The Meditation Instinct
One reason that images from nature are used as a meditation focus is that your body is part of nature. We don’t see into our bodies, but we can see many of the same natural processes. We don’t hear our hearts beat usually, but we love rhythmic sounds. We don’t see our blood circulate through our veins, but we love to look at rivers flowing. We don’t see our breath flowing in and out, but there is something enchanting about watching waves washing in and then receding. We don’t perceive individual thoughts arising in our brain, but we can watch the sun set.
In meditation research, and throughout this book, I often emphasize the restful aspect of meditation, because it is so life-changing. You really have to experience it to believe it. But meditation is not just about the resting instinct. It is something much more exciting. Meditation is the meeting ground for all your instincts. It is a place where all of who you are can come together, at last, to bond and commingle and communicate and work out how to better survive and thrive in this magnificent world we live in.
It makes sense that it nature or God would create beings as complex as humans, it, she, or he would also provide, as a courtesy, a means to unify the whole mess into harmony. Or at least a semblance of accord.
When you begin to meditate, you will see that while you are in your deepest state of rest, your body will start to eagerly anticipate the next time you are called on to perform, to do any function you enjoy. You will find yourself dreaming, experiencing your fantasies and your deepest longings in Technicolor. You will feel yourself healing, recovering from broken dreams, repairing the shattered structures of what were your hopes and yearnings for a better world.
Later, when you are in the midst of your activity, you may notice that you are doing with less effort. You are more elegant in your motions through the activities of life. There is less wasted effort. This is called grace when we witness it in athletics, and when someone is walking around with minimal effort, we call it “natural grace.” Nature loves elegance, getting the most amount done with the least amount of effort.
It often seems as if Life, whatever Sacred Impulses watch over meditation, do not really care about you getting rest so much as they will do whatever it takes to tune you up, heal you from past hurts, train you and encourage you so that you get up out of meditation and go kick some butt in the outer world – but you kick with great harmony and aplomb. I am not saying this to make a bizarre metaphysical point, it’s just that my main job the last 30+ years has been to listen to meditators talk about what they are experiencing in the moment.
Meditation is definitely in the service of love, although that love manifests differently in every person. As you know, love shows up as making babies and caring for them – and all the actions prior and subsequent to that. Love shows up as work, love shows up as protecting the people we care for, love shows up as scientific research and inquiry.
Love has much to do with accepting things as they are, people as they are, and yourself as you are. Then there is a tiny shift that is all important – from trying to change things and people and yourself to fit an ideal, which is the road to hell, to making a contribution, doing what you can to create a better atmosphere for everyone to thrive in. This quality of acceptance may be one of the most underrated gifts of meditation.
I learned to meditate accidentally, in a physiology lab at the University of California in 1968. They had been doing brain wave research on all sorts of things – yoga breathing, hypnosis, meditation and guided imagery. There was an experiment on brain wave biofeedback going on, and I signed up. When I arrived at the lab for the first session, I was put in the control group. This meant I was to get no instruction and no feedback, just sit in the totally dark, climate-controlled, soundproofed room, in an overstuffed lounger chair, with brain wave monitoring wires attached to my head, for several hours a day every day for a couple of weeks. There were no instructions and no feedback of any kind. I had never heard of meditation (it was 1968, and I wasn’t a Beatles fan) and I had no conception of what to do.
I drifted and dissolved into the dark. I didn’t fall asleep, I fell into something else. For some reason, we never talked about it, the graduate student running the lab let me stay there for over two hours each day, sometimes three hours. I gathered later that he was watching my brain waves and waited until I had returned to ordinary brain activity before tapping on the door of the room and telling me to get ready to come out.
In surfing, one thing you do is paddle out, stay as long as you can, then come in and lie on the beach soaking up the warmth of the sun. If you have ever been in cold water for an hour at a time, you know how ecstatic it is to get out and lie down on hot sand. Perhaps doing this for a lifetime trained me in how to let go, but I certainly was not a relaxed person. I was very intense and tense.
So I knew from direct experience that meditation happens naturally. Just two years later, after being trained as a teacher, I forgot that, and would be offended if people told me they taught themselves to meditate, or learned from a book. I didn’t realize that I was an elitist snob, (it’s possible that elitists never do). Even though, thousands of times, people would walk into a room with me and be meditating a couple of minutes later. I thought it was the technique that was so good, not people.
It was a couple of years before I realized that people did just fine on their own, or with the sketchiest of instructions, and sometimes, just knowing there was such a thing as meditation and then making up their own.
Usually meditation is approached in a sacred context, because the spiritual traditions of the world have done such a fantastic job of preserving the teachings. It may seem odd that I am approaching meditation as an instinct. Aren’t the instincts base, the Seven Deadly Sins? Well yes, they can be. But the sins are all about overuse of an instinct without letting it be balanced by the other motions of life.
The ancient meditators often lived in nature, with the nearest town a few days away on foot, there were no electric lights, tigers were stalking in the mountains.. We live in a very different world. Most of my friends practice meditation in the context of an imported religious tradition, one of the innumerable forms of Buddhism or Hinduism. They have statues of Buddha or Ganesh or Shiva on their altars, and they mix and match among religious elements they like, choosing this guru or that lama to call their own.
