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

Updated On — 5th Jul, 2015

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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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

9 thoughts on “Meditation Techniques: Truly Helpful, or Just Gilding the Lily?”

  1. Maybe what I needed all this time was to try the valley approach. Maybe I was trying to see things too realistically and as result I’m not able to define my spirituality yet. How could I ever truly meditate when I can’t even achieve inner-peace? My mind’s so clouded with everyday thoughts, that I have a hard time connecting with my spirituality. I’ll practice the valley approach first before I start meditating again and hopefully it will help me find peace in me. Maybe for me the valley will come first before I can start meditating or maybe finding the valley is perhaps meditation itself.

  2. I feel that those people who question meditation techniques or meditation itself, are the sort of people who don’t believe in anything in life. Meditation is not a fantasy and is something that one can do if one has a mind. You don’t need to believe in a certain god and you certainly don’t need to believe in religion. I personally don’t understand the people who believe that meditation doesn’t work, because they’re basically saying their minds don’t have the capacity for deeper thoughts. Anyways, I’ve got a long ways to become a “valley person”, but I’m glad I’ve found meditation at this stage in my life.

  3. I’ve been relatively new to meditation, but over the last year I’ve found that I myself leaning toward the Valley approach. Mainly because it speaks to me more than the alternatives so far, but what’s the journey if not for the thrill & discoveries in the exploration?

  4. I was just looking for this info for a while. After 6 hours of continuous Googleing, finally I got it in your web site. I wonder what is the lack of Google strategy that don’t rank this kind of informative websites in top of the list. Usually the top sites are full of garbage.

  5. As a student of TCM, on reading your blog, I instantly thought of the balance between yin and yang, heaven and earth, light and dark, etc., the nature of things from a Taoist perspective. .. perhaps I could share this lengthy but rich perspective from a favorite book of mine:

    “…from a Taoist mythological perspective, the light of the shen or spirit comes to us directly from the stars, directly from the divine, and resides, during our lives, in the empty space at the center of the heart. The shen is the illuminating spark of personal awarenss, the source of the radiance of indiviudal presence that streams from a person’s being.

    “Heart, emperor, sun, and North Star control, harmonize and unify an infinite number of separate individual energies. This task of joining the many into a single unity while allowing each to retain its own particularity is accomplished by each of them in the same way: wu wei, the way of emptiness. It is the way of wisdom, the way of the sage, Zen meditators, tai ch’i artists and calligraphers, Native American shamans, and the very greatest African dancers know this way of being, this way of the heart, this way of paradox where the most powerful doing is accomplished by doing nothing at all. It is the way that heaven extends itself effortlessly into the environment through the illumination of the shen.”

    “Through wuwei, the heart is able to pump blood effortlessly through the body for the span of a human lifetime. Through wuwei, the heart coordinates and organizes every aspect of the bodymind. Thus the greatest emperors’ rule their kingdoms without effort, simply by maintaining their position of perfect equilibrium between earth and heaven. Sunlight informs the vibrancy and movement of every aspect of life, yet the sun itself does nothing but hold steady while the light of its fire showers the solar system with energy and the pull of its gravitational weight locks each planet in perfect orbit. Similarly, the North Star shines motionless at the hub or pivot point of the night sky as the stars spin in the great echoing silence of eternity. Such a “form of government,” writes Lao Tzu, “is what people hardly even realize is there.”

    “According to Hindu science, the element of the heart chakra is air. In her book about the chakra system, Anodea Judith describes the heart’s relationship to air. She says that air implies space and a certain kind of emptiness. It represents freedom, as shown by the birds that fly. In the airy space of the heart, there is room to breathe, room for the self and the reflection of another. The airy space of the heart is the space of wuwei, the space of emptiness, the space of unknowing and of awe. It is into this empty silence that the shen come like birds alighting on a branch at dawn. Without this spaciousness the spirits will flee and the light of the divine will no longer illuminate our consciousness and actions. In such a state, a desperate effort to control the environment replaces the effortless non-doing of wuwei wisdom. In this state, the empress cannot fulfill her crucial organizing functions on the physical, psychological and environmental levels.”

    “The shen are yang. They are polarized toward heaven and their natural tendency is anti-gravitational and negentropic. In their book The Heart, Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Valle describe the shen as a precious wild bird. Like birds, ‘The shen are free to come and go, to come into myself or to quit this place and to fly away.. The shen go up, they want to go back to heaven.’ Unless they are entranced and nurtured by the yin essences of the earth, the shen rise up and fly off, back to the heavenly realms. In a healthy human being, the yin lower spirits magnetize the yang shen downward, allowing them to rest in the inviting hollow of the heart space. In order to maintain a suitable resting place for the shen, the heart must remain in a state that is close to its original nature, serene, accepting and open. The light of the shen radiates from such a tranquil heart to illuminate the lives of all those it touches.”

