What Are You Meditating For?

Letting go of getting anywhere with your practiceDouglas Penick


The Museum of Jurassic Technology once sent out a Christmas card that had a 3-D picture (accompanied by red and green glasses) of someone looking into a cave. Inside was a fable that concluded: “Our seeking is without end and the object of our search ever elusive; yet the memory of light draws us on. Please join with us in our never-ending efforts as we seek, perhaps without understanding that the search itself is creating the very light after which we are seeking.” 

Perhaps you’ve seen, and maybe even read, books and articles assuring you that Buddhist meditation can increase your clarity, kindness, peace of mind, happiness, and so forth, while reducing your tension, anger, discursiveness, all-around self-centeredness, and other negative characteristics. No doubt there are buried deep within you, as there are within us all, secret sources of pain you would like to mitigate, just as there are deep inner longings that call out to be realized. Meditation, if what you read is to be believed, is the path whereby such aims can be achieved. Perhaps even that grand but elusive goal called enlightenment, the awakened state, may be within our reach. 

Since the awakened state is the natural state, to believe it can be realized by one method only is absurd. Further, it follows that realizing enlightenment does not necessarily bring any normal kind of happiness, comfort, or personally satisfying quality, nor does it necessarily decrease painful experiences. Late in life, Trungpa Rinpoche said, “There is no problem with dying . . . except it’s so fucking painful.” The 16th Karmapa, though riddled with excruciating cancer, greeted his visitors with smiles, apparently experiencing no discomfort. 

Is there any meaningful conclusion to be drawn here? 

In books and magazine articles, you may have encountered words like empty, transcendent, nondual, primordial, and the like. Sonorous, impressive, self-evidently arcane, this kind of language may simply reflect the hope that enlightenment can be grasped. Only the fact that such words verge on the meaningless lends them any usefulness in the practice of meditation. 

You may hear that one can meditate in such a way as to achieve any of the large-sounding words and notions mentioned above. If the words mean what they seem to, this is obviously not possible. Nonetheless, we must admit that we all try. We hear a particularly attractive term: let’s say, nonduality. If we analyze the process of perception carefully, or read about such an analysis in a text such as the Shurangama Sutra, we can see how the faculty of smell and an odor are inextricably interdependent. One cannot take place without the other. Thus we could say that what seems to us as dual—nose and smell—is innately nondual. 

We could then familiarize ourselves with this notion in meditation, either using some kind of mental exercise or simply investigating our perception to see whether this assertion is in fact true. We may then feel we have some kind of direct experience of nonduality. Based on our new realization, can we then explain why a rose would not spontaneously produce a nose, or a nose produce the dreaded durian? Be that as it may, the use of lofty words in meditation most often leads to what has been called “target-shooting meditation.” Here we form a mental construct of something we believe we should experience. By analysis, we create a construct, a mental shape of that experience, and we aim our mind at having this experience. Because mind moves even while it is shapeless, it will, at least momentarily, believe itself existing on the ground to which we have directed it. We will think we are actually having a real meditation experience when in fact we have simply fabricated it out of words and longing. 

To try to make a path by putting one aspect of oneself in opposition to another aspect is inescapably to create a world of frantic anguish. The result is like a crazy person trying to realize his or her own conception of sanity. So, as the 17th-century Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo observed in a slightly different context, “The soup was lost between the hand and the mouth: pass on to other things.” 

In the very first moment of meditation, there is a profound realization: we recognize that we do not have to take our thoughts as completely real; we are not compelled to act on them. This is a small, ordinary experience, but one with profound implications. Nonetheless, during a period of practice or at its conclusion, if we think that our meditation has gone well or poorly, this is an infallible sign that our meditation has drifted into reliance on some concept or other, even if this concept is merely the memory of our first sense of openness. How else could we make such a judgment? Similarly, if we feel we have encountered definite obstacles in our practice, such as physical discomfort, discursive thought, obsessions, and so forth, it is important to understand that those experiences are obstacles only as a function of whatever concept we have of our aim in meditation. In the absence of goals, there are no such obstacles. 

