If you were to sum up your book in a few words, how would you describe it?
It’s a practical guide to setting up or deepening one’s meditation practice, and it addresses the most common problems and questions that students have asked me over the years. I intended it to be very much a step-by-step guide, and I wanted it to be as close as possible to having a teacher there.
Could you talk a little about how meditation has changed you as an individual? What were you like before you started to meditate in comparison with the person you are now?
First of all, it’s often difficult to say how you change because we change gradually, and our brains are not very well-equipped at detecting gradual change. But I used to be very, very bad-tempered – I was what they call a ‘hate type’ in terms of Buddhist psychology. I would spend a lot of time being resentful of people and keeping up a kind of monologue in my head about other people’s faults. And that just doesn’t happen any more. In fact I have difficulty in the fourth stage of the metta bhavana practice when you’re meant to call somebody to mind that you have difficulties with because I very often find that there’s isn’t really anybody that I can pick.
Changes like this are usually very gradual. Although, saying that, there have been so many occasions when I’ve sat down to meditate in one particular mental state and left the mediation practice in another mental state. In these situations, you can actually see change happening over the space of half an hour or so.
Your book is full of practical guidance on meditation, drawn from your own experience and that of others. Since writing it, have you come up with any more useful tips that you would like to share with us?
Yes, I’d say that my practice has developed a lot since the years that I wrote the book. One thing that has had a big effect on my practice and what I teach is a principle that I call ‘the stretch’ or ‘bandwidth flooding’.
Imagine that you’re doing the mindfulness of breathing practice, and you’re sitting there observing your breathing and there’s just a stream of thoughts going on, and it’s never-ending. I started noticing what I was doing when this wasn’t happening. I realised that it was when I was paying attention to a lot of different things that my mind was at its quietest. So I began to start my meditation by paying attention to what was going on outside of me – to the sense of space and sound and the light through my eyelids, for example, and then I also included in my attention the body and the breathing. Simultaneously paying attention to two separate sensations in this way creates a stretch. Because your mind is moving in two directions at the same time, it makes it much harder to be distracted.
And I also realised that the breathing doesn’t just happen on the front of the body. When we pay attention to our breathing, we’re normally just aware of the rise and fall of the chest, but actually, the movements on the chest are also happening on the side of the body, and all the way around to the spine. And there’s so much to pay attention to there, that I find that if I’m aware of the breath in a really full way, and not just having a token representation of it, then my mind is so busy paying attention to all these different sensations that very little thinking goes on. Any thinking that arises is almost diaphanous – little wisps of thought that pass through.
This is something that we can also notice in ordinary life. Imagine you’re in the kitchen juggling three or four different dishes that are on the stove and you’re also trying to chop some vegetables. When someone comes and tries to ask you a question, your response is ‘I can’t talk about this right now’. So, within meditation, if you give your mind a lot to do, it’s like cooking a really complex meal (hopefully without the stress involved!) and you just don’t have the room or the bandwidth left for paying attention to thoughts internally.
Have you been teaching this to your students?
Yes, it’s the standard way I teach now. When I teach introductory classes and ask students to be aware of the breath, I encourage them to pay attention in a much more general sense, to notice the fullness of the breathing. And you can start to sense the breathing over the entire body that is mentioned in the Anapanasati Sutta – the ‘breathing in, I’m aware of the whole body; breathing out, I’m aware of the whole body’. There’s actually no part of the body that’s not affected by the sensations of the breathing.
And is this something that you continue to practice in deeper stages of meditation, or does the stretch fall away as you become more concentrated?
Well what tends to happen is that there’s a process of narrowing of attention that goes on. Once your mind is calm, you can begin to allow yourself to be absorbed in just one sensation, or one set of sensations, and everything else just falls away. But I find it helps if I start with a very full awareness to calm the mind, and then I can begin to gradually narrow my focus.
And have there been any more new discoveries?
Yes, and this one is probably most simply described as self-compassion. I realised that very often we don’t really recognise or pay attention to our own suffering. To take an example, somebody does something we think is rude and we get annoyed. We start having lots of thoughts about this person, about how they shouldn’t have done what they did and how we might react. Actually, in the initial event that triggered this, there was suffering there, but we’ve gone straight into a defence mechanism based on that suffering, without actually acknowledging the suffering itself. So I’ve found that if I can bring awareness into my body and locate that suffering (it’s always there, always somewhere quite specific) and send the suffering compassion, the reactivity vanishes, and I immediately let go of all the storylines, just like that. You don’t need them any more, you don’t need to defend yourself, because you’ve taken care of yourself. And I’m then able to move from having compassion for my own suffering to having compassion for the other person.
You say that ‘nature can’t be owned but it can be emulated’; ‘it can be our mentor’. Specifically, what do you think that the wilderness can teach us?
I think the thing that most amazes me about nature is that it’s a selfless system which manages to be completely self-organising, beautiful and spontaneous. You walk into a forest, for example, and it’s functioning and balanced. Sometimes in our meditation practice our sense of self is like a really bad gardener who decides to go into the forest and try to fix it all, but actually it just makes a mess because you can’t work in a conscious way with a system like a forest – it’s too complex. But once you let go of the desire to fix everything in your meditation and just allow things to be, everything just is in quite a beautiful and spontaneous way, much in the same way as the forest.
And I think that’s what enlightenment is like. There’s a lot of emphasis in the Pali Canon on not having a sense of ownership – there’s a phrase that crops up over and over again: ‘this is not me, this is not mine, I am not this’.
At the very end of the book, you encourage the reader to ‘begin questioning the very nature of the distinction between our inner and outer worlds’. Can you elaborate a little on this idea?
It seems from scientific research on the brain and non-dual experiences that there’s a part of your brain which is actually responsible for creating the sense that there’s an inside and an outside, and this part of your brain goes offline when you’re doing certain kinds of expansive meditation in which you’re paying attention to both the inside and the outside. You end up with a kind of nondual experience, a sense of oneness, or a sense of expansiveness where you’re not making any reference to the existence of a self. So you can have the situation where you’re in the world and you’re responding to the world, but you don’t have a sense that what’s happening in the world is any different to what’s happening inside of you.
I think this is an experience that everyone has had, it’s just that we don’t realise the significance of it. Whenever we’re doing something that we’re really good at, for example, we can get into what’s called ‘the flow’. We’re just doing it and there’s no sense of ‘me’ involved. This used to happen to me when I was in my teens and playing badminton. I would suddenly find myself doing things that my conscious mind could never do – I could get to the shuttle cock faster than I could perceive it, and it was all happening beautifully, effortlessly and gracefully.
So this is something that I think we all experience from time to time, it’s just that we don’t realise that we can, in principle, experience it all the time. I think when we experience it all the time is when we’re enlightened.
As well as your book, I understand that you have a thriving online meditation resource. To what extent to do you see Wildmind and wildmind.org as a substitute for a personal meditation teacher?
There’s definitely no substitute for a personal teacher. However, you can have something that is a supplement, or something that is a first step towards finding a personal teacher. It’s a big step to take yourself along to a meditation class, so it’s natural for people to do some research first, and even make a bit of a start. CDs, MP3s, books, videos on youtube – all of these kind of things can be very useful first steps.
It’s also good to have the opportunity to take something in at your own pace. You can slow things down with books, you can reflect on things, take them one sentence at a time and think about how they actually fit with your experience. They can be more truly instructive.
Finally, you mention a planned second Wildmind book? Is this still in the pipeline?
Well it’s a very long pipeline. I have the material to bring out another book if only I could just take six months off and concentrate on nothing but writing!