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14 June 2019

Learning to meditate is like learning to swim, Why going on Retreat is So Helpful

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Teaching people to meditate is a little bit like teaching people to swim. Like the first time you put someone who can’t swim in the water; there’s an awful lot of splashing about and panic and at first, it is basically an exercise in staying alive while you are in the water. Then it is about getting used to something you are not used to and then there’s a point where somebody gets used to being in the water and then you can actually start to teach them to swim. Meditation is very much like that. Leaving someone alone with themselves is like throwing somebody who can’t swim into the water. It’s a bit of a shock to the system and it just can’t be helped that it’s like that.

I’ve looked over the years at all sorts of ways of easing someone in gently. But there is a point where you just have to withdraw the armbands and the hand holding and you’ve got to go through being actually left alone and get on and find a way to stay afloat. At that point then you can swim. We’ve all actually, somewhere inside us, got an instinct that keeps us alive when we are thrown in the water. But it is once we get used to being in the water that we can start to enjoy what it is to swim and then we can learn to do it in all kinds of ways and meditation is the same. The first part of meditation, whatever way you learn it, unless it is some kind of meditation that sort of takes you off on a tangent; the first part of your meditative career, if it is real meditation, is an exercise in making friends with yourself. Or if it is not as far as making friends with yourself, it’s getting used to yourself being with yourself.

Now some people have always enjoyed time left alone with themselves and it’s always been important to them and such people warm quiet quickly to meditation. But other people have spent an awful lot of time trying to avoid being left alone with themselves and when you put them on a cushion, they kick and scream and they tell you that they’d rather go do something else, like head off to Venice in the middle of a meditation retreat to “go look at some fine art.” All kinds of excuses have come along over the years, “I think really what I need right now is this or that.” But actually all of us when we really get used to the water, enjoy being in it. It’s just about getting used to it. So being on retreat gets us through that thrashing around bit, where we would normally just jump out and say, “no no I’m not going in there.” So the point where we are actually in the water; we get there from going on retreat and then we can learn to enjoy it.

Going on retreat, even for people who have been meditating for a long time, is still a big step. It’s like, for example, open water swimming when you have been in a swimming pool and you can reach the sides and the bottom. So it’s quite a moving experience, at whatever level, whether it is deeply joyful or extremely frightening. Being with your experience, however it expresses itself, brings about a transformation at some level and then as you get used to it, you start to settle and then actually the real deep transformation starts to run its course for us.

Over the course of retreat probably, some point around halfway through we get used to sitting. You start to get some kind of stability and now you can start to go into it and see what’s going on for you in the background, which you may never have been consciously aware of before. What’s really in the background, behind just the struggle to sit with yourself, begins to come into focus and emerge. And it can open up all kinds of things that we might not have been able to see before. One of the extraordinary things that happens through meditation and it probably takes some years, is that we get to see ourselves. First, the exercise is learning to be with ourselves, but we still don’t see ourselves. Gradually as we become stable on retreat we actually start to see ourselves as we really are, who we are, not what we think we are. This is a profound experience. As you keep practising you may also start recognising what it is that is pushing your buttons and causing you to be the way you are, that you have to work so hard to be with.

We do lose an awful lot of time trying to figure ourselves out and we don’t actually get that far. We just don’t and in a way, I suppose, realising that might be what it takes to get to the point where we stop trying to figure ourselves out. I think that is the point that you choose to stop trying to figure yourself out and that you start to actually meet yourselves, quietly, on the cushion or sitting quietly sometime after your meditation, when you are deeply immersed with how you actually feel.

How we actually feel is something we find so difficult to really recognise. We sit and we ask ourselves what I think about it. This is what I think. But how do I feel? We don’t know how we feel, we may even not have recognised that how we feel is driving us at the deepest level all the time. Even if we start to glimpse this we still may not really know how we feel.

Getting in touch with how you feel is the most moving experience that you ever have. Because, being completely with yourselves is the most moving experience you can have and whatever else it looks like, it’s for that that we sit.

And as I have hinted, when you come to see yourself, not as an individual so you can figure yourself out, but you see what it is to be alive and how it feels to be alive here, and you understand what you are apart of; it’s very very moving. So you know, I dare say we’ve all spent nights sitting up all night having a jolly good old think and come to some pretty inspiring conclusions or pretty frustrating ones or whatever, but ask yourself, “did any of the ideas that you manage to come through in your mind move you anything like as deeply as those moments when you really got in touch with yourself,” and you realise that you are actually, for the first time or for a long time, totally present and totally there.

I often teach how the heart is longing for love. Yes it is, but I think it longs just as deeply to actually be put in front of itself and be there and know how it feels and be okay with that, because almost everything we do is a rather confused second guess or best guess to fill the gap between really being with ourselves and what we’re currently able to put ourselves in front of.

So when I say, “sit quietly, leave everything as it is and just rest within yourself;” every time I prompt, “how does it feel,” ask yourself that question deeply, because it is not obvious and gradually it will show itself to you. And it is a very healing experience, whatever it is. So that is how we will practice, sit quietly and be with how we feel, with whatever it is that arises within us while we sit. We won’t put it in any boxes and we won’t go, “ah yes.” Just sit and be with how it feels.

So being with the feeling is the key. It’s not that you shouldn’t feel anything, you understand? Your equanimity is to the fact that you feel what you feel, so pretending you shouldn’t be angry or feel upset or whatever, that’s not equanimity, that’s ignorance. Equanimity is to feel the unpleasant feeling within you and the unpleasant feeling in the mind and what’s going on and see it for what it is, not to try and pretend it’s something else. It only transforms itself when it’s met with mindfulness and equanimity.

So don’t meditate going ‘no, I shouldn’t feel angry, or jealous or greedy etc. I should feel equanimous’. No. How you feel, whatever you feel is the truth in that moment, equanimity is seeing it and then it will fade. Angry about being angry, that is putting petrol on the fire. You have to be with the feeling, really with the feeling first, before it transforms. You’re not trying to pretend you don’t feel anything – that’s numbness. The feeling is the feeling and when you’re really with it there’s nothing to try and understand, it’s just a deep experience. And it is to start to arrive at this experience that we go on retreat.

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