You may read that meditation enables you to tame your mind and bring it to a state of stability and peace. Despite meditating as a Buddhist for more than 40 years, I have not achieved even a glimpse of this, nor have I ever seen anyone else achieve it. Admittedly, I am not much of a practitioner, but there may also be a more general reason why this is so. 

Mind itself is intrinsically unstable. Traditionally, mind has been described as “that which seeks an object.” In other words, it is in the nature of mind to be on the move between a subject (you or me) and an object (whatever we fear, desire, or believe will bring an end to such uncomfortable states). This process is continuous, and our minds constantly bounce between whether we should make changes in ourselves, our attitudes, outlooks, and so forth, or whether we should more decisively obtain what we want from the world. Beyond that, our sense of what we are changes, our intellectual and emotional frameworks change, our desires change, and the outer world is also in continuous change. 

Looking closely at our own circumstances, as well as reading texts, makes this self-evident. 

You may hear meditation described as practice. Practice generally means a kind of preparatory exercise you do in order to be able to do “the real thing.” Hence practicing the piano, the guitar, ice-skating, geometry, French. You practice until you’ve mastered it and can actually do it. Practice then, means not quite doing it for real. Why not do it for real? Why not enter practice as both preparation and realization simultaneously? 


On the other hand, perhaps it is good to refer to meditation as practice since there is no attainment. 

The Buddha’s enlightenment is both no different and different from the many ways in which the Buddha formatted the awakened state in order to teach the path. Hence Ikkyu says: 

No beginning, no end, this one mind of ours. 
The Original Mind cannot become Buddha-nature. 
Original Buddhahood is Buddha’s mischievous talk; 
The Original Mind of sentient beings is nothing but delusion. 

                                                               —Trans. John Stevens 

Orgyen Kusum Lingpa stated: “The essence of all Buddhist meditation is not following thoughts.” 

This does not mean rejecting thoughts. Not following thoughts means that as thoughts arise with their innumerable attractions, suggestions, warnings, seductions, questions, terrors, one does not follow the path onto which they invite us. We see them appear but do not follow. Obviously, this includes practice, instruction, wisdom, and any other concepts about the path of enlightenment. 

Thus the path of enlightenment is not the path to enlightenment, a way to get to this so-called awakened state. The path of enlightenment is what is underneath our feet. 

If one meditates simply in this way, each time one sits to meditate, one enters the unknown, the uncertain, the purposeless. Continuing, one repeatedly experiences uncertainty on the spot. One enters a great expanse that is unknowable, ordinary, alive, and secret. One enters into the timeless and unbiased continuum of all being. 

Mostly when we sit down to meditate, we bring with us our motivation. This comprises the aspects of our past that we wish to overcome, combined with inspirations from aspects of the past that promise to produce our hoped-for future where we are finally the person we would like others to think we are. We sit down in a moving train of thought and follow its momentum. We are moved along from feeling to feeling, thought to thought, even if this thought is the end of thoughts or the stability of mind. We cannot bear to leave the familiar dynamism of thinking and knowing. We cannot bear to diverge for very long from the familiarity of our problems, our longings, our shortcomings, our aspirations, from the busy mind that ceaselessly produces such things. 

Learning about meditation, learning to meditate, practicing meditation, we think perhaps we could leave the tensions of thinking and the anxieties of the world of the known behind. We could enter the free and unconstrained expanse beyond thought, free of causes and conditions, hope and fear. Thus, in our meditation practice we desperately press to leave, control, or finally end the world of thought. 

But in the path of meditation, relating to thoughts is the unfolding of compassion; relating to what is beyond thoughts allows the spontaneous presence of wisdom to bloom. The two are inseparable. It is a process akin to what George Gershwin said about composing music: “I frequently hear music in the heart of noise.” 

