Meditation is often seen just as a way to relax or to empty one’s mind. Personally I think this is a lost cause, because one can’t stop the brain from functioning.
This morning I would like to look at creative awareness. You might be more familiar with the word “mindfulness,” but it is the same idea. The common ground is looking at what we do in meditation. Meditation is often seen just as a way to relax or to empty one’s mind. Personally I think this is a lost cause, because one can’t stop the brain from functioning.
It is interesting, in term of habits, to see what we are doing in meditation. Here I want to make a distinction between cultivation and effect. People are often judging their meditation in terms of its effects, but the cultivation aspect is actually more important. The effect is merely the aftermath and is not what we are actually trying to cultivate.
A student came to me once and said, “I’ve been meditating for ten years, and my meditation is not really improving.” My first question was, “But what about your life?” She said, “Oh yes, my life has greatly improved.” Once we started talking, she could see that actually over ten years her meditation had improved. However, it was not in line with what she thought it should be. So there is no guarantee that meditation will be like you want it to be, but I can guarantee you it will work.
The first element of meditation we want to look at is concentration. Concentration focuses the mind on an object of experience. But here we are not talking about a forced concentration, the kind of thing you do when you try to narrowly focus on the breath. We are talking about a type of concentration that is inclusive, not exclusive. There is a meditation where you exclude everything else and focus exclusively on one thing, like the breath, but personally I don’t think this is such a good idea. I’d rather have a concentration practice much more like an anchor, like a resting point, a place you come back to. Let’s look at how this works.
You sit in meditation for a few seconds or a few minutes, completely aware of the breath coming in and going out. You feel it. You know it. You are very present to it. And then you go off. Generally, you don’t go off into some amazing, new, fantastic state, but rather you go into what I would call mental patterning, emotional patterning or physical patterning. As an example of this mental patterning, you sit here, you’re present, you’re sitting in this room, with these people. And then, you might be in Boston, or you might be on holiday, or you might be in your retirement. It can be anywhere or anything, but generally you will be somewhere that you often think about.
When we come back to the breath, we come back to experience… where our creative potential can come out and express itself.
What happens when we do this is that we feed our habit of this kind of mental patterning. The way concentration works is that even when you go off and away from the breath, you don’t go so far. You go a little bit but then you remember the other possibility, the possibility of focusing on the breath. So we come back, and that’s how it works: off again, come back, and so on. Often people think, “Ah, it’s so boring. I have to come back all the time.” But it’s not boring if you become aware of the effectiveness of coming back. The fact that you go off, but you don’t go too far, is a major breakthrough in how we normally live our lives. Too often we go off, get lost, and don’t come back.
When you do come back, two things are happening. First, you’re not feeding the pattern; you’re not developing it even more. Each time you consciously come back to the breath, you diminish the power of the pattern. This way, over time, you become more calm and spacious with your concentration. Each time we don’t feed or give more power to our story, to our ideas about ourselves, we break the pattern a little.
Each possibility of breaking the pattern is a matter of choice. Most of the time you continue with a thought, even if you don’t want to follow that particular thought, because it’s more interesting than following the breath. A lot of the time we may believe we are thinking through an emotion when we are actually firmly in its grip. But when we decide to do meditation, with an effort in concentration, we generate a power of intention. With this intention, you let go of the stray thought and you come back to the breath. And every time you come back, you give more power to the creative awareness and less power to the habit.
For me, it is an axiom that meditation is not so much about being with the breath every single second. That is very difficult and can only be achieved in very specific circumstances. But this does not mean the meditation of coming back is not effective. You could have a thousand thoughts, and a thousand times you will have the opportunity to come back. You can make the choice to come back at any time, and it will diminish the power of the mental habit. So cultivation is the coming back, again and again, to the breath. It is not useful to think only about the effect of meditation, because that is a slippery slope. Better to focus mainly on cultivation.
