The second way I meditated

When I was a freshman in college half a century ago, my favorite novelist was Doris Lessing. In one of her novels, maybe several of them, a character makes a deliberate effort to silence his or her mental chatter. The idea intrigued me because it touched a major feature of everyone’s experience yet I had never heard it mentioned before. I didn’t realize that this idea is the central theme of Yoga. I knew nothing about Yoga.

I went for a walk to try it. Lessing hadn’t given instructions for how to do this but nobody had told me it was hard so I played around with my mind a little bit and found a way. By the time I had walked one city block — about a minute — my inner monologue had stopped. I remember this clearly because I stood at the curb at the first intersection I reached, hesitating to cross, because I wasn’t sure I could judge correctly whether it was safe to do so while I wasn’t thinking.

(I remember where I was, too: Broadway and 113th Street in Manhattan, one block from my dormitory and one block from Tom’s Restaurant which appeared in Seinfeld on TV. I must have eaten more than a hundred hamburgers in that diner while I was in college.)

Of course only some of my thinking had stopped but still, this state was strikingly different from any that I had experienced before.

Here’s how I did it: I moved all my attention from my thoughts to my visual field. Not to any particular object in the visual field, but to the field as a whole, as if I were noticing the whole area of a movie screen while a movie was playing. Instantly my peripheral vision seemed to get wider, colors seemed to get brighter, and the inner monologue stopped. This was a fun little exercise and I continued to do it from time to time for decades afterward especially when I was in large department stores because they have long sight lines in all directions filled with colorful objects. It didn’t occur to me until decades later that this exercise could have anything to do with spirituality. I thought of it as an odd little habit like cracking my knuckles.

I haven’t tried to do this in years. I can’t remember when I stopped. When I try now, I can’t tell whether I’m doing it. That probably means that either I can’t do it anymore or I automatically do it all the time now.

States like this one which focus on sensory experience have nothing to do with Ramana’s method, which removes attention from objects and places it on the subject. But it may have been one of the things which led me years later to notice that I had been (in a way) unconscious for nearly all of my life, and that in turn led me to practice being more conscious, which was the topic of the first article I wrote for this website, which is still on the home page today. That practice (which I think is what many people mean when they say “be aware of awareness”) isn’t Ramana’s method either, but it may have helped me practice Ramana’s method.

Bonus chatter

I suppose Lessing was my first guru. A news team caught her on video at the moment when she learned she had won the Nobel prize. It shows her climbing with difficulty from a taxi at her home in London. She is very old. Her disabled son Peter, who remained dependent on her in her old age, sits in the taxi holding an artichoke. They must have just returned from buying groceries. The reporter informs her that she has won the Nobel prize. “Oh Christ,” she mutters.

6 thoughts to “The second way I meditated”

  1. A teacher I’ve been studying – in the sense of being the teachings – named Helen Hamilton (see my comment on the recent self-inquiry post) recommends a practice quite similar to this method of meditation. She calls it zooming out. When we zoom in, we focus attention on a specific object, situation or even thoughts/concerns, etc. Zooming out physically or mentally is deliberately not focusing on anything external, be it in the world or in the mind. It is like widening our focus to include everything but not focus on anything specifically. Doing this, for me, was similar to my experience of being aware of where I am experiencing from . . . like Douglas Harding’s headlessness – just being the space that contains all.

  2. Hi Freddie, thanks for another excellent post! Please keep them coming. And thanks also to Brian who has shared his ‘zoom in/zoom out’ method.
    I notice that whenever I have had “problems”, I’m so focused (zoomed-in) on a particular past incident which traumatized me and as I keep my focus on it, thoughts seem to multiply and its as if my mind splits into each arguing with each other. One part of the mind slams me about what a loser I’m and how I should have handled the situation, what I could have said etc, while the other part grieves and feels angry. Emotions well up and before I know it, my entire body is full of pain unable to release the emotions.
    Sometimes, while trapped in this, I’ve mustered all energy and gone for a walk, and put my attention on the surroundings and on anything other than thought. That has calmed me down but not entirely dissolved these emotions forever.
    I read through the links about how you handled the incident that left you traumatized for years, and how accepting that you were coward ending the thought stream permanently.
    And guess what, I’ve been enquiring along the same lines you did over the last few days and what did I come up with?? I’M A COWARD TOO!! I lacked the courage to speak up and tell my father and relatives what mattered to me while they all tried to manipulate me into getting their agendas done. This kept me a prisoner for the last two decades.
    The one difference with your experience is that while it ended the vasana in you, it has intensified the emotions in me and a second thought stream of self-abuse has started! And the essence of this abuse is “I screwed up. Why didn’t I see this before that they’re using me” and it goes on and on. So while the good news is that I discovered that I’m a coward, I realize that I’ve not entirely accepted it the way you did. And I realize I can’t force my mind to accept it. Maybe it’ll sink in over time and I’ll accept it.

  3. As I finished writing the above comment, and sat quietly, another discovery just popped up – not only did I lack courage to speak up, but there was another feeling beneath it – I didn’t want to hurt my father – in other words, I wanted my father to perceive me as a “good son”, a do-gooder, although I had so much suppressed anger against him for manipulating and lying to me.
    Now that he’s dead, there’s an added frustration and increase in anger (inability to express my true feelings) (I read about Julia’s experience and how fortunate she was to be abe to astral travel and express them with her grandmother and get rid of the vasana).
    Its amazing – egos can be so tenacious. Mine certainly is. All I see now is a dark tunnel but no light at the end. Hopefully something will show up.

    1. Hi Rama,

      I also had a very painful relationship with my father. For me, the root of all that pain was, “My father doesn’t love me” and “my father doesn’t approve of me.”

      There’s another way to deal with these things — a more powerful way, a more fundamental way — the method taught by Ramana. Switch the attention to ourself, to the I who experiences all these things. If we do this, the attention then moves again to the source of that “I” which is entirely outside the mind. Not part of the mind. Not affected by painful thoughts. This is different from switching the attention to anything else because everything else that we experience is part of the mind.

      1. Freddie, what a great response from you! I just love what you wrote. I’ll most definitely practice this.
        In some rare moments, I’ve experienced just sitting down and doing absolutely nothing with my mind. Gradually I settle into a calm space, that is devoid of any content but very peaceful and satisfying. In this state, thinking seems to happen on the periphery but lacks the power to “hurt” me (ego hurting itself). As you point out, I now see that MORE attention is on the source (which I call space) THAN on thoughts.
        I yearn for those moments because my thinking takes over quickly – it has such a strong momentum to it.
        One other thing I noticed is that, when I’m stuck in thoughts, there’s a division – some thoughts I consider as “me” and the other ones as “my father” or whoever the other is. A sort of argument or fight ensues, and there is an emotional reaction of “pain” and suffering.
        Yes, now its becoming clear that the only way to not suffer, is to leave this entire field of thought behind and focus on the Source and develop strong roots there, and not be blown away by thinking.
        Its amazing that your response had suddenly brought so much clarity to me. Its the way you have worded it. The more we focus on thoughts, the more we suffer!
        Its not a easy victory but at least I’m clear about the practice.
        Thank you again for your response – its beautiful !

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