Never Heard the Silence
A man, let's call him Harry, came over recently. He has been meditating for 15 years with the Transcendental Meditation Technique. He is a meditation teacher and a computer programmer, and has spent several years on long meditation retreats.
I said, "I am curious that someone who is such a consistent meditator would come for a session."
He said he felt a certain arid quality to his attention and his sense of life, and wondered if he could do something about that.
We closed our eyes and meditated for awhile, and then I asked him to tell me how he experiences the mantra, the sound he listens to during meditation. He talked for awhile, and the coach in me noticed that there was a flavor there of concentrating well but not being open to pleasure, a forced feeling. I started getting hunches how to proceed with the session.
So I asked, out of the blue, "Do you hear the silence?" He closed his eyes and tilted his head a little, and maybe 5 minutes went by.
He opened his eyes and said, "Yeah, I hear the silence and I also feel it, a palpable vibration in my body, flowing silence."
I said, "Well, you know, this is where mantras come from and where they lead to. You have this in range of your senses, you just don't go there. That's what's missing. It's a habit you have, of excluding the good stuff of life. No wonder you have been depressed."
Then he said, "You know, I've never experienced that before," and he looked at me curiously, as if to say, what are you doing to me. He was maybe a little suspicious.
I said, "I'm not doing anything to you, you know, I am just inviting you to explore your own experience."
He smiled for the first time, and then closed his eyes and seemed to really be enjoying himself.
Then I asked,"What would happen if you didn't repeat the mantra, if you just listened to whatever is there, the vibration of your own being, your thoughts, the universe?"
Then we both closed our eyes, there was a rich, melodic, harmonious sense of the silence for a long time, maybe half an hour.
Looked at as attention, he was limiting the kind of attention he was paying – he was too dutiful, too diligent, not allowing of fluctuation. He was always the one paying attention. He wouldn't let go and experience attention as something attending to him. There is a self-luminous quality, a self-existing quality of attention you discover when you allow it.
In terms of the senses, he was limiting the range of sensing he allowed, and not letting himself enjoy the whole cross-play between hearing, seeing, feeling, and motion. He wouldn't let his sense of hearing fully dissolve into silence.
Looked at instinctively, he was doing that plod, plod, plod thing you do when following a trail, but he was not using his tracking senses, the hunter within, the pure explorer. He wouldn't let the instinctive tone fluctuate according to his cravings, from mating to nesting to feeding.
Everyone is different, in terms of what is missing in their approach to meditation. Often the quality is so obvious that you can't see it yourself. That is why coaches can be useful. It's the same in sports, singing, and meditation. But meditation is invisible behavior. People are sitting there with their eyes closed, so how do you know what to say? Yoga teachers give adjustments to their students, placing their hands on them to guide their posture and attention. What I have learned to do over the past 30 years especially is to pay the same kind of individual attention all good coaches do, whether they be swimming, golf, or singing coaches.
In interviewing Harry, I found out that he started meditation during a time when he was in grief over the death of his father, and was depressed. He felt a never-ending darkness and pull downward. So he developed habits of attention for dealing with those dark feelings. Specifically, he used the meditation technique itself as a way of blocking out the constant pain of his loss.
This became his habitual way of approaching his inner life. He invented a way of meditation, oddly enough, that helped him not face his real feelings. He had even done therapy, later, but that was seen as something different than meditation, so the insights from therapy did not carry over into his approach to himself when he would meditate. Meditation is sacred. And basically, no one ever gets real coaching in their meditation practice. So Harry was perpetuating the depression he felt 15 years ago – he encoded it in his approach to meditation, and was re-inventing that depression each time he meditated, which was every day.
Harry's attitude did lighten up a bit, and to a small extent this one session was permanent. I see him from time to time socially. I think he needed more work and did not get it, and as a result he took years to slowly get over this self-induced depressive attitude.
For some people, their main meditation teacher is their critical inner voice. This inner critic immediately scans the meditation language, grabs ahold of some phrases, and then uses the whole idea of meditation as a way to finally get you to sit there and just passively take the abuse.
Harry's story brings up a principle – when we start meditating, we may inadvertently invent a way of repressing ourselves. Usually this amounts to taking our regular repression and making it stronger. Then, as long as you keep meditating in that fashion, you actually make yourself worse.
I don't know the percentage of people this happens to; I'm just one meditation teacher. Mapping out this syndrome will take many people – therapists, physiological and psychological researchers, and meditation teachers, many years. The percentage is so high that for the past 30 years I have continually been meeting people who are harmed by meditation. To be precise, it's not "meditation" that is harming the person; it is that their inner critic, their own self-abuse, or whatever negativity they absorbed while growing up is being multiplied in their head.
This is a sad thing, because one of the major reasons people begin meditation is because they are depressed or in grief, have just come out of a marriage or some kind of loss. The last thing they need is for meditation to become a way of crystallizing themselves in that grief. But there is a lot of material in the meditation traditions to support you in a sour grapes attitude.
Stop and Then Start Again
When people stop meditating, and then miss it and start again, they always feel guilty, as if they are a bad person. But actually, this is a healthy impulse. When you stop meditating for a month or two, your nervous system can refresh itself and forget the bad habits you had built up.
Then when you start again, you start fresh. It's a new beginning. What is motivating you now is that you miss meditation, and this "missing" is a true hunger, an instinctively healthy urge.
Another principle is the importance of stopping meditation and then starting again. When people begin again, they have an opportunity to begin afresh, with a new attitude. So, from a coach's perspective, when someone has quit meditating and wants to begin again, it's exciting. Let's find out what your new approach is.