    “If the precious wild birds of the spirit burst prematurely from the heart, the light of the shen will no longer be present to guide and inform the movements of qi. All bearings lost, the breaths of qi become chaotic, the fire of the heart grows dim and we wander in a daze from one meaningless project to the next, wondering how we found ourselves in this or that predicament. No matter how we try, nothing can fill the emptiness that is left once the spirits have departed. Life on earth is filled with events that elicit powerful emotions, but according to the Taoist tradition, the sage or wise one does not become overly attached to these passing storms. Rather, the sage’s one and only concern is maintaining the tranquility of the heart so that the luminous wild birds of the shen will have a suitable resting place. As long as the shen remain in the heart space, the direction of our lives will be clear and our paths will be illuminated. Through wuwei we will naturally and effortlessly create order and harmony in our environment.”

    “When strong emotions come, the way of the sage is not to try to stop them but to observe their rushing passage. “We watch them from the top of a high hill, as we might view the magnificent passing of towering thunderclouds on a rainy summer evening. In this way, we can allow emotions to move through use while still maintaining our serenity.”

    “Chuang Tzu, one of the great early Taoist sages, describes the heart as a reflecting pool. When this pool is calm and still, it is “The mirror of heaven and earth, the glass of the ten thousand things.” In this state, the heart reflects the truth, beauty and intrinsic order of the cosmos as an undisturbed pool of water reflects the forest glade. The movements of our lives will be based on this observation of the world around us. But when the heart is disturbed by violent emotion, it is like the wind-tossed sea. All images are fragmented and unclear, the truth of heaven and earth cannot be perceived. Actions taken at such a time of fragmentation will only further the confusion and unrest. However, if we hold ourselves back from action and do not get attached to the emotions as they pass, then the heart will grow calm again like water after a storm and can once again reflect the truth and wisdom of the Tao.”

    From Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing by Lorie Eve Dechar

  6. Well said Tom.

    The valley approach to spirituality is the one that works for me. In the following I am going off on a tangent, having expressed my complete sympathy with your central point.

    There are two different moral outlooks underlying the valley and the mountain approach to spirituality. The mountain one does not work for me because to me it seems like a form of denial, a denial of human responsibility. . A challenge for me is that the valley approach can also involve denial.

    I find that the idea that I can do “net good” or that I can behave “coherently good” is fraught with complications and inconsistencies.

    We see this problem highlighted in the U. S. intervention in Afghanistan. Women were nearly, if not completely, slaves under the Taliban. But now women stay at home out of fear of being raped, robbed or killed. Drugs are now in mass production. The social fabric of the country has been torn apart. Bribery is rampant. The number of violent deaths caused by both Afghan and U.S. Forces is vastly increased from the violent death rate when the Taliban were in charge.

    And so I think it is difficult to maintain our psycho-spiritual integrity when we dogmatically judge (as we must for practical reasons) something to be good or bad action. It might not be plausible to know with certainty whether or not we can clearly “do what we can to work to change chauvinistic systems that oppress others in the name of some higher power.” When we do take action, it is possible that we become part of another chauvinistic power system.

    It is not that we should not do anything, but I find it useful to reflect on the ramifications of my good deeds.

    Zhuangzi points out the problem of trying to maintain ethical consistency: “Steal a horse and we will put you in jail. Steal a country and we will make you king.”

    He is not saying “don’t be a hypocrite.” He is saying is is best to realize that all morality is intrinsically fraught with hypocrisy. He recognizes that to maintain social order we need rules which will necessarily entail hypocrisy. He recognizes that stable minds and stable societies cannot thrive without this necessary rule-making moral hypocrisy. But at least if we are aware of that, we are less likely to call some saints and others sinners. We are less likely to despise anyone, even if we find it useful to imprison them.

    When we put someone in jail we are best to also remember Attar’s words: “Who sold Joseph into slavery? I say we all do.”

    As I have said before, it seems that the best I can do is to be as kind as possible to everyone I help and also to everyone who is hurt by my action and inaction.

  7. I like this very much indeed, Tom. Not because I judge the valley way superior to the mountain way. Fortunately I don’t have to make that judgement. I choose which suits me best, as you have done, and it sounds like we choose similarly.

    If I discovered that I had inadvertently set myself up as a meditation teacher, I would dissociate myself from that as far as possible and give an honest answer to questions about Karma, Taliban and Palin: “I don’t know”.

    I’m trying to make up a question about Sarah Palin. Perhaps “Is her possible presidential candidature in the same category as Taliban ideas of justice?” I could legitimately answer “no”, on the grounds that I don’t believe in categories. But I would prefer to answer with one of those sticks that Zen meditation teachers use to chastise their students.

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