02 December 2008

Meditation is Harder Than Yoga.


(Shaolin Monk)

Meditation is harder than yoga. Many times friends have told me that yoga is their meditation, or running is meditative. I am not sure. In so far as yoga and running give us a break from discursive conceptual mind, they are meditative. Or at least that’s what people feel. I see yoga and running as training exercises for samatha meditation. In yoga, we learn that in order to find the balance in a posture, and hold that balance, we must find our core, and not let our concentration waver lest we fall out of our posture. When I run, I choose hilly, rocky and often wet terrain because this demands of me utter concentration. If I fall out of concentration of where my feet are falling, I will quite literally, fall. The danger helps me focus, and I have nearly sprained ankles in the process, so am not recommending this way.

What these exercises of mind prepare me for is an ability to hold my concentration, and with repercussions when I do not, while giving me a break from nattering thought. The merit, the ability of concentration we are developing through it all. This is not, however, the same experience one has during sitting meditation. Our concentration may be improved through yogic practice, and this in turn allows us to sit longer in concentrated repose, but it is not the same. It is physically demanding to sit still. It is hard on the body and knees stretch and ache. But what really stretches and bends and struggles and is uncomfortable and must be worked at over time, similar to yoga, is the mind.

To me the similarities can be found in body stretching – mind stretching. The difference however, is where we arrive. After some time with the mind, we are entirely aware of our body as a different place, a gateway. One through which the universal mind is animated and is in need of for expression, but is not dependent upon for existence. In meditation I get the feeling that bodies come and go; in yoga I get the feeling that without my body yoga is not possible. The first exists through the body; the latter exists because of the body. Where does yoga go when the body ceases? In contrast, the mind does not cease, and it is through sitting meditation that we come to know this – through the body but not dependant upon the body.

(Now I have answered my own conundrum ☺ I am simply not advanced enough nor disciplined in my yoga practice, for if I were, then I would experience in yoga the Oneness I glimpse through samatha, sitting meditation. Still though, there feels at times with yoga a strong motivation of yogi’s everywhere to overpower the body. I find the true knack of yoga comes with effortlessness and flexibility, but often see in disciplined practice a desire to overpower will, and the limits of the body – it ends up being a bit of a struggle. This is the yoga path in a way, coming to learn to stretch and flow and bend gently and without muscled aggression. I just don’t find overpowering the mind in the same way, possible in sitting meditation. The more one struggles with the mind, the more turmoil is created in the thought-scape, and the less awareness is arrived upon. Conversely, one can muscle through a great deal of yoga, making headway and receiving accolades without learning essentially how to bend and stretch fully from within. As for the naturally flexible, I have no idea.)

To be clear, I have only been practicing yoga for 6 years, and consider myself an advanced practitioner, but am not at all a yogini (in the Indian use of the word). Though some use yogi (male) or yogini (female) to describe any practitioner of yoga, I reserve using the term for those who I know have reached as certain advanced level of accomplishment (such as the system of achievement found in the belt system of karate. Someone like Ma-tsu Tao-i.

But this is personal. I do know people who devote their lives to yoga, and in this they are quite calm and dedicated and clear and open. And these are all the benefits we reap from sitting meditation.

Having been throughout my life an athletic person, I have had different experiences in the presence of mind I find myself in when practicing yoga or running, compared with the observations, peace, deep grounded ness, and mass of awareness I experience in sitting meditation. While yoga and sitting meditation are both difficult, it has only been through sitting meditation that I have experienced the power thoughts have to lift us, aware, from our core and carry us to the lofty heights of thought and concept. I liken the process to a game I played as a child. I remember swimming to the bottom of a pool, and willing myself to sit cross-legged on the pool floor without rising up. If for a second, I lost focus, I would float up. Rarely, could I stay at the bottom for long. But I remember concentrating a lot on my but, and my core, and my breathing.

This is sitting meditation for me. Taking mind as object, I sink to the bottom of an imaginary pool or ocean where each thought is a bubble that I quickly and effortlessly release, watching it rise if I like, or not. The mind is tricky and will take any idea, concept, imaginative inkling, for an object, and run with it in thought to the surface. In this way attempting sitting meditation can be, if nothing else, a twofold concentration building and creative exercise. The discursive mind is witty, cunning, clever, and brilliant! – Concocting connections at lightening speed and demanding they be birthed immediately and played with. Sitting meditation is a great antidote to writers block, loss of humor and even mild depression. But this is not the purpose of sitting meditation, though it is a great bi-product for artists.

(Just the other day I was reading about a writer/medium who sits first in meditation before she begins any writing assignment, envisioning white light moving through and purifying each of her chakras. Lo and behold the message or subject pops into her mind, clearly, and she knows what she must write as though it has been directed and guided into her from the other side. I do believe in mediumship, absolutely, but it got me thinking – wasn’t this a description of the entry to samatha, sitting, meditation? Is this what guided writing is?)

If we are able to let thoughts rise from us as bubbles rise from the body when it is submersed, we might be able to rest for a moment or two in calm abiding, non-discursive awareness. Sitting there as a non-thinking self, anchored to some conceptual bottom of a deeper self. This is liberating. And to be sure, the liberating feel of this moment will as quickly be snatched as conceptual thought, for as soon as we ‘feel’ our thinking mind leaps to link this to a concept or word. But it is possible to sit for a spell, observing thoughts rise like bubbles rising from a sunken ship. The treasure is buried within, if we can only manage to not leave the sunken ship.

*For further reading on samatha meditation:
The Practice of Tranquility and Insight.


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