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What Would Sid Say About "Meditative Experiences"?

Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Every other week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha were on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What Would Sid Do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Every other week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddhartha, would do. Here Sid is not yet a buddha; he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it: you and I are Sid. If you would like to submit a question click here.

This week's question comes from "Frenemy": My friend just got back from a week-long meditation retreat and won't stop talking about some big metaphysical meditation experience she had while she was there. I don't want to be a debbie-downer but it sounds pretty egotistical to me! What would Sid say about this?

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I remember early on in my meditative path being faced with a similar scenario when a friend confessed in a very loud, persistent way that he had "truly experienced emptiness." I just shrugged and listened, neither encouraging or discouraging this individual. I thought, "Who am I to judge someone else's experience?"

A more senior practitioner overheard this conversation and, with the same lack of judgment, said, "The more you talk about it, the less you experience it." At first this seemed like a Zen koan. With a bit of contemplation though I began to realize what this teacher was saying: no matter what you experience on the meditation cushion, be it extreme anxiety or profound insight, when you try to label it and make it solid it's a bit like trying to grab a cloud with your hand. The more you struggle to find true solidity in the experience the less you have to hold onto.

I think Sid would advise your friend to imagine a roller-coaster. Sometimes you are paused way up at the top, other times you are rocketing down at incredible speed. Our meditation experience is often the same way. We can pause in the midst of habitual mind and see reality as it is, or we can shoot down into the depth of emotional turmoil. Until we reach true meditative stability, in either case we're being taken for a ride. If we want to always experience that highest point of the roller coaster then we are going to be severely frustrated for most of our carnival experience.

The other week I was giving a talk to a Buddhist group at Columbia University. A student came up to me afterward describing how he had experienced a moment of insight in his practice and wanted to know how he could always experience that.

"Have you ever done heroin, Gary?" I asked. He had not. I explained I hadn't either, but my understanding of the drug is that when you first use it you experience an incredible high. After that initial experience you are always chasing that initial high but it never feels quite as good as that first time. I have been told that this chase of the first great high feeling is what leads to so many users becoming addicts.

I explained to Gary that I think a lot of meditators also chase a high. We chase the high of meditative insight. When we first experience it, it's exciting and all we want to talk about. We think that we can reason our way back there so we use a lot of fancy words to describe it. All that leads us to is a bunch of friends who are pretty tired of hearing of us brag about how enlightened we are. We also get frustrated because we only want the good parts of our meditation practice and abhor any of the bad.

Instead, we need to treat our mind as an ally in our quest for awakening. We will once again experience highs and we will most definitely experience lows, but the only way to do either is to let go of a singular experience and just be present with how things are now.

If your friend has joined the ranks of those fine individuals chasing the high of meditative insight, I think that's awesome. I imagine Sid would encourage her to do a bit less talking about it though and a lot more sitting. The only way to have another "meditative experience" is to cut through discursive bullshit and be present with reality as it stands.

In terms of how to relate to your friend, I'm guessing Sid would advise you to nod along or, better yet, encourage her to join you in meditation practice. I understand that you might not want to confirm or deny your friend's experience but the best cure for anyone blabbing about meditation is more meditation. In fact, I'm going to go do that right now.

Have a question for this weekly column? Email it to this address and Lodro Rinzler will probably write about it in a future post.

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Comments

agreed

Teachers as different as Pema Chodron and Brad Warner talk about chasing the high of a meditative insight. It's not uncommon, I think, it happens cuz we are human--meditative insight is  pleasurable, and we seek pleasure and avoid pain.

And if seeking pleasure motivates me to the cushion, well, I think that can be used a little bit, as I keep trying to remember my intention in sitting and refining my motivation as I see it more clearly. See it more clearly from sitting on the cushion, not from chatting in coffee shops, tho'.

This may be my favorite piece of Sid advice EVER:

"the best cure for anyone blabbing about meditation is more meditation"

love it.

Chasing experiences

wise advice. I remember from one of the Alan Watts books the saying 'stinking of Zen'. This pertained to the phase in a monk's practise when they had had a satori and were fascinated by it, what it meant, and talked about it all the time. Of course, the older monks had been there, done that. So they referred to this phase as 'stinking of Zen'.

There have been times in my life when I have had great meditative experiences which lasted for days or weeks, and other times when just staying with the practise is enough of a challenge. Anyway I hardly know anyone else who is involved in practise. But I think this kind of fascination with the experience is very much the attribute of the early days of practise.

Like everything else, it passes.

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