Mostly, meditation techniques fail. Surprised?
Another name for them is “spiritual methods.” The English word “spiritual” comes from the Latin word “spiritus,” which meant a breath or a wind. Spiritual methods are breathing practices that emphasize awareness of breathing.
All such methods are designed to free the practitioner from incessant thinking. Following Roshi Kapleau, let’s call all thinking that involves nothing but repetitive, useless thoughts “thoughting.” There’s nothing at all wrong with thinking, but thoughting, attachment to thinking, obstructs living well.
What is required for living well is the elimination of thoughting, which is spiritual awakening (kensho, enlightenment). This is the primary goal of all spiritual or meditation techniques or methods.
Of course, meditation techniques don’t always fail. Occasionally, for some practitioners, they work. There are no reliable statistics. My guess? If 250 people practiced properly every day for a year, perhaps 1 or 2 would breakthrough and directly experience “no-thought,” which is the elimination of thoughting.
This does not mean that they don’t succeed with respect to their secondary goals such as stress reduction. Meditation techniques work very well for many purposes. The focus here, however, is on their primary raison d’etre.
(If your own experience is insufficient and you doubt that they mostly fail, make friends with an experienced spiritual teacher and see if you can get him [or, of course, her] to reveal his findings to you. He probably won’t do it publicly, but he may do it privately.)
Why do they usually fail?
It’s really because we identify with the ego, which is attached to thinking.
The ego thinks in terms of gains and losses. It doesn’t mind using meditation techniques as long as they are being used for the purpose of gaining mastery of those techniques. Becoming a master meditator takes years! If you begin today, mastery will be at least 10 or 20 years into the future. The ego will have no problem with that!
If you commit to practicing daily and you think that meditation techniques will open up a special state of mind, you’ll be practicing from now until the day you die without awakening.
(Again, practicing properly and consistently will have significant beneficial secondary effects, which justifies it. However, you won’t experience awakening.)
There is no special state of mind.
What, then, can be done to eliminate thoughting? Well, obviously it’s impossible to think your way out of it.
If you think of awakening as a future goal to be achieved by mastering meditation techniques, it will always remain a future goal, in other words, you’ll never awaken.
“[A] lifetime of contemplation and long periods of meditation . . . look to the future for release from a state of present unworthiness and inadequacy.” [All direct quotations in this post are from A Course in Miracles, which should be more approachable for many in this culture than, say, Buddhist literature because it is written using Christian terminology.] Doing this is senseless, which explains why meditation techniques mostly fail.
The key is: “Do not be concerned with time.”
With respect to the past, that is at least easy in theory: “The past is nothing. . . for the past is gone.”
With respect to the future, that, too, is at least easy in theory because the future is always future. It never arrives. It is never experienced. It’s impossible to experience release from dissatisfaction in the future. Instead of thinking that the future will replace the present, try thinking that “the present extends forever.”
Eckhart Tolle emphasizes this passage from A Course in Miracles: “it takes no time at all to be what you are.”
As long as you remain attached to the belief (thought!) that you are temporal, that attachment will block awakening. Any meditation techniques you use will fail.
“Time is a belief of the ego.” As long as you accept yourself as temporal, you identify with the ego. As long as you identify with the ego, that thought will prevent awakening.
“[T]he ego regards the present only as a brief transition to the future, in which it brings the past to the future by interpreting the present in past terms. / ‘Now’ has no meaning to the ego. . . Unless you learn that past pain is an illusion, you are choosing a future of illusions. . . “
To learn this, it’s very helpful to notice that “the ego is not sane.” Aha! If so, why continue to identify with it?
Notice that your life is centered around the ego: all your relationships, your habits, your beliefs. This is the heart of the problem; it is why you frequently experience dissatisfactions.
“[E]veryone identifies himself with his thought system, and every thought system centers on what you believe you are . . . But if a lie is at its center, only deception proceeds from it.”
If your life seems chaotic, insane, and dysfunctional, it may be because it is! You may have centered it around a lie, namely, that you are the ego.
“It has taken time to misguide you so completely . . .” You have not only taken years to construct a thought system that seems to work for you, but you have also used it as the foundation for constructing your life.
“[N]ow is the release from time.”
What can you do to make that release? Well, there’s nothing to do! Wouldn’t trying to do something just be setting up another future goal? There’s nothing to seek. There’s nowhere to look.
Why? You already are everything you need to be! The only problem is that you don’t realize it. This is why letting go is all that is required. Letting go takes no time at all. “Release is given you the instant you desire it.” So “in any instant it is possible to have all this undone.”
“You do not have to seek reality. It will seek you and find you when you meet its conditions.”
What you can do is to open yourself up to its conditions, which essentially means detaching from your thoughts.
When? Now! “[F]or now is the closest approximation of eternity that this world offers.”
How? Detach from forms because “[y]ou are too bound to form.” What are forms? They are objects, anything single-outable from other things, i.e., they are all the things you are able to think or perceive or imagine. All thoughts or judgments are forms.
Here are three important tips.
First, stop thinking that you can adjust your way out of dissatisfaction. “Adjustments of any kind are of the ego.” It’s the nature of the self you identify with that requires replacing. Nothing less will undermine dissatisfaction. Using meditation techniques to make little improvements won’t suffice.
Second, if you think that you are on a spiritual journey, stop thinking that. All journeys require time, and what is required for living well takes no time.
Third, although it may seem counter-intuitive, pay much more attention to your body in the present moment. Actually, it’s not the body that you are paying attention to, but its aliveness. This is why meditation techniques are literally spiritual. By focusing attention on physical sensations (such as breathing), you are automatically drawing attention away from your thoughts. [This is the basis of some of the best meditation techniques of all; see recommended posts below.]
The movement from (false) self to (true) Self requires only an instant.
There’s nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, nothing to gain. You already are what you need to be. “A journey from yourself does not exist . . . You can not escape from what you are.”
Realizing your true self, which is the goal of meditation techniques, is not really well served by meditation techniques. They require time that is not necessary.
On the other hand, meditation techniques can be helpful detaching from forms in the present moment. Thoughts are noisy, and it’s almost always an excellent idea to replace them with silence.
The still point, though, is right here right now – and you don’t need any meditation techniques to find it.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please forward it.
Additional resources: my The Three Things the Rest of Us Should Know about Zen Training, Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles, and Eckhart Tolle’s Realizing the Power of Now [6 CD set].