Meditation Only Goes So Far

If you want to connect with the open, spacious quality of mind, says Willa Blythe Baker, at some point you have to stop trying to meditate.

By Willa Blythe Baker

Photo by Greg Becker

One hot summer evening several years ago, I found myself listening to a teaching in a meditation hall in upstate New York, an activity that had become far too rare at that point in my life. A hush came over the crowd as the diminutive teacher entered the room and took his seat. “Do you want to know the secret to meditation?” he asked.

Vigorous nods answered his question. Who doesn’t like to be in on a secret?

“Okay,” he said, “but first we need to prepare to meditate. Get comfortable on your cushion. Straighten your back. Lower your gaze. Relax your shoulders. Take a few slow, deep breaths…” He demonstrated.

There was a shuffle around the room as people shifted, pushed cushions into place, straightened up, sighed deeply. After a minute or so, the fidgeting settled.

“Okay, now—” The teacher paused for effect. “Listen closely. I am going to share a secret with you.” A palpable sense of anticipation settled over the room.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” He was teasing us a little. Glancing up, I could see that he was smiling, enjoying our expectation.

“All right. The secret to meditation is—”

He paused again to heighten our anticipation.

“Don’t meditate.”

He drew out the word “don’t” slowly.

After pausing again to let the instruction sink in, he added, “Instead, just be present, as you are, right here, right now. No grasping. Nothing more needs to be done.”

I’m not sure what others in the room experienced, but for me there was a sudden shift. I felt myself falling into a space of being acutely, vividly, and simply aware.

Dropping the Meditation Project

The instruction to not meditate may sound a bit scandalous in the Buddhist context we inhabit, but it is in fact nothing new. The hermeneutic of nonmeditation has roots as far back as the tenth century and the Indian master Tilopa, the founder of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He sings about non-meditation in his dohas (spiritual songs) and other instruction manuals. “Meditate alone in the forest and mountain retreats. Remain in the state of non-meditation,” he teaches in the Mahamudra instruction to Naropa.

How can one meditate and not meditate at the same time? While it sounds like a paradox, it begins to make sense when you consider that non-meditation is a kind of meditation—but in this practice we leave behind complicated notions of what we are doing on the cushion. In non-meditation practice, there is no call to become extraordinary, no urge to change what is. Instead there is permission to accept your experience of the moment and drop the project of meditation.

Mahamudra, or “the great seal”—along with Dzogchen, “the great perfection”—is one of the simplest forms of meditation in the Tibetan tradition. In its most essential form, it is the art of just being. It is also one of the most difficult practices to successfully cultivate precisely because it is so simple.

We are naturally complex creatures, prone to taking a simple moment of experience—a sensory experience, a thought, or a feeling—and spinning a web of concepts around it. It is a real challenge, for example, to simply observe a thought without getting involved in its orbit. We tend to follow, resist, or judge our thoughts. Pretty soon, what started as a simple thought becomes a complex network of concepts and ideas accompanied by a swirling eddy of emotion and reactivity.

The same goes for our relationship to meditation. It is challenging for us to take a simple instruction such as “meditate on the breath every day” and just do it. Instead, we get involved in a vortex of thinking about the practice, framing the practice, resisting the practice, and comparing and judging our practice against a perceived ideal. Sometimes we even create a new identity around meditation practice. Whereas before we called ourselves a nurse, a teacher, a barista, or a jogger, now we are—in addition—a meditator, with all the self-concepts that accompany that label.

In non-meditation, our projections, beliefs, and opinions are held lightly, and the vibrant space around and within them becomes the refuge.

Meditation, in other words, is not only a practice; it is also a conceptual construct that carries weight in our life. That construct may have surprisingly little to do with the practice itself, yet we bring it with us as a subtle companion when we sit on the cushion.

The practice of non-meditation hastens recognition of this kind of conceptual baggage. It helps us see that concepts about what we are doing can sometimes inhibit the actual practice. When we drop the very thing we think we should be doing, suddenly the weight of everything we’ve been carrying becomes apparent. Ideas, we discover, can be heavy.

