The Limits of Sitting Meditation


I was having a cafe latte with Reza in the funky Barrel coffee shop in the top end of Totnes high street, just a few minutes walk from my home. For years, I sat in the corner window seat reading beloved French philosophers, Nagarjuna, a continental novel, scribbling down a poem, people watching or having a lengthy conversation on every issue under the sun with people who dropped in to share a seat at the same table.

A year or two ago, I abandoned the downstairs of the coffee shop and took refuge at the window seat upstairs, even more funky upstairs, as too many friends spotted me at my usual spot and stopped for a chat. Of course, they always asked me if it was OK if he or she took a seat, and invariably I said: “Of course, sit down. “Can I get you a coffee?“ I am now ensconced upstairs. Don’t tell anybody.

Reza said he noticed from his experience over years that there was a separation in sitting meditation, often quite unnoticed, between the subject and the meditation object. He wondered whether the case was for everybody.

I agreed that this duality of the meditator and the object of meditation easily manifested in the sitting posture, as much as anywhere else, though obviously a subtle expression of duality. Gross examples of separation include the greedy one and the object of greed, the angry person and what the person is angry about, the one with fear and what one is afraid of.

I do not regard the subtle dualities as an inherent problem since the Dharma concerns itself with the end of suffering, the end of problematic existence. It seems to me rather gross to react against sitting meditation based on the view there is a duality of the apparent meditator and his or her object of meditation. We can have the desire to meditate and the desire not to meditate. Being for or against is not the true nature of the Dharma.

In a balanced and unbiased way, Reza then wondered whether the desire to meditate simply reinforced the notion of the meditator who wants the get something by going to sit. Was this true for everybody? he asked. He said he couldn’t recall teachers talking about this inner duality.

I responded that in my view nothing is true for everybody. Our experiences, the sheer diversity of them and their interpretation, vary enormously between people, and within ourselves.

After we finished our exploration of the limitations of sitting meditation, I reflected further. There is often an assumption that meditation is good for everybody since it offers calmness, clarity, a sense of well-being and insight into inner processes.

Are there personality types that might need to let go of sitting meditation for a while or in some cases for a long period without falling back into problematic patterns. Here are a few personality types that may well need to question their relationship to sitting meditation. Intention, attitude and wisdom around the sitting posture in terms of benefits and limitations matter if your personality has strong expressions of those listed below.

THE BELIEVER: This meditator believes that everything that arises comes from old samkharas (mental formations). To sit means to create no knew samkharas, work out the old ones and purify the mind.

THE CHANTER: The chanter sits and chants for hours on end the words of the Buddha in Pali, Sanskrit or Tibetan. It is the equivalent of reading out loud the instructions on a box of medicine without taking the medicine.

THE CONTROLLER:Tight personality. Very serious. Disciplined in a rigid kind of way. Sticks tightly to the method and technique.

THE DULL: This meditator sits and sits and sits. Consciousness is not bright and alert but dull, stuck in a bland state, perhaps a kind of self-hypnosis, a zombie like condition. The meditator may look impressive from the outside but inwardly is not going anywhere, certainly not deeper.

THE HABITUATED:This person practices the sitting posture every day, maybe twice a day. Practice means sitting meditation. To hell with the Noble (eightfold) Path. The Buddha was wrong. It is one fold. Sitting Meditation. The rest of daily life is a distraction, or at best, not as important.

THE MORALISER.Meditation, spirituality and religion have the potential to be a moralising mixture. Especially, if the person has had any personal history of being a ‘victim’, bullied at school, rubbished by parents, victimised in their family history. The shadow will easily become the moraliser, who needs to slag off certain figures in authority or groups. The moraliser is unforgiving.

THE SUPPRESSIVE TYPE. This person sits on their feelings rather than works with them. This person is developing the watcher and detaching himself from the unfolding process of feelings, emotions and thoughts. There are gross and subtle levels of this as Reza pointed out.

THE THINKER: The meditator lives in their thoughts, past, present and future, abstract, theoretical, organisational, endless stories and swirls around in ideas from beginning to end of the sitting.

THE VOLCANIC TYPE. There may be lots of emotional eruptions, highly charged inner movements, a shaking body and inner storms. The belief that one has to sit through all the stuff that arises can spark an inner crisis that ends up requiring medication, not meditation.

The archetype revealed in the statues of the Buddha has made a profound impression on generations. On the one side, it serves as a powerful and healthy reminder of sitting in meditation and, on the other side; it may reinforce unhealthy old patterns.

The Buddha wisely used the language of sitting, walking, standing, reclining meditation – not isolating the first posture from the other three.

There is nothing inherently problematic about sitting. There is nothing inherently problematic about not sitting. We can sit out of pure love of sitting, out of love of silence, stillness, the moment, non-doing, the free flow of energy in the upright posture or no clear reason at all. We can look within because we are genuinely interested to see clearly what processes are unfolding, to touch places of happiness and deep, inner peace and come to realisations about duality and non-duality without grasping either.

Oneness and twoness is not the issue. The marriage of liberating Truth and Love is the issue. Not whether we sit or whether we don’t sit.

Having said that, I encourage people to keep meditating on what matters. I didn’t say ‘Keep Sitting.’




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