The Path to No Path

Meditation Techniques

There is a wide variety of meditation techniques. The Indian sage Patanjali apparently describes 112 different methods, and there are very many more techniques described in other religious traditions.

There are basically two approaches. One approach focuses on concentrating the mind, bringing its attention to some meditation object, and holding the attention firmly there until the mind gains the strength to settle on the object for long periods of time without chasing after distractions. As the concentration becomes more and more powerful and focused, the mind enters the states known in Theravadan Buddhism as the jhanas.

There are usually considered to be eight of these jhanas, and the first four at least are referred to by their numbers. (Some people count them as nine in all, or even ten). Practising the jhanas brings great calm to the mind. Indeed, the experience of the fourth jhana is so thoroughly enjoyable that the effect of being in it for half an hour can last for days afterwards.

However, there is much debate about whether one should do the jhanas, even claims that it is nowadays no longer possible to do them. Indeed, at one time I had several discussions with a monk of several years standing, in which he seemed to be determined to prove to me that attaining the fourth jhana was next to impossible, and he refused to accept my claim that I had experienced it, insisting that I must have been mistaken.

Theravadan monks commit a serious offence if they tell lay people of their attainments. It is not an offence for them to inform their fellow monks of their attainments, provided that they are speaking truthfully. I believe that these two rules encourage monks to keep quiet about their attainments of the jhanas. This does nothing to dispel the myth that they are not attainable, at least, not nowadays.

Krishnamurti dismisses concentration practice as nothing more than something akin to a party trick that any schoolboy could perform. On the other hand, others claim that skill in the jhanas is the fundamental cornerstone of meditation, claiming that the Buddha achieved enlightenment through going into them so deeply that he finally transcended them.

The other approach is called (by Theravadans) insight meditation. This is usually held in much greater esteem by them than the allegedly 'impossible' jhanas. In insight meditation, one focuses on a meditation object, such as the breathing, until the mind has calmed down and has stopped wandering around too much, and then one watches the perceptions arising in the mind.

One thereby gains insight into the workings of the mind. At the same time, the movements of the mind gradually slow down. One can come across peaceful states where nothing seems to be happening, then find that one can let go of some attachment and sink effortlessly into even more peaceful states. One can even come to the realisation that “I am not the body” and then “I am not the mind”.

The problem here is, what do I observe when there is nothing happening? More subtly, who is this I who does the observing? And more subtly still, who is it that knows that there is an observer who is observing? There can come the realisation that “I am certainly not the observed. I am not the observer either.”

Clearly, the approach based on concentration is based on doing something – holding the mind concentrated. The approach based on insight is also based on doing something – observing. Techniques can take us no further, yet there is surely further to go.

I have been reading books by Bernadette Roberts, Bernasette Roberts - The Path To No-Selfa former Catholic nun, who certainly seems to have gone far beyond what can be attained through meditation techniques. In her book The Path To No-Self, she says that “The only way out is ... to recognise that peace of soul – the day it can be found – is our greatest ally. With no place else to go, nowhere else to turn, we have no choice but to go down into the depths of our nothingness ...”.

Her method was to go to a quiet church and allow herself to sink into the silence. The silence would get deeper and deeper, but each time, when the time came to leave, the silence would disappear.

Then one day, she sank so deeply into the silence that the mind could not come back out of it. She had detached herself from the workings of the mind, seeing them now as nothing to do with her. This is not at all out of denial but is an expression of a new reality.

Krishnamurti pooh-poohs the idea of sitting in a corner watching the mind. He says that if you want to find out who you are, you can only do so by observing how you relate to day-to-day life. He also encouraged people to go and observe trees, or the reflection of sunlight on water, as a way into the silence – a silence that he sometimes describes as being almost tangible.

Personally, in theory I prefer a more eclectic approach. All of these ideas have validity, and all are incomplete. Put them all together, and you get nearer to an understanding of what meditation practice is about.

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If you should wish to contact me about anything you have read here, especially if you feel strongly for or against what you have read, or if you feel that something is missing, I offer you an opportunity to share.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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