Meditation, then, is not a matter of developing mastery or control. Enlightenment expands, speaking to us. The rich world of complete wakefulness is always vibrant, regardless of the qualities that appear in our experience. It is singing in silence and chaos. 

Meditation establishes the equality of the known and unknown in our journey and our living. But the appearances of insight, the experience of bliss or clarity of wisdom—elements that once articulated have such authority, followed with such intensity—how do they figure in our journey? It is as Proust puts it in Swann’s Way

Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is without existence; but if so, we feel that it must be that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, are nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as our hostages these divine captives who shall follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less certain. 

—Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff 

In early summer evenings, beneath the mulberry tree at the foot of our garden, fireflies flickered neon green in the humid lavender dark. I was 5, and on one special night my brother, my sisters, and I were allowed to go out and catch fireflies. Our mother gave us jars with holes poked in the top, and we ran barefoot beneath the trees catching the small fluorescent creatures, as berries fallen in the grass squelched beneath our feet. 

By morning light, we could see that many fireflies in the jar had died and that those still living were shabby grayish bugs. But now we saw that our feet were dyed a wonderful shade of purple-blue.

Douglas Penick studied with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and other Tibetan teachers for more than 40 years. He wrote the Canadian NFB’s series on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the libretti for two operas: King Gesar and Ashoka’s Dream. His most recent novel is Dreamers and Their Shadows. He is married to the renowned clarinetist Deborah Marshall.

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ninamcpherson@me.com's picture

Most grateful! Thank you. Thambi.

wasmd1's picture

Just do the practice.

jackelope65's picture

Thank you. I was given instructions such as " have no goals" or "give up all hope," and, like a sunny day when it was supposed to rain, you are made so happy by a simple walk, meditation without expectation opens us up to all possibilities and allows us to appreciate the small but important changes.
P.S. My best friend in childhood in Australia lived in the Mitchell house which belonged to the first white explorer to Brisbane. On the property, was a huge old mulberry tree and our feet would remain purple while it produced its huge crop of mulberries. My friend's dad, a Queen's Counselor(District Attourney), enjoyed his mulberry wine but without purple feet, to his loss.

molfuentes's picture

Deeply grateful for your words

schroete_lifesci's picture

thank you for this wonderful article

lilianacrts's picture

"All of Man's difficulty comes from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself." Pascal
This is the practice that brings me home...

bpw312@gmail.com's picture

Wow, blown away by the absolute simplicity of what you are saying. I guess it is really just try to sit still and watch. No goal, no judgement, no nothing but whatever is at the moment.

Danny's picture

Meditating for me used to be about the attempt at cessation of all thought. No more--now, my practice is about thinking, my humble attempt to help change the world for the better: An intense concentration on the causes and conditions, along with the potential effects of my thoughts, actions and perceptions on the world and those around me.

Dominic Gomez's picture

When I used to meditate in martial arts it was to become crystal clear of what I and my opponent were about to do.

Richard Fidler's picture

Why do I meditate? To see what happens. I really don't know what will happen when I sit--every time is different. Will an itch on my back occupy my consciousness? The sounds outside? Thoughts of a relationship? The carpet on the floor in front of me? I only sit still. If it's a pathway, I do not know where it leads. That is what makes it so interesting.

Kaye Newbury's picture

Yes! Giving up any attempt to learn something or reach a goal, and just paying attention is helping me develop a daily practice. That's something that eluded me for years because meditation seemed like part of a high standard To Do list.

wilnerj's picture

What is unknown cannot be attained.

Peering at a flower dressed in delicate white petals with yellow padded stamens stretching upward, what do I understand?

With palms together, I bow to that five-year old who awakens astonished at his lavender-tinted feet.

Thank you.

robertomainetti's picture

"the path of enlightenment is what is underneath our feet..." thank you very much. it feels nice at reading, great material to put at use.

mahakala's picture

let go letting go
fundamental essences
dont stop talking now

myers_lloyd's picture