The instruction “Don’t meditate” invites us to shine a light around and through the construct of meditation. As we explore non-meditation as a way of being, we might even suspend our meditation practice for a while and cease to live by its rules. Meditation is a doorway to freedom, but it will always be a doorway, not the destination. When we drop the project of meditation and suspend allegiance to a construct, we can rest in our immediate experience, just as it is, free from the filter of interpretation. This is important, because immediate experience holds the key to our freedom.

Non-Meditation Practice

The first time I heard the term “non-meditation” was in 1987, in a packed room near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, when Kalu Rinpoche introduced the “Three Gates to Liberation,” three key instructions on how to practice Mahamudra. They are not instructions for what to do but rather for what not to do. The practice, he told us, was this:

Do not fabricate
Do not meditate
Do not be distracted

In essence, Rinpoche explained, authentic practice is discovered when we let go and stop trying so hard. He taught that the heart of these three is nonmeditation, which involves the discovery of non- volitional space—a place where we drop striving and trust the fullness of what is already present.

When practicing non-meditation, we are not trying to accomplish a task or tether our mind to something, such as the breath. But we are not giving up either. So what are we doing? The short answer is that we are not doing—we are being. The initial task of non-meditation is to find a home in the present moment and let go of holding on to anything whatsoever. If there is a mantra of non-meditation, perhaps it is let go, let go, let go. We let go of intentions, schemes, expectations, projects, and grasping.

When we practice letting go again and again in this way, a spacious quality of mind that is naturally open and free emerges from the background of our consciousness into the foreground of our experience. If we can stay with the freshness of what is unfolding, aspects of our being conditioned by grasping and reactivity are gradually able to release.

Honing the skill of becoming a consummate nondoer does not mean becoming passive. It also does not mean our cognitive constructions—about meditation or anything else—vanish. Being, we discover, is not the antithesis of doing. Doing exists in the womb of being. So the practice of non-meditation is not so much an escape from constructions as it is a practice of noticing there is a great deal more to our experience than the constructions alone.

In non-meditation, our projections, beliefs, and opinions are held lightly, and the vibrant space around and within them becomes the refuge. In everyday life, we focus on the content of the mind’s activity. In non-meditation, we focus on the energy of the mind’s activity. From that vantage point, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and so on are just pure dynamic energy, neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong. When we notice this, we ease up on ourselves. We become more aware of the relativity of our thoughts and are able to disentangle ourselves from them, which enables us to be less reactive to whatever is happening, inside or out. We trust the energy of thought more than its content and can therefore have a sense of humor about the antics of our own mind.

Natural Awareness Is Already Present

One of the assumptions I long carried with me as a meditator was that I am not good enough as I am. As a result, for many years I operated under the notion that meditation would fix me and make me a better, more peaceful person. Many of us carry this notion deep down; we tend to come to the spiritual path wanting to make our lives and ourselves better.

In other words, when we embark on a project of meditation, we do so with a belief that it will lead us to a future state of peace. In Mahamudra practice, however, the goal is not a future peace. While the aspiration to attain inner peace or to be free from suffering may seem perfectly natural, there is a subtle kind of violence—and also a deep misunderstanding—in the notion that we are not sufficient as we are.

A basic tenet of Buddhism is that our innermost being is already aware, clear, and unwavering. Not in the future, but right now. In some traditions, this fully wise, awake aspect is called buddhanature. In Mahamudra practice, it is called natural awareness. Natural awareness is not a state; it is fundamental to who we are. We meditate in order to witness this clarity, spaciousness, and compassion as our innermost being.

When we first sit on the cushion, we may have trouble believing there is anything of that nature in a chaotic mind full of churning thoughts and feelings. But as we sit more and more, eventually we discover that a very subtle, quiet awareness is watching the chaos. Natural awareness is not thrown off by the chaos of the relative mind. It remains grounded in every moment of experience, not separate from what it sees; it is a selfless, nondual watcher. It is completely ordinary and present in the now.

To experience this quiet watcher, we practice carefully observing the fundamental ground of present experience, the home and essence of the watcher. To the degree that meditation supports this reflexive gaze, it supports the recognition of natural awareness. But to the degree that meditation is future- or goal-oriented, it takes us away from natural awareness.

