We hear a lot today about the need for relief from physical illness or stress, and very often that is what causes an investigation of meditation to begin. Another cause is emotional turmoil of some kind, which eases into a temporary calm or peace during meditation. Both of these categories of motivation result in using meditation to change conditions which are seen to be negative to other conditions which are deemed ‘positive’ or ‘better’.
Another type of meditator is an adventurer — she or he want to explore the nature of the mind itself, to experience the various phenomena which arise in consciousness. They seek to know, and sometimes to love, more deeply and fully.
Whatever your analysis is of the factors which brought you to meditation, it is important to establish before you begin each formal practice session what drives or motivates you. We act, speak, think and feel in response to conditions — some of them external, some internal. Some are conscious and some — the tricky, blind-spot ones — are not. Very often when meditation is taught only as a technique — a remedy for unpleasant experiences, or a doorway to pleasant ones — the instruction overlooks how deeply our conscious and unconscious motivation influences the quality of the practice itself.
As I teach in various parts of the world and observe what is going on with people, it seems that the ones who are making the sort of steady effort that produces an on-going sense of clarity and groudedness and centredness have a very clear sense of how they relate to these questions of motivation, or aspiration. They also seem to understand how unconscious motivation can sabotage what they are consciously on about and are actively, continuously probing to re-program consciousness to a continuum recollection of where we actually find refuge, and what motivations actually fuel spiritual progress.
The first contemplation that should be done before meditation begins is “Why am I doing this? What do I want?” It is helpful to know — even if sometimes the answers may appear less than noble! At least then we have an opportunity to redefine our aspiration, to align it with universal principles which provide the maximum support to the effort we are making.
What are these universal principles? First and foremost, there is the concept that consciousness is the very fabric of all manifestation, pervading all of the universe, including yourself. The characteristics of that universal consciousness (before conditioning obscures and distorts them) are spaciousness, luminosity and awareness. People call this consciousness God or Buddha-nature. I like to use the word Universe.
The second principle is that this universal consciousness is reliable, that what arises from it obeys certain laws which are consistent whether one is observing the smallest particles or the vastness of space. These laws, or universal truths, can be experienced as direct insights by human beings who have prepared themselves by a disciplined and sustained approach to purification of the obscurations and distortions. Over the course of human history methodic systems have been taught by those who have had such direct experiences. Some of these teachings, and the realizations which arise from them, have been passed down, conceptually and experientially, from teacher to student without interruption from the person who had the original experience of transcendence. We have access today to these same lines of direct transmission.
The third principle is that our struggle to learn and to grow is supported by Universe. However isolated we may feel, we are part of a vast, interconnected web of consciousness — some of which manifests in form, and is therefore perceivable to our physical senses; some of which exists as vibrations or force fields of energy which we are capable of experiencing directly if we train our latent capacities of consciousness. If we are fortunate, and our motivation over lifetimes has been wholesome and sincere, we may meet “real-time” teachers and teachings which will provide us with the tools we need to explore the various laws of universe and come to our own direct experience of the spacious, luminous, aware consciousness which sustains our existence. We may experience the synergy of communities of like-minded people who share these higher aspirations.
These three principles — Universe, Law, and Interconnectedness — are sometimes referred to as refuge — a safe, reliable conceptual platform from which we can investigate with confidence. We can enhance our practice of meditation — no matter what our personal motivation is — by pondering these three principles again and again as concepts, by aspiring through our meditation practice to come to a direct realization or knowing of these truths for ourselves.
Now, if we are honest, we have to admit that in our fear, uncertainty and confusion, as we attempt to find refuge from our physical, emotional and mental distress in all sorts of ways that offer temporary relief, but we find that in the long term, none of them work. We go for refuge to our families, our lovers, our friends. We take refuge in our money, our homes, our insurance policies. We take refuge in television, paperback novels, comfort food, alcoholic drinks and drugs of various kinds. We take refuge in our all-too fragile and impermanent bodies. We take refuge in sentimentality, and project our unresolved needs and frustrations on other people, not to mention our pets. We take refuge in our beliefs and concepts about ourselves and reality — often without examining whether or not they are reliable and true.
Until we are willing to stop clinging to these refuges which offer only the most partial and transient protection, our meditation practice will not produce the healing or learning that we seek. It will be limited in power. We will remain as “entry-level” meditators, and our practice will have much the same quality as taking an aspirin when we have a headache — temporary relief from suffering, but ultimately not a “cure” or remedy for the suffering itself.
Our lives are produced by universe in a miraculous process that has been unfolding and evolving for billions of years. Our bodies contain material that participated in the birth and death of stars, that formed minerals, plants and vastly different kinds of sentient life. We breathe one another in and out, moment by moment — plants producing oxygen, human producing carbon dioxide — feeding one another. We recycle Napoleon’s breath, Cleopatra’s cells. Dust from space rains down on earth; we breathe it in, we become stars. planets, other kinds of sentient beings.
We have evolved a neuro-chemistry that is extremely sensitive to changing conditions and gives rise to a wide range of emotional or energetic responses which act as “carrier waves” of physical and verbal and mental communication. This allows for extremely complex and subtle exchanges and synthesis of data. It also gives right to the potential for great confusion or, as Teilhard de Chardin reflected, the possibility of liberation. We, alone among the inhabitants of our world, have the impulse to reflect on our experience and ask questions about it. What built this intelligence? What is it for? Are we using it to potential?
Thank you all very much for what you have brought to this sharing. May we all have a week rich with a deeper understanding of where our refuge lies. May you be well and happy!
From a talk given in Vancouver by Bonni Ross February 18, 1997
This teaching is excerpted from the Sunshine Coast Retreat House Website, click here to read many more teachings by Bonni Ross