I love the East and have benefited immeasurably from its teachers and teachings. Imported “Hinduism Lite” is great stuff for many people and for me. But it is no more universal than hamburgers and cola.
The instinctive path is about the wisdom of life you find in yourself and all around you, not that which comes from very special Asian males.
The impulses that guide meditation love all the instincts and use them in the service of something greater, the wholeness of life. When all the instincts are playing in you during meditation, you will have at times a sense of melody, as if you are a symphony sounding forth. You may feel electrical currents flowing through you.
The instincts connect you to all life. When you meditate with the instincts, you relate in awareness to the lives of your cells, organs, the circulation of your blood and lymph and vital energies, as well as with other living things and the large system in which we live and move and have our being. When you cherish the instincts, you are not above life looking down at it as an alien. You are in it. Everything feeds, excretes, rests, grooms, socializes.
The instincts are the passions. Thus, instinctive awareness is the practice of compassion, being with the passions, from the inside.
The instincts help you to answer the call when your body or heart call for healing of some kind. The natural interaction between the inner and the outer realm of the instincts helps you connect your life and make a seamless tapestry of it.
Your body is designed to function best in the free flow of all instincts – this is the situation that we call health. Full vitality is using all the instincts, but everyday life often or usually leads us to overwork some, deny others. When we don’t live in the fullness of body wisdom, imbalances often occur and then become somatic, physical ailments. Illness is often correlated with blocked instincts, where you remain in one and do not give over to the others in a rhythmic alternation.
We have many instincts, many ways of accessing life’s mysteries.
A couple of years ago I was standing in the self-help section of a bookstore. A woman walked in and asked the staff, “Where can I find a book on meditation?” The staff person, Sherry, said, “That is really complicated. There are books on meditation all over the store. There is Eastern Religion, of course, but also the Western Religion and Christianity sections have books on meditation. Over here in Alternative Health, and also in Women’s Health, are dozens of books that have instructions on how to meditate. In self-help, there are many more books with approaches to meditation that different psychologists have worked out. In the Sports section there are books on Yoga that have sections on meditation. Over there in Addiction and Recovery, quite a few of the books are about meditation. What approach to meditation are you looking for?”
Sherry’s exposition wasn’t complete, actually. She did not mention, or did not know, that in the Sexuality section there are wonderful books on how to meditate as preparation for and part of lovemaking; in the Biography section there are books detailing the writer’s experiences in meditation; in the New Age section there are many different approaches to meditation, and in the Outdoors section are books on tracking, hunting and meditation.
Each of these approaches is wonderful in its own way, and I cherish them. They each tend to treat meditation through the lest of one or two instincts. And quite a few books treat meditation as if the real spiritual thing to do is run away from everything, go to a foreign country, shave your head, give your money to the ashram, change your name, and sit on the dirt there for a few years.
One of the truly great things about meditation is that you can give yourself space to let all your life energies flow through you without restriction. You are not acting out, so what does it matter if you let it all zoom? So even though you are not living every impulse, you are there to let it give you its gift of energy, hormones, activation, perception and feeling.
Probably there are instincts you do not feel your life can accommodate. Maybe you can’t live out your desire to travel, or be wild and free, or to beat people up, or to retreat from it all and stay in your nest. In meditation you can open up a space in your heart to keep your yearnings alive. You may not be able to live them in the outer world, but you can let them flow through your inner world, nourish you and be integrated with the totality of your being.
This is why meditation is such a great space for yourself. When you meditate you can be with these sacred powers and let them live inside of you. They are like vast wildernesses, forests, mountains, oceans. You can call them impulses, the wise motions of life, the gods, the instincts, the animal powers.
For this reason, you may find that a more “primitive” conceptual framework is a better context for your meditation – shamanism, hunting, tracking, for example. There is a beauty and simplicity in Native American teachings that has been lost in the “advanced” teachings of the more formal meditation schools.
A great thing about approaching meditation through the instincts is that everything in nature becomes your teacher: animals, plants, the weather, forests and mountain.. You don’t have to read meditation books – you can read biology, ethology, anthropology.
There is an outer and an interior aspect of each instinct. Each leads you both out into the world and inward.
You can meditate on any aspect of nature, using your interior senses, and the instincts texture the tone of that relationship.
In the past, meditation was practiced under close personal supervision in closed-door religious communities. Part of the adaptation to life in a religious order was to give up your personal desires.
In the present, only a small percentage of meditators are working with a teacher, guru, shaman, yogi or lama. If you are in this situation, then the authority and the spirit of guidance must be within.
If you are on your own, you need to bring your own gut instincts into play, learn how to fly by the seat of your pants.
If you are in the yoga tradition, you may know that yoga has years of training for the seat of your pants – there are more exercises for tending to your tailbone, working your butt muscles, anus, sacrum, and pelvic area than you could ever imagine. So the seat of the pants is taken care of by tradition.