Right Here in This Wild Mind

In order to stay with a process of subtle self-observation, a commitment to tolerance is necessary. We have to become okay with our mind just as it is. Awakening is not found anywhere other than within this wild mind—not in the future nor in the past. So we need to find some friendliness toward everything arising in the mind. We cannot explore the truth of the mind while judging or reacting to it.

Non-meditation involves letting everything—the messiness and chaos—be there, creating a holding environment for the mind’s gymnastics without suppressing, fixing, judging, or getting carried away by them. The practice of non-meditation is a practice of deeply accepting the truth of our present experience. This requires a great deal of patience and love.

This love and friendliness is well worth cultivating because as it turns out, the messiness itself is not a problem in need of fixing. Our messiness harbors the essence of natural awareness. We tend to believe that chaos is not fundamental to who we are, but in fact our chaos cannot be separated out from its ground and distilled into something more “pure.” Natural awareness saturates it. So the practice is not to escape, suppress, or fix our mind but to see natural awareness within our wild mind.

If our practice is to simply notice natural awareness, a quality of mind that is already present right here and now within every moment, then it is counterproductive to try to make something special happen—even to bring about a meditation state (jhana) or meditative stability. Those practices, so prevalent in Buddhism, draw us toward thinking about a before and an after, pursuing special states of being.

Natural awareness has no before and after; it is already awake. It is already happening. It cannot happen later. There is no special event, other than noticing with increasing depth and intensity what is happening right now. Sometimes natural awareness is also called “ordinary awareness,” emphasizing that it is nothing exotic or special. It is ever-present and ordinary, a constant reality. And yet to witness something this subtle directly is extraordinary and the essence of awakening.

So there is nothing to be cultivated in Mahamudra except this subtle turn of attention to what is already there, to something that we already are. Adding something onto our already present awareness, something that is labeled “meditation,” becomes a distraction.

Always a Fresh Experience

The Tibetan word for meditation is gom, which essentially means “to get used to something by repeating it.” When we meditate, we return to a technique again and again. This familiar return can be comfortable, but it can become repetitive or even boring, resulting in resistance to the practice itself. What can we do about this boredom and resistance?

The aspiration to attain inner peace may seem perfectly natural, but there is a subtle kind of violence and deep misunderstanding in the notion that we are not sufficient as we are.

Just as meditation carries the implication of repetition, the term “non-meditation” carries the implication that every time we sit we are not repeating the same thing again and again. We are observing something totally new in every moment. Every time you sit down, there is an encouragement to consider this meditation session as your very first. Simply by reframing our practice as non-repetition, we can acquaint ourselves with the uniqueness of each meditation session.

In Mahamudra meditation, the present moment of awareness becomes our meditation “object.” Instead of doing something, we practice dropping effort and just resting in the here and now. If we are really in the present moment, a sense of adventure will often spontaneously arise, because anything can happen. There is an unpredictable unfolding of experience—feelings, perceptions, sounds, thoughts—as we ride the wave of now.

The past cannot be found anywhere. The future is also a fiction. This moment is indeed the only moment that has ever happened. In the practice of non-meditation, when you sit down it is the first and only time you have ever practiced. In the Mahamudra tradition, we find the term soma, which means “fresh,” and it refers to the truth of the newness of our present experience. If we can find freshness in our sitting practice, it remains dynamic, adventurous, and joyful. We can reclaim that sense of discovery and excitement that we began with as practitioners.

What About Meditation?

With all this talk of non-meditation, you might wonder if there is room for a practice of meditation in this alternate universe. The answer is most definitely yes. If we can step out of the construct of meditation, enter the present moment of experience ‘ with deep acceptance, and dwell in the territory of natural awareness, that is excellent. But can we stay there? Most of us cannot remain in the open ocean for long without needing a life raft. Shamatha and vipassana practices serve as a life raft, allowing us to develop focus and relaxation that we can bring to open awareness.

In Mahamudra, distraction does not mean straying from focus on an object. Distraction means straying from the relaxed, non-conceptual freshness of our present experience. When we get enmeshed in the past or future, we are distracted. When we grasp, we are distracted. Being undistracted in Mahamudra practice is a very subtle skill, much harder to master than the non-distraction of conventional shamatha. Fortunately, shamatha can strengthen the muscle of mindfulness, focus, and relaxation, helping us recognize what it means to be distracted and what it means to be focused before we work on the subtle art of staying grounded in wakeful presence.

