Post 19: How Not to Meditate

If it weren’t for my mind my meditation would be excellent. Pema Chödrön[i]

Shamatha meditation is the basic introductory practice for many students of Buddhism. Very simply, it involves resting in a comfortable sitting posture with the back straight, hands placed on the knees or in the lap, shoulders relaxed, mouth slightly open, and the gaze looking downwards at about a 45 degree angle. Attention is focused lightly on the breath, an object, or a mantra. As thoughts come, we gently let them go, return our attention to the breath, object, or mantra, and rest spaciously in the present moment.

The practice of meditation as taught by the Buddha and his followers was unknown to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but even where Shakespeare and Buddhism appear to be unrelated, the Bard has something to teach us about the dharma. In this case, he can teach us how not to meditate.

Shakespeare’s lesson on how not to meditate can be found in Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

As poetry these lines are compelling. As a description of a meditation session they tell us what not to do. The speaker’s meditation begins promisingly in the first line. He has set aside time for a session and has found a quiet place, but the undertaking quickly goes downhill. Rather than focus on the breath, remain in the present moment, and let thoughts come and go without following them, the speaker deliberately leaves the present moment to “summon up remembrance of things past.” This only exacerbates the pain of grasping after “many a thing I sought” and leads to fruitless self-castigation over his “dear time’s waste.” As he dredges up old stories he is increasingly trapped in the past and becomes more and more miserable, weeping again over past deaths, woes, and losses. What begins as a “session of sweet silent thought” deteriorates into a pity party. The speaker doesn’t understand that our sessions will not remain sweet and silent for long if we allow our thoughts to run riot.

In the closing lines he seeks to save the situation by thinking on his dear friend. Friends are wonderful, but they are no substitute for knowing how to control our thoughts, and attachment to friends, or to anything else, is likely to bring more suffering over the long run.

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[i] Chödrön, Pema. The Pocket Pema Chodron. (Boston & London: Shambhala, 20008), 14.

 

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