On difficult meditation.

by waxbanks

Recently I’ve experienced a series of challenging, frustrating breath meditations.1 In the past I’ve come away from such sessions disappointed, hopeless, but these ones have, so to speak, sat differently with me.

My notes from the most recent sit read, in part:

5/10/23 — 15-20m sit (turned off timer) … caffeinated, head full of attractive fantasy, pulled repeatedly out of restful focus. after ~10min some words entered my noisy head: ‘i can’t manage my concentration — i can — i am.‘ process not result. then relaxed into the difficulty; the rest of that time felt like surfing, or floating down a crowded sidewalk: effortful, mental muscles working, grateful acceptance of chaotic oscillation

Experienced meditators doubtless recognize this as a 101-level realization, a knight’s-move expressed in ‘legacy’ egoic terms: first the lateral shift from despairing of ever attaining some outcome (successfully ‘managed’ concentration), to accepting both its possibility and the limits of my own perception/projection, and then a step further in, to a (temporary) new relationship to the meditative work which responds to the realness of the process rather than the desirability of the outcome. No sign of breaking the doomed imagine/desire/satisfy cycle here, just a local detachment of a certain imagining from a certain experience.

What’s interesting to me this morning, as a semi-experienced but very low-skill meditator, is the mindset — the mind-as-process — which opened up after I turned this corner several minutes into a sit. ‘Effortful…acceptance of chaotic oscillation.’ In other words: ‘surrender to the (turbulent) flow.’

One of the purposes of breath meditation is to realize (not ‘understand’) freedom from identification with the endless stream of mental activity, the burbling polyglot discourse of what my old professor Marvin Minsky called the ‘society of mind’ and Buddhist tradition calls ‘monkey mind.’ Heads are noisy places, the concerted work of mind emerges from a noisy knotty crosshatch of contradictory and coincidental impulses, and peaceful clarity or ‘awakening’ is both a natural state and a fleeting, rare one — e.g. look at everyone who’s ever lived. One of the states (processes) that open up in ‘successful’ breath meditations is a calm ego-detached awareness of the contingency and transience of such mental activity; the popular view mistakes this peaceful resolve for quiet, a standard dumb fuckup for human beings across experiential domains,2 but the ‘content’ of my sitting realization can be reduced/expressed as, ‘Whether or not this experience is “managed” isn’t a matter of quiet output but of persistent undertaking.’ Once I imagined myself participating in the activity, rather than imagining myself failing to ‘succeed’ at it, I was able to embody a new mode of relation between self and act, and between act and circumstance and outcome.

Again: yes, the fictional self-provision remains. But after all it was only 20 minutes of sitting down in an unused office at my workplace; we shouldn’t expect miracles in that setting, at that rate.

This is akin to going ‘off the grid,’ psychologically speaking, if only for a few minutes: after that moment of reframing, I was still working hard without satisfaction, still conscious of the fact that my mind would not quiet the hell down. (Yes, sitting down to meditate is hard work.) But that awareness and lack of satisfaction temporarily stopped generating that familiar emotional cocktail of self-loathing and despair — instead of the meditative work being a pretext for going into a tailspin, it felt like its own reward; it was real in itself.

Of course this echoes the Buddhist practice of referring to seated meditation as ‘sitting’ per se.

From that point in the session onward — and here I’m conscious of, but can’t be bothered to avoid, certain tiresome therapeutic/’productive’ connotations of the word session — I experienced the same ‘failed’ submergence/surfacing cycle that’d been pissing me off previously, the rise and fall of attentional waveform and whatever others. But instead of judging this oscillation, I was simply there for it. What ‘quiet’ occurred was a quality not of the mental ‘stream’ (which never quieted at all) but of the observing/judging faculty, the egoic ‘I.’ That relinquishing of judgment/control was unconscious despite my Beckettian internal utterance (‘I can’t, I can, I am’), but afterward I was no less aware of what was going on. Nothing like no-mind or no-self here, only a clearer sight of my set, setting, volition, activity.

For years I’ve told writing students and mentees, ‘All edits are clarity edits.’

Sometimes I’ll walk down a bustling sidewalk and experience an intoxicating stillness, keeping my head still relative to the sidewalk (like a camera on a dolly) while moving my body ‘around’ it to compensate. My subjective experience — not just in its visual aspect, the camera-eye, but in terms of the kinesthetic music of my whole mind/body system — remains smoothly and pleasurably continuous even while something akin to automatic error-correction goes on handling navigation duties. You can see the same effect in the flight of a bird whose body continually adjusts its movement so that its head can remain still enough to pick out prey on the ground far below, or indeed in surfers whose centers of mass move smoothly across wavetops while their legs pump irregularly to compensate for the dynamic curvature of the water below. Stillness not motionlessness — peace not quiet. The air and water and the madding crowd don’t stop flowing by in their chaotic turbulence; these bodily practices seeking stillness do not quiet the world’s noise. But in each event, the body that makes the mind — remember that the Spanish for ‘to make,’ hacer, also translates as ‘to do’ — ‘rests transparently’ in its moment, it experiences a reconciliation of set and setting.

Sometimes the V7 chord is exactly how you feel and not just a tool for getting back to the superegoic I.3

An altered relation to effort, and thus between effort and its output, isn’t a precursor to this experience of clarity — it’s it. In Alcoholics Anonymous they say you can’t think your way to right action, only act your way to right thinking; this is a pragmatic and sober articulation of our perhaps more abstract, fanciful notion that they’re the same thing.

  1. The proximate causes of the difficulty are irrelevant here. 
  2. See also the democratic realization, ‘Peace is not the absence of conflict but its resolvability.’ 
  3. This use of ‘I’ is one of those jokes that probably incurs a clarity-cost but I can’t bring myself to cut it. ‘Superegoic I’ is meant to play ironically after the earlier ‘egoic “I”‘; the idea here is that prefab psychological resolution is a social convention, etc., etc., and we come back to ego-pattern partly because there’s no room for other shit. But as primed by the notation ‘V7’ earlier in the sentence, ‘I’ also means the tonic major chord — harmonic ‘homebase’ so to speak, the resolution of the V7 and, in Western music, the fulfilling contrast-move that gives V7 its meaning, makes it OK. In jazz and other 20C western musics you’re surrounded by unresolved seventh chords, internal tritones allowed to both embody and signify ambivalence, i.e. those musics open up a new unconventional subjectivity that doesn’t just collapse mindlessly to the (egoic) I. See?! I went to graduate school, motherfucker!! This is way, way, way too much pressure on what’s ultimately just a coincidence of notation, and I’ll stop here. Thank you for reading this footnote. I went to graduate school.