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Moving Beyond the Self in Meditation Practice

Most of us start Dharma practice because we feel that we are not happy with our lives. There may be some specific thing that’s happened, such as the death of a loved one or some other seismic event. Or we may be experiencing a more general malaise, such as an unfulfilling job or a difficult family life. We come to practice as a way to, and with the hope of, ameliorating these woes. We cultivate mindfulness of our thoughts, speech and actions and begin to see the ways in which we contribute to our unhappiness. This allows ourselves to think, say and do things that are more conducive to our happiness. This is wholesome and we benefit from it in the form of greater happiness in our lives.

Yet, as time goes by, there is still a nagging sense that something is not quite right. We’re not completely happy. At this point, it’s common for people to begin to question the practice–and even stop practicing altogether--so they can pursue the next thing that is going to bring the promise of fulfillment. Of course, it’s not the practice that is the problem, it’s how we are approaching the practice. That is, we are practicing within the paradigm of making ourselves (emphasis on the self) happy. In fact, complete happiness, total fulfillment, however one wants to name it, only comes when we move beyond the sense of self and the accompanying angst, fear and sense of separation.

To do this we need to shift our emphasis on practicing to feel good, to practicing to understand–understanding that our most essential nature is a bright, open and loving awareness that is independent of any “self” having that experience. It’s an awareness that doesn’t need any experience in the outer world to be fulfilled. The experience of a bright, open and loving awareness is the fulfillment. You could say it is fulfilled by itself.

This all sounds good and lovely, but how do we get there? We don’t! Trying to get someplace is still a subtle form of self-improvement. Trying to get anywhere in practice is heading in the wrong direction. Our practice needs to change from driving forward toward a goal, to opening and letting go into the present moment. How to do that? I suggest beginning with the body. If you want the Citta (heart, mind) to let go, soften and relax the body. That is, let go of holding in the body. If you want the Citta to open, open the body. Work with the posture so that the front of the torso feels more open. Adjust the head so that the throat area feels open. Continue to relax. This will encourage the body, and therefore the Citta, to open. The Citta and the body are very sympathetic to one another.

How we meditate needs to shift from solely trying to pay attention to a single object–and particularly, a small, discrete object–to a more open, soft awareness. Discrete objects, such as an anchor, can still be used, it’s just that meditation can benefit at times from a larger framework. A good place to start is with the whole body. We experience the somatic presence of whole body sitting and whole body breathing. In this way we are aware in a soft, open manner. We’re not driving forward and trying to get somewhere, we’re just softening and opening the body and softening and opening our awareness.

Eventually, we don’t focus our awareness on anything in particular–not even the body. The body is present, and can be known, but we’re not aiming our attention toward it. For it’s not what we are noticing that is important, but that we are noticing, and the quality/experience of that which is noticing. (Read that last sentence again and let it sink in and register). In this way we can begin to experience the essential nature of our Citta, which is open, relaxed and knowing. This becomes what we connect with during meditation, not a particular object. We move beyond the self with its goal-oriented approach. Letting go of that, we begin to experience something far more expansive, loving and easeful.

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