Meditation Techniques: Truly Helpful, or Just Gilding the Lily?

Once you set up shop as a meditation teacher you get asked a whole lot of questions. Of course, there are the ones questioning your competence, qualifications, and intentions–I try to skirt those as I am no guru, just trying to be helpful, with 30 years of Buddhist meditation under my belt. Then there are the inevitable questions pitting one meditation technique against another. Basically, we have to deal with a deeper question before we can even tackle that one: are meditation techniques even helpful, or are questions about them just more gilding the lily?

The confusion rises when in meditation practice, some teachers or traditions encourage students to explore the view of the so-called perfection of the present moment. This simply means that it’s too late to change the present moment, so we open to it as it is.

I feel this is meant to encourage what I call the “valley qualities” of non-striving, openness, warmth, and relaxation. I don’t feel it means that things are happening as they should be due to some plan or karma (frankly, for me karma does nothing as an attempt to explain why things happen the way they do, and they just confuse the issue when the questions branch out to consider individual meditation techniques).

When talking about the “valley” quality we are describing an overall attitude and view of the world, one on which the pros and cons of different meditation techniques is just meaningless babble.

In the “valley” view of spiritual practice, we try to relax into the perfection of the present moment as it is. It also means we allow our hearts to break over and over again at the madness and cruelty on a massive scale that is happening in the world.

We actively engage in whatever we can to alleviate suffering, as suffering is very real. We do what we can to work to change chauvinistic systems that oppress others in the name of some higher power. We do this out of mature compassion–the suffering with others. Spiritual practice serves us in this process of bearing witness with love and compassion.

This question points to a larger issue we face when we engage in spiritual practice. Aspects of practice that I encourage, and talk about and write about on the blog, pertain to a “valley” approach rather than a “mountain-top” approach.

When I say “valley qualities” I am not referring to San Fernando, California.

The mountain-top approach encourages climbing higher and higher, and flirts with the idea of transcending the world. The valley approach, on the other hand, is about going down, not up. It’s not a waking “up” but a waking “down.” By down I mean: into the body (valley), not the rarefied atmosphere of the head (mountain-top).

It is about the richness, the lushness and the composting of our stuff in the valley, not about “transcending” our stuff on the mountain.

Another way to talk about these movements is to call the valley approach feminine, and the mountain one masculine. The valley accepts the refuse of the cities, and in the composting of the refuse grows the lotus, while the mountain rejects the refuse in search of “perfect” rarefied mental states.

The mountain-top approach is all about peak experiences, while the valley is about the ordinary life of oatmeal, children and paying bills. So in valley spirituality there is little concern for transcendence. “Ordinary mind is the way” is a famous line from an old Zen teacher of 9th century China.

The reason we need to get these ideas sorted out first is it helps us get a grip on why there are so many meditation techniques, and how we can see where they are coming from. How we see the world spiritually has a huge impact on how a meditation techniques work, or don;t work.

Some spiritual traditions encourage transcendence from the very things that make for a “passionately engaged life” (Catherine Ingram’s line). The mountain-top approach emphasizes the transient, ephemeral nature of life. This translates often into the seeing the world as unreal and unsatisfactory, and developing a hankering after what is real–some sort of spiritual upgrade, some other-world transcendence.

Mountain spirituality is about leaving home for a long journey; valley spirituality recognizes you can never leave home.

Mountain spirituality is about discipline and long (and expensive) retreats, and getting more and more refined levels of insight. Valley spirituality recognizes you can’t improve on our already perfect present moment wakefulness; trying to do so is gilding the lily.

I contend that the valley way is not about belief systems at all, but rather on opening to what is, in all it’s chaos, confusion, misery and mind-boggling senseless tragedy.

Of course, this is not a black or white deal. As as a sangha member pointed out in an email to me, mountains and valleys depend on each other. He writes “whether we choose the valley or choose the mountain, there is discipline involved to notice and accept what is happening.”

The mountain way seems to desensitize us into thinking it’s not really real, or it’s happening as it should be due to some cosmic plan, or karma. Or that it’s just a mass of suffering and our job is to “do what has to be done” to put an end to it–through striving, discipline, renunciation, and hard work.

I guess I am just lazy.

I like hanging with my family, and not using my precious vacation time from work to go off on retreat somewhere.

I am as happy as a clam in the refuse and lushness of the my life just as it is.

The valley approach suits me perfectly!

You can read on and see what kinds of meditation techniques are more suitable to the valley view and which meditation techniques are more mountain top view ones.

I think getting these two spiritual views sorted out can help us make sense out of all the different meditation techniques. If we are more of a “valley person” then we would be happier I think with a valley meditation technique — hint, one that we can do easily in daily life and is not one that needs the rigors of a mountain ascent to begin to work.

Please take this opportunity to engage in some dialog via the comment feature of this blog.  What do you think? Am I over-simplifying this topic of their being so many meditation techniques to choose from?

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