Once we have done some amount of concentration practice, and then some amount of insight practice, we get into the territory where we start noticing things like body sensations, vibrations, emotions and thoughts (memories, plans, ideas). It will become easy to drop into meditation.
Gone will be the days when you had to focus and refocus and refocus and refocus again to bring your attention to the breath. Gone will be the days when you had to make do with gross sensations (pain, tightness, heaviness, lightness, wetness etc) only. You are now in the region of being able to feel subtle sensations, those tingly or drumming or electrifying vibrations, along with the gross ones. In fact you can now feel subtle micro-sensations around gross ones, to the point that the gross ones don’t bother you as much as they used to.
Once you get this far, certain underlying stuff comes up to the surface. But when they do, it may seem like you are only seeing different shades of “current affairs”. For instance, “pent-up” feelings of fear or misery or disgust may show up in the form of fearful or miserable or disgusting thoughts (mental images + mental-talk + body-sensations) about the project you are currently engaged at work, or about a situation that happened at home in the past couple of days, or about the relationship you are currently in, or about world-affairs (wars, elections, society, X feed etc) or about childhood memories that you know show up every once in a while. The ‘content’ of these feelings may feel very familiar, while you may have expected to find genuinely forgotten memories from your past, or even memories from your past life (because you have heard of people discovering their previous lives). Instead, what you find are flavours of fear, misery and disgust packaged in “current-affairs”. It’s possible that you will conclude that you are doing your meditation wrong. However, I want to assert that you are doing it right. Many meditation teachers and practitioners I have had a chance to listen to, read books of and speak to reiterate the same thing.
When feelings of fear, misery and disgust (or any other feeling for that matter) surface, they solidify with any “material” they find. If the material they find is current affairs, they show up solidified with that.
The “practice” part of meditation is to simply get used to
- watching them arise and pass away (impermanence)
- know that any sort of vedana (craving, aversion, ignorance) will make them stick around (dissatisfaction)
- and that the stuff that is arising and passing away isn’t you (no-self)
This kind of practice leads you to become impersonal about whatever is showing up. Pretty soon you will find yourself in a place where whatever shows up doesn’t bother you much, even if it does catch your attention for a while.
One practice that helped me during these times was: NOTING.
Noting is this activity of labeling the stuff that shows up. Early on I tried to find an accurate label for everything that was showing up, but that turned out to be unproductive. I have since settled with the following set of labels for my noting practice.
- If body sensations shows up, I note them as ‘feel‘. These could be itch, wetness, dryness, pain, tightness, pinch, pulse or any physical body sensation. I don’t bother categorising and sub-categorising them, I simply note it as ‘feel’.
- If what I experience is one of those tingly or drumming or electrifying vibrations, then I note it as ‘flow‘. Additionally, I note breathing also as ‘flow’
- If what I experience is images or movies in my mind, or shifting mandala patterns behind my eyelids with my eyes closed, then I note it as ‘visual‘. These movies/images in the mind could be because of a memory or fantasy or future planning, or a flash of visual images guessing or interpreting the sound I hear outside the window or of an insight that I seem to be getting, it doesn’t matter. They are all just ‘visual’ as far as noting pratice goes.
- If what I experience is mental-talk of one or many people in the head, then I note it as ‘talk‘. This talk could be memory of the past, or of something that’s intended to happen in the future, or a fantasy, or of an insight that I seem to be getting, or commentary about something that happened or is happening (outside the window for example) or may happen in the future, it doesn’t matter. They are all just ‘talk’ as far as noting practice goes. There is only one exception: the noting-mental-talk is excluded from this.
- If what I experience is actual sound in the surrounding, like a bird chirping, or laptop fan going off, or people in the surrounding talking, or someone walking, or an object crashing in the kitchen, or phones ringing – then I note them as ‘sound‘. Fun fact: I have always noted a ‘visual’ and sometimes ‘talk’ following ‘sound’.
- If what I experience is a smell (perfume or pungent), then I note it as ‘smell‘. The smell could be of compost being used in the garden outside, or my own body-odour, or of food, or anything else. It doesn’t matter. They are all just ‘smell’. Fun fact: I only seem to be able to smell during inhale and not exhale, yet for the longest time I assumed that smell is a stable and solid sensation.
Anyways, the idea is to note feel, flow, visual, talk, sound or smell while meditating. Whatever comes up, I simply label them using one of these six words. The actual content doesn’t matter one bit.
So a typical snapshot of my noted-stream shows up like this: feel, flow, flow, flow, talk, visual, sound, visual, flow, flow, visual, flow, sound, talk, visual, talk, visual, flow, flow, flow, flow, sound, visual, talk, flow, talk, flow, talk, flow, feel, flow, feel, flow, smell, visual, talk, visual, visual, talk, flow, smell, flow, feel, smell, flow, flow..
Interestingly, as soon as I note, the sensations disappear – vanish.
While I am noting, I am also doing body scanning. So much of the feel and flow is from whatever part of the body I am currently scanning, but sometimes they may be out of sync too. When I am meditating during the day time, if I hear someone outside the window walking or talking, it’s noted as sound – but almost instantly there is a visual of the people involved in the talking and a mental-talk (commentary) about what they are talking. I leave all judgements and interpretations aside, and simply get along noting.
As you note for 15, 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes the noted-sensations start to become impersonal. Sensations truly just show up causally, do their thing and leave almost instantaneously. As impersonal sensations, you don’t generate vedana (craving, aversion or ignorance) towards them. You begin to feel the space around sensations in general and maybe start getting perplexed or amused that you used to think of these sensations as ‘self’. Its amusing because firstly, there is no fixed-self-sensation, there is a sensation stream; and secondly, the stream is so fast that retaining a sense of self in the backdrop of that stream, would mean undertaking an almost Herculean effort to keep up the idea of self with that stream. There truly is no separate-permanent-self. There is simply a stream of sensations floating around a space where you seemingly are.
And then, the final meditation gong goes off and you open your eyes concluding your time on the cushion and thus your meditation. Or have you? Because the noting-momentum will keep the noting activity going. And you will notice, visual (with eyes open), sound, talk, feel, flow, flow, feel, visual, sound, talk….. Eyes open or eyes closed, on the cushion or off the cushion, what’s there is a sensation-stream. They all happen causally, on their own. You are simply a space around which they all happen, but a space to which none of them stick.
It’s quite fascinating – but can appear totally stupid to others, and maybe confusing to you.
What we are doing in meditation is perhaps attempting to look at the sense-data in a new way. Hitherto, we used to look at the sense-data to form a sense of self. But now, we are looking at the same sense data and they start to appear form-less and self-less. I don’t want to conclude anything based on having observed this far, but it’s all just very fascinating and to some extent confusing also.
I haven’t seen beyond this, and it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand I am mourning the loss of what I had assumed to be a stable-self. On the other hand, I am feeling free-er. It’s a mixed bag. I will let the confusion be, noting even the confusion as image, talk, feel, flow, image, talk, talk, talk….
Slowly, I am beginning to feel that I am not even the one who is doing the meditation. It seems to be meditating itself!