News this morning that Canterbury was successful in its bid to bring a medical school to the city has been widely acclaimed. For those that don’t know, the city is an important global centre of education. It boasts three universities, a regional further education college and a wealth of private educational institutions along with some excellent primary and secondary schools. This latest announcement underlines what a great place the city is to live and work in. Teaching meditation here feels like a privilege, there’s always new meditation students, as well as interaction with scholarly Buddhist academics and advanced practitioners.
And yet the numbers of homeless people in Canterbury has never been higher (in living memory), the inequality in living standards is shocking and there are a number of areas described as economically deprived nearby. The local NHS trust is also one of the most lowly ranked in the UK. So what is the real picture? There are opportunities and challenges everywhere, how you view where you live and the people you live with is central to your happiness and wellbeing. If you are not happy with your conditions you need to try and improve them… but the worst option is to be unhappy and not do anything about it.
This is not about blind optimism, don’t ignore the problems and issues in your community, try to contribute to the improvement of your environment. But to denigrate your conditions and to imagine the grass is always greener somewhere else won’t make you feel great with life. You need to find real positives and build upon them. One of the root causes of unhappiness that I encounter in my day to day life is the idea that the conditions aren’t right for development and progress. In reality the conditions to improve things are never perfect, it’s much more a question of making a choice rather than waiting for your problems to resolve themselves.
“find real positives and build upon them”
From the nondual perspective thinking of things constantly as better or worse builds limitations, particularly if you apply this thinking to yourself. Relatively there is no perfect time to meditate, no perfect place to meditate and no perfect meditation practice. You have to work with what you have and progress to where you want to be. If happiness is your goal, start to think about your own happiness and the happiness of others, work towards greater happiness generally and disengage with things that you know create unhappiness or harm.
Let go of resentment, abandon negativity, move towards enduring happiness.
The rewards of nondual practice are immense, this form of meditation opens a window into a world where suffering and joy become a choice rather than mere chance. That doesn’t mean that challenges don’t arise for nondual practitioners, rather the conditions that give rise to problems, and the approaches of dealing with them are altered. Buddhist forms of meditation have defined theoretical frameworks describing the degree of non-duality in different practices. Secular meditation is a bit more problematic to explain. For students embarking on meditation for the first time, it’s essential to set realistic expectations whilst explaining how the system works.
A useful starting point is to talk about forgiveness, although we don’t teach forgiveness practice per se’, it is a useful way of describing the secular non dual approach.
How would it feel if you forgave yourself for every negative action you had ever carried out?
The idea of forgiving yourself is generally compelling for most people struggling to make sense of the world. The nondual approach take the same view of the negative actions carried out by yourself and others. But to release all regret and resentment is not to abandon common sense. Whilst you may wish to unburden yourself of negative feeling towards others, you may still be aware that certain people might not be useful to know or engage with. Forgiveness isn’t passive, it’s about giving you control. You may not be able to change how other people act but you can choose how you feel about their actions. By forgiving, you ‘let go’ of your negative emotions, you don’t forget or accept what people may have done, you just stop preciously preserving negativity in your emotional baggage.
Self forgiveness works in a similar war, if you carry around negative feelings about things you have done in the past, they don’t cease to exist. You still remember what they are but you don’t have to beat yourself up over what is passed. Learning from the past is essential for personal development, blaming oneself for past actions is not. The nondual approach is to integrate forgiveness of self and other as inseparable. The process should be liberating, one chooses to disengage from resentment and blame, not ignore unproductive or foolish behavior. Whilst there are systems that can focus on forgiveness of self or other, the nondual approach treats blame as a limitation irrespective if it focussed on self or other.
The three rules of non dual forgiveness:
Forgive completely but don’t necessarily forget, don’t repeat mistakes or permit others to engage you in a manner that’s not beneficial.
Let go of resentment, let go of blame, there are no scores to settle just lessons to learn.
Actively choose the path of sustainable happiness.
The non dual approach is neither simple nor quick but it offers the opportunity to experience life as a joyful learning experience, where you have both the right and responsibility to be happy.
Obstacles to meditation include resistance to start and a failure to continue. Perhaps meditation groups in prison can offer us some inspiration?
Ongoing institutional meditation programmes demonstrate the ability of Buddhist approaches to benefit a wide range of people, even in challenging situations. Compassion Works for All is involved in activities including the running of meditation groups in US prisons.
Cliff Plegg has been volunteering for Compassion Works for a year, his primary role is leading a monthly meditation class in an Arkansas correctional institution. In addition to teaching meditation, Cliff is also compiling a list of yoga and meditation resources that prisoners can engage with when they are released. Plegg has overcome a plenty of challenges in his own life having been diagnosed with avascular necrosis. This pattern of someone overcoming personal obstacles, then moving on to trying to help others is a pretty common theme in meditators.
So what does a volunteer meditation programme in an Arkansas prison have to do with UK meditators? Meditation is taught by different organizations in prisons around the world, some more well known than others. The universal appeal of meditation transcends geographical and cultural barriers. Meditation has an appeal which inspires both teachers and practitioners from all parts of society. Unfortunately the challenge isn’t only getting people to start a practice, but also to continue it to the point where it has a lasting effect. This ‘biting point’ of meditation is the moment at which the benefits become apparent at the level of personal experience. When someone knows something is delivering a significant and sustainable benefit, it becomes much easier to make an informed choice regarding the value of the resource.
Just one session can be enough to get a sense that meditation is a useful or interesting activity, this however may not the ‘biting point’. Only when the student understands, (however fleetingly), that they have some control over their experience of the world can the meditator pass to an intermediate level of practice. I am a great believer that all meditation is useful on some level, most of my own students have tried meditation of some informal kind before they engage with a more regular practice. But such is the hype of the meditation ‘industry’ that a casual observer might imagine that sitting on a cushion once or twice may be sufficient to unravel years of negative thinking.
The common factor between meditators in Canterbury, Rochester or Arkansas is that we all see the potential of meditation to offer us solutions for our day to day problems. Once that important first step is taken, the next goal is to establish a practice, to continue to the point of realizing what the method is able to do. I don’t take a prescriptive approach to meditation, students must want to do it and feel it’s right for them. My advice has been the same for at least a decade, if you want to meditate, find a reliable teacher (or guidance), use an authentic and appropriate method and put in the necessary effort.
I offer good wishes to Cliff Plegg and all meditators, particularly those currently incarcerated.