When we come back to the breath, we come back to experience. It’s very important to see that when attention goes off, it generally goes into abstraction. In abstraction we are ignoring reality instead of being in the fullness of experience, which is where our creative potential can come out and express itself. We all know we have a brain, we have a certain kind of emotional system related to the heart, we have a body, and we have sensations that go with it. All this is not going to stop. But there is a difference between what I would call creative functioning within those potentials of thinking, feeling, and sensation, and being stuck in them and feeling you can’t get out. Concentration brings back the mental, emotional, and physical patterns to the creative functions of mind, body, and heart.
An image of what concentration does is that of a glass with muddy water. If you shake the glass, the water gets muddy and you can’t really see through it. But if you leave the glass alone for a bit, the mud goes to the bottom and the water at the top becomes clean. This is the basic idea of concentration: if things are not so agitated and they settle down, then you can see more clearly and there can be more space for you to see. Over time meditation develops space around our thoughts, around our feelings, and around our sensations.
The second element of meditation to look at is inquiry. This is not an intellectual inquiry, or a psychological inquiry, or an analytical inquiry: it’s an experiential inquiry. When you go into the breath, you notice certain characteristics of that experience of breathing. For example, we can notice its constantly changing nature, coming in a little cooler, going out a little warmer. When an inquiry is made with awareness, there is vividness, a clarity, a creativity. One is really going inside the experience. Going inside the experience means looking at its changing nature.
Why does the Buddha say “Look at the changing nature?” Because we have a tendency to solidify, we have a tendency to “permanentize” things we experience. Something is happening that is just arising out of conditions and will disappear under other conditions, but we tend to regard it as if it were going to happen forever. The Buddha said, “Come look, nothing can last for a very long time. Things arise, stay a little while, and pass away.” Often I feel we make things last longer than they need to, and sometimes this causes suffering. The habit of permanentizing is one of our habits of suffering.
Another habit we have is “forecasting.” For example, some of you might not have done much meditation, so when you come to sit a retreat it’s either painful or it’s not much fun, and you think, “Ah, it’s going to be like this for the whole three days,” and then three days begin to seem to you like ten years. This is because we have the habit of thinking, “The way I feel now, I’m going to feel exactly the same way every second, every minute, every hour, from now on.”
But this is not exactly our experience. Can we just stay with the experience in the moment? If we continue to notice, we can see how our thoughts change, how emotions change, how sensations change. And they are changing quite rapidly. So this is the reason for looking deeply and inquiring, to become aware of the changing nature of things. This awareness is a new habit that replaces the old habit. It is a skillful habit replacing an unskillful habit.
We can also look at what is called the conditioned nature of experience. One of the major insights of the Buddha is that things arise from conditions, stay awhile, and then disappear when conditions change. Many monks gained great insight just by hearing these words of the Buddha. Nothing is intrinsically what it is, but all things arise and pass away interdependently with other things. But we live with the habit of feeling that things are fixed, independent, and disconnected from one another.
The function of experiential inquiry is to help us see that we have choices with our habits. The thing with habits is that we feel stuck, and we keep doing the same thing over and over again, and feel “I cannot do otherwise.” But this experiential inquiry shows us how things are changing, how things are conditioned, and starts to allow us to see that we have some choices. We have a choice of doing this or doing that. There can be different ways to deal with whatever is arising, with difficulty or with ease. Creativity comes from this realization.
It was a wonderful experience. Then, like everything, it turned out to be impermanent.
So concentration give us more space, so to speak, and within that space, experiential inquiry allows us see more. Together, concentration and experiential inquiry help us develop creative awareness. That is what we are doing when we do meditation on retreat or in daily life: we’re developing the power of creative awareness.
Learning a Lesson
I once saw something quite clearly using this method when I was practicing as a nun in Korea many years ago. I used to sit in meditation ten hours a day. One day, as I sat in meditation, I suddenly saw very clearly that I was totally self-centered. Up to that point, since I was eleven years old, I had wanted to save the world. So I lived with the image of myself as a really compassionate person. I mean, I would have given my shirt to anybody who asked for it. I thought I was incredibly other-centered. But what came to me in that particular moment when I was sitting there in meditation was that all my experience was self-referential—what I was thinking about, what I was feeling, what I was sensing—it was all about me. As I thought about it, it became clear to me that whatever 1 experienced was about ninety to ninety-five percent self-centered.
