Meditation and Intimacy

Wednesday May 2, 2007


I have just started teaching another ten-week meditation course at the botanical gardens, and I’ve been thinking about what a strange and difficult thing meditation is to teach – not because it is in any way esoteric, but because it is, I think, incredibly subtle.

The Mahamudra texts point to this subtlety beautifully when they state that we fail to recognise the true nature of the mind for four reasons: it is too close; it is too ordinary; it is too profound; and it is too excellent. So often, when I have been having difficulty with meditation, it is because I have not recognised these things.

Take the first one for example: the closeness of the mind – or, as I prefer to think about it, the closeness of experience. When I think of this, I always think of the way that I can wander round the house looking for my keys, not realising that I am holding them in my hands. In meditation, the same kind of thing can happen, so that we go out looking for experience, without recognising that it is already here. For me, meditation is not about having any particular experience but rather about developing an intimacy with the experience that one has.

The second of these four aspects arises out of the first. Our minds are too ordinary. It is so easy to sit down in meditation and to secretly hope that something extraordinary will happen, that through the practice of meditation, somehow our ordinary experience will become something much more exciting, something ‘mystical’ perhaps. And this leads to overlooking the very simple, very ordinary experiences that are going on: the rise and fall of the chest as we are breathing, the fluttering of thought and desire, the itch in our left armpit, the cool breeze coming through the window, the sound of traffic in the distance.

However, when we start to take account of these ordinary experiences, then they take on a new light. Take the breath, for example: whilst, at first glance, the breath seems a simple, mechanical process (in-out, in-out, in-out), the more we attune ourselves to the endlessly subtle processes involved in breathing, the more complex and profound they appear to be. It is an ordinary kind of profundity, not the kind of pseudo-profundity that comes from adding some Great Truth or other onto experience, but it is a kind of profundity nonetheless.

And here I think the fourth of these aspects becomes apparent. Recognising the profundity of a simple thing such a breathing, then the sheer, stupendous excellence of experience becomes apparent. How astonishingly strange, after all, this sitting here, watching the breath!

For me, at least, the Mahamudra list is a way of reminding us that meditation is not about other realms of experience, but that it is about a process of becoming intimate with experience as it is, with ordinary, everyday experience. It is a practice in not taking experience for granted. And so this is why teaching meditation seems to me a tricky thing to do. To teach a technique is fairly straightforward; but to somehow put across the flavour of this intimacy with experience, and how this intimacy is in itself both profound and excellent, is less easy. I’ll see how I do as the course progresses…

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#1 · ccx

3 May 2007

For untrained mind it’s hard to rest in itself. Formless practices are one of hardest to do right. Because of this traditional masters insist on doing preliminary practices before doing meditations of sine (samatha) or lhaktong (vipassana).
In our tradition it’s called Chagchen (Great seal/Mahamudra) Ngöndro (preliminary practice)öndro

#2 · Chris

3 May 2007

Seems like another difficulty is language. We can develop words like “rock” or “hand” to communicate those concepts, because they’re easy things to point to. But how do you point to a mental state? It’s so inherently subjective that there’s no starting point for building a vocabulary of shared concepts. I think some human suffering comes from the fact that we can’t even communicate what we really mean by “happy” or “sad” or “love”; never mind esoteric Buddhist states like “kensho” or “jnana” or “samadhi”.

#3 · Jonathan

3 May 2007

What a fantastic way to describe meditation experience. There’s no “kind-of-profundity about it” – it IS profound.

#4 · Will

10 May 2007

You may be right, ccx that “For the untrained mind it’s hard to rest in itself”; but at the same time although I’m using this handy list from the Mahamudra to think about meditation, I’m probably using it in a fashion that is unorthodox. So the idea of intimacy with one’s own experience is a little different (or may be a little different) from the “resting in itself” of the mind in Mahamudra, about which I’m largely ignorant!
Thanks one and all for commenting.
Best wishes,

#5 · Chodpa

11 July 2008

Hi there, just chanced upon your blog today. It was good to read these four reminders again, and very much enjoyed your commentary on them. Many thanks for sharing that …. and best wishes in the Dharma to you :-)

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