from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 18 June 2017

what am I meditating for?

I wrote this post in 2013, I see. Maybe it bears repeating?

I subscribe to daily quotes from 'Tricycle Daily Dharma'. This helps open up a small space in my day, especially since they arrive first thing, and I read one therefore before getting involved in my work emails.

Today's is: 'You may read that meditation enables you to tame your mind and bring it to a state of stability and peace. Despite meditating as a Buddhist for more than 40 years, I have not achieved even a glimpse of this, nor have I ever seen anyone else achieve it. Admittedly, I am not much of a practitioner, but there may also be a more general reason why this is so.' (Douglas Penick, 'What Are You Meditating For?')

This bold statement made me smile, for its honesty, its courage, its straightforwardness. And – oh yes – I recognised it. Hooray! Phew. And there was I thinking I was the only failed meditator in the world – or at least, I might do if I didn't recognise three things.

One is that 'failure' and 'success' are ultimately delusions of the ego (and/or the culture), and relatively meaningless evaluations on a spiritual path.

Two, that the only way I could 'fail', if I wanted to use that word to beat myself up and judge myself, is by not showing up to meditate, had I made it my committed practice to do so.

And three, there is nowhere to get to, nothing to achieve – the practice, the process, itself is what I'm showing up for.

To look again at Penick's statement gave me a sense of relief. And yes, I'd echo to a large extent what he says. And right now I've barely meditated for nearly six weeks – by the standards of my commitment to myself, I'm not doing too well.

I've been thinking about why we meditate again lately, as a dear friend is undergoing training in Zazen, that most difficult of meditation trainings, and she writes to me of four sitting sessions of thirty minutes each, broken by five minutes' walking meditation, with eyes (I imagine from my own training) only half-closed and a whitewashed wall in front of her. (I'm afraid that too is the point, B, the white wall – one's eyes resting on green leafery outside would be considered too distracting for the naturally-wandering mind – that is, all of our naturally wandering minds.)

Forty years on from my own Zazen training, I have some hesitations about its usefulness to the Western mind, and its harsh 'masculine' emphasis (though in my sangha they didn't actually hit us on the shoulders if we dozed, unlike the usual depiction of Zen meditation).

Nonetheless, as a method of training the mind to cut through distraction to the clear bell-like heart of everything, I think it's unsurpassed; and although a gentler way in to meditation is to focus on something else, like a candle or flower, an image or mantram, I can see the usefulness of not substituting another, albeit 'higher' and single-pointed, focus to distract monkey-mind from itself, but instead cutting through to beyond the point where thought arises altogether.

Does one ever manage that? Yes, in moments. What, stability and peace? – Well, the latter for a little while – by which I mean moments, but better than nothing, surely? – anyway. Does one manage to inhabit that place as a steady state? Of course not. The world always crowds in.

So why do I meditate?

For the discipline.

For the effort and concentration.

For keeping my crazy erratic mind – I think we all suffer from ADHD in the Western world, with its continual media/communication bombardment – and its over-fertile imagination in one place, single-mindedly, for a short while (or attempting to).

For watching and learning about the many ways I delude myself, distract myself, desire what I can't have, dislike what I do have, judge myself, want to be 'there' when actually I'm 'here'. In other words, noting the many ways in which I cause myself to suffer needlessly – and obviously noticing, too, the ways in which I cause suffering to others.

For opening up moments as broad, as infinite, as the sky, or the sea.

For allowing what's really important to rise to the surface.

For seeing into the still and flaming heart of it all.

For moving beyond the ridiculous inner monologue and its trivia, even if only for moments.

For slipping the grip of ego and its insistence on 'I', 'me' and 'mine'.

For the fact that I can at least drop more easily into 'that place' of calmness, even if only for a few moments, in my general daily life, when I'm in the habit of meditating.

For psychological health.

For noticing the insubstantial values and patterns our materialistic culture embeds in us, and for challenging those.

For the sake of noticing transience, and that one day I won't be here. How precious that makes it all, in every moment.

And, actually, because it makes me a slightly kinder person – one who can, at times, stop the unkind word at its arising; can look into the heart of anger rather than simply acting it out; resist hitting out blindly (not least because I'm hitting out at self when hitting out at other).

For finding a stillpoint from which to dance.

Because I can remember more readily that we really are all one.


  1. Dear Roselle, what a coincidence.
    I have been thinking these last few days that I really should get back to meditating more, restore some discipline as I have let it slip over the past 3 or 4 years. So I dug out my old trusted Zen book with the intention of finding a koan and a shady spot but first I decided to check my e mails,(here we go,any excuse) and of course I read this. Thank you for making me feel not quite so useless and also making me realise that it's all a delusion anyway and all that matters is that I am not only here but also present.
    love C x

    1. Hi! Synchronicity! - and as my old Zen teacher used to say, meditation actually starts once you get off the meditation cushion! So being present over and over – trying to be present over and over - is what counts. So glad to think you're starting again. xx

  2. Ahh, but first I have to get on to the cushion . . .
    Chris V. xx

    1. True... sometimes one needs to bribe oneself... :-) xx


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