.

I meditate because it’s such a relief to spend time ignoring myself.

Sometimes I meditate because my heart is breaking.

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If you can digest even more, click related posts: here, and here.

© Klaus Kommoss,  Spring 2011

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3 Responses to Turning the mind on itself

  1. Suresh Emre says:

    I am grateful that you decided to write about meditation. Even though you say that the “true understanding of meditation can only come from actually doing it”, I find your essay on meditation very useful and inspiring. Even though I meditated on and off in the last 30 years I need to become a real beginner. That’s my take from this essay.

    In your other post titled “Some thoughts about faith and belief” you mentioned that words cannot tell the truth but they may evoke the truth. Your words evoke the truth. I am grateful.

  2. hazel says:

    wonderful insight Klaus!
    patience is quite a struggle these days….much love to you and Parvin!

  3. Mary Holden says:

    “Concentration – dramatically different to what we usually think – doesn’t take energy at all, if it does it is not concentration but manipulation, it is changing what you see into what you want to see.”

    To live in this space of no energy, concentration, is a bliss that most humans miss.
    We think things need energy.
    We think about energy itself, and all its marvelous forms!
    But to think about no energy, to get something from nothing, that is alchemy.
    And alchemy like this is possible in a state of non-thinking suspension!

    Your writing on this topic is very well-done, and I appreciate it for furthering me in my just be-ness!

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