I was sitting at that time in Korea with four other women, and when I looked at them I realized they were doing the same thing. They, too, were as self-centered as I was. I realized that when our self-interests coincided, we could be in harmony with each other. But it was still painful to see how much we were bound up in all this self-interest.
So I said to myself, “Okay let’s go to fifty percent self-centered, and fifty percent other-centered.’’ There is still this body, this organism that needs some care. It’s in a way my responsibility, since I’m alive, to not entirely neglect myself. But the point is that there needs at least to be a better balance between being self- centered and other-centered. From the ninety-five percent of our habitual self-centeredness, we can try to pare it away and gradually move more to other-centeredness. Undertaking this process, we begin to see that while it seems to be in our interest to be self-centered, it is very tiring to spend our energy that way. As we become more other-centered, we release much of our constricted energy and move into greater openness. We don’t disappear. We are still there, but it feels very different from the energy of self-centeredness.
Toward the end of that retreat, things did feel very different. I thought, “What’s happening? Why is it so different?” And I realized that everyone was feeling much more other-centered. For fifteen days we acted not just out of plain self-interest but also out of other-interest. It was a beautiful moment for me. It was so peaceful, so open. It was so stable, so harmonious. It was a wonderful experience. Then, like everything, it turned out to be impermanent. After a few days the percentage went up again, and we were back to our self-interests.
What was interesting about the creative awareness in this whole process was that I did not feel terrible about myself. I did not feel that I was the worst person in the world because I was so self-centered. In fact I thought it was funny. Acceptance is an important aspect of creative awareness. In the experience I have been talking about, when I saw my self-centeredness so clearly, I fully accepted it. I did not say, “This is not so.” I said, “Yes, it is so.” Because I could see clearly, I could accept it. And because I could accept it just as it was, it could be transformative.
This is a lifelong journey we are on. It is making our buddha-mind emerge slowly.
It is important to see that creative awareness is not judgment, because sometimes we can use awareness practice to reinforce self-judgment. Self-judgment is like a little policewoman or policeman on our shoulder. “Oh, this is not good.” With creative awareness, when you see something, you open up to it. When I saw the problem of self-centeredness, I said to myself, “Okay, now I know what the difficulty is, and now I can work on it.”
When we see our negative habits we can work on them. But until you see them clearly, it’s like fighting in the dark. You don’t really know what goes on. And one difficulty is that, like everything else, negative habits are not there all the time. They emerge depending upon certain conditions, and change when the conditions change. Part of our experiential inquiry is to see this, to ask the question, “What are the conditions that give rise to negative habits?”
I used to have a habit—not so much anymore—of being irritable. I would get irritated, and I used to look for somebody or something to be irritated at. As you know, it’s not so much fun being irritated with oneself, so I generally looked for somebody else. And then I tried to get into some argument as a result of such irritation. Working with creative awareness, I looked at this problem and I thought, “What’s going on? What are the conditions causing me to be irritable? And I realized, “I am tired.” So when I saw that condition, instead of going to look for somebody to be irritable with I went to take some rest, and it was much better for everybody, myself included.
Creative awareness allows us not only to see the negative things in our experience; it illuminates the positive things equally clearly. It allows us to appreciate our good qualities and our greater potential, which we often don’t see clearly. It is very important to know, to experience, and to accept these things, too.
This is a lifelong journey we are on. It is making our buddha-mind, our potentiality for other-centeredness, emerge slowly, as we work the percentages. Creative awareness is not as much some particular state as it is an opening. It opens up something in us, by bringing together concentration and experiential inquiry. Concentration helps us to be calmer and have a more spacious mind. Experiential inquiry helps us see more clearly what’s going on in our experience, to see its changing nature. Then, in our meditation practice, creative awareness helps us open up to all kinds of possibilities and transformation. That’s why sitting is so important. It allows us to develop stability, which in turn enables us to accept things as they are, both difficult things and positive things. Whatever arrives, we can deal with it.