What this means in daily practice is that focused shamatha is frequently used within a session as a kind of “tune-up” for the mind’s attention. After focusing on the breath for a while, we then open up to a panoramic awareness of our present experience. From there, with more powerful attention, we can begin to explore the subtleties of innate natural awareness. In this way, on the heels of focused meditation, we can often stay in non-meditation with more focus and stability, and for a longer duration.

In Mahamudra training, this alternation continues for a long time. Therefore, while nonmeditation is classified as the main practice in the Mahamudra tradition, meditation is an important supportive practice. We might say that meditation and non-meditation need each other.

Non-Meditation as Fruition

This mutual reliance of meditation and non-meditation is reflected in descriptions of the fruition of Mahamudra practice, which is often expressed as a gradual refinement of consciousness unfolding as four stages of development called “the four yogas of Mahamudra.” The four yogas are essentially four phases that a yogi progressively goes through when engaging in long-term practice. These stages are one-pointedness, simplicity, equal taste, and non-meditation.

One-pointedness is a state of focus in which the mind can stay with something without wavering for a long period of time. Simplicity is a state in which the mind’s tendency to complicate things begins to dissolve naturally. At the stage of equal taste, the highs and lows of meditation, and of life generally, lose their volatility. Non-meditation is a level at which a yogi no longer needs to engage in meditation at all. The state of non-grasping and open relaxation is the yogi’s baseline.

In the fruitional schema of Mahamudra, it becomes apparent that there is a difference between the practice of nonmeditation and its full blossoming. Fully blossoming non-meditation seems to be a developmental achievement, requiring time and a great deal of commitment over the long term. To really experience this blossoming, the mind needs to learn how to focus (one-pointedness) and release the tendency to grasp at the content of the mind (simplicity). The practitioner also needs to develop stable equanimity toward all experiences (equal taste). When the meditator has mastered those skills to the point where it changes their ongoing conscious experience, there is a possibility for authentic non-meditation to blossom.

A Paradigm Shift

Lately 1 have been tempted to answer the question “Do you meditate?” with the answer “Yes and no.”

Do I sit? Yes. Do I watch my breath? Yes. Do I meditate? I hesitate to answer this question in the affirmative anymore because it is only a part of the picture.

This feels sacrilegious. How improper to be a dharma teacher who does not meditate! But this is the truth. I cannot answer “Yes” in good faith, because what the asker means by “meditation” is quite possibly not my main practice. I like to think of practice in other terms, as a kind of homecoming—a way of being present, of being in my body, of being in sacred relationship.

If we can find freshness in our sitting practice, we can reclaim that sense of discovery we began with as practitioners.

At a retreat I attended recently, Tsoknyi Rinpoche shared an old Mahamudra saying: “Sentient beings are not enlightened because they don’t meditate. Yogis are not enlightened because they do.” In other words, we need meditation to develop concentration, focus, calm, and simplicity. We need it to become more awake. But we do not need it forever. Eventually we must let go of technique and commit to the freedom it represents. Otherwise, like the yogis in the saying, we may interfere with our own enlightenment.

In a similar vein, in the Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha famously compares the dharma to a raft. You need the raft of dharma, he says, to get to the other shore of enlightenment. But once there, it makes no sense to carry the boat on dry land. Applying the same logic, meditation stabilizes states of concentration, relaxation, and ease in our mind. But once there, it may not serve to carry techniques beyond their useful life.

But how do we know when it’s time to let go? The answer, the masters say, is found in innate natural awareness. Natural awareness, when we glimpse it, requires a paradigm shift: we must relinquish control and trust in natural awareness to drive the practice, rather than the other way around. At that point, while we may indeed continue to sail the waters and even—Buddha willing—reach the other shore, we will discover that we have always been standing on the same old ground.

photo of Lama Willa Blythe-Baker

Willa Blythe Baker

Willa Blythe Baker is the founder and spiritual director of Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston as well as its retreat center, Wonderwell Mountain Refuge, in Springfield, New Hampshire. She is an authorized teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, having completed two three-year retreats, and the author of The Arts of Contemplative Care, Everyday Dharma, and Essence of Ambrosia. Her forthcoming book explores the body’s natural wisdom.