Hello everyone,

I hope you are all doing really, really well!

I haven't written in a while and I said I would have another letter by the end of the year. I have been back from my meditation retreat for over a week now.

I don't have much to say about it. I spent a month in solitude without any of the usual distractions of day-to-day life and it was... easy. Extremely easy. This is the second time I have done this, the first was in March this year.

I can say this: There is nothing satisfying I have gained that can be easily put into words here.

I will try to say a few things though.

When liberated from all the hassle of dealing with society, there isn't much that can bother you except your own mind. In an environment without distraction, there isn't much to do but to learn to be with your mind and its thoughts. I have learned that life marked by simplicity can be blissful.

The barrier to this bliss is none other than our own compulsive thinking.

My main practice was known is probably familiar to all of you. It is called Shamata which translates to "calm abidance". It is simply to rest in the tranquillity of the mind.

It goes like this:

  1. Rest in the present
  2. Inevitably become lost in thoughts, thinking about all sorts of things irrelevant to meditation
  3. Remember that you are supposed to be meditating and return to the present

There are two ways to do this, with and without an object. With an object means choosing a specific experience to rest in (usually the breath) and returning your attention there whenever you notice it drifting away. Without an object just means letting your attention rest in the present without a specific focus, and simply returning whenever you notice you are distracted.

Vipashyana (insight meditation) was also invaluable. Tibetan style Vipashyana often entails using pointed questions to reveal the nature of awareness.

  • Who is suffering?
  • Where is suffering in the body?
  • Why do I consider these feelings as being suffering?
  • Who or what is there that is negatively affected by these feelings?

When looking for who it is that suffers, who it is that meditates one continually finds that there is no one to find. In its place is simply a space, an awareness of that there is no one there. This flow of experience, this continuum of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts and emotions without an "owner" or "experiencer".

Meditation is a translation of the Tibetan word sgom (pronounced "gohm"). Sgom means "to familiarise with", "to become accustomed to" or "to get used to". In meditation, we are trying to get used to the mind, to life, to being conscious, to this very condition we are in.

Underneath all the concepts and ideas we have about ourselves, life and the way things are... is the reality of what is. When we learn to pay attention to this flow of experience, we slowly become able to let go of all the ideas that frame it and settle in the nature of the mind in of itself as it is.

Is life good? If you think that, it is a concept.

Is life bad? If you think that, it is just a concept.

Underneath the clothing of concepts, what is the naked mind really like?

When we meditate we learn to settle here, and in this place, there is no suffering.

One of the books I took with me on retreat was The Joy of Living by the wonderful Mingyur Rinpoche.

If you want to delve into the practice of meditation, this is the definitive book that you need to read. I absolutely recommend it.

In it, Rinpoche uses the analogy of getting to know a friend to explain the practice of meditation:

The Tibetan word for meditation, gom, literally means "becoming familiar with," and Buddhist meditation practice is really about becoming familiar with the nature of your own mind - a bit like getting to know a friend on deeper and deeper levels. Also like getting to know a friend, discovering the nature of your mind is a gradual process. Rarely does it occur all at once. The only difference between meditation and ordinary social interaction is the friend you're gradually coming to know is yourself.

To meditate is to become familiar with the way things are.

Becoming familiar with how things are is to go beyond concepts. That is; to let go of the ideas that frame our experience and learn to rest in life nakedly as it actually is.

All concepts divide our experience, they are dualities.

For example:

  • The concept of good, depends on "not good" or evil.
  • The concept of big, only makes sense if there is a "not big" or small.
  • The concept of red only makes sense in light of there existing things that are not red.

In Buddhism to go beyond these concepts or dualities, is known as Shunyata which is what is referred to as emptiness or non-duality. Some believe that we shouldn't even have words like these, because to assert a word, is to subtly conceptualise that which is beyond concept.

I have heard of people looking for emptiness or trying to pin it down as if it were an entity. Which is to completely miss the point.

I have heard the interpretation of non-duality as viewing "all is one". However, if this were the case it could be called unity. Why go to the trouble of defining it in the negative? When concepts have been negated, all that remains is to rest in the mystery. To say "it is like this" is to assert a new concept. To say "all is one" is simply another concept you are overlaying over how things are.

As the sage Nagarjuna has put it:

"No unity, no separateness"

To let go of concepts without replacing them with new ones, that seems to be the name of the game.

Who is even meditating?

Concepts are dualities. For x to be, not x must also be. Of all the dualities, there is one that is described as a core duality or root duality.

The duality of self and other, subject and object, perceiver and that which is perception.

The distinction between the meditator and the meditation.

Who is even reading this?

There is said to be a shortcut to realising the state beyond concepts. Look for the one meditating, look for the one looking, look for what you are calling yourself.

In the absence of being able to see a "self" at the centre of experience, rest in whatever arises.

That is the fundamental meditation.

I am a really big fan of Sam Harris's app Waking Up, and I found today's guided meditation particularly instructive.

"It's that point (the self) you are looking for, and the moment you look it is not seen and it is in that awareness that there is no thing to see, that you should rest your mind."

"And if that's confusing, rest assured that it won't always be."

Sorry if this letter was a little esoteric for some of you. But I hope it was interesting and useful, especially for those of you who practice meditation. If anything I have said is confusing, please send me a reply and ask me anything.

Before I let you go, let me share with you two things that helped me immensely:

  1. This guided meditation, which is a reading of advice from the brilliant Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

I brought along a printed copy of that teaching with me on retreat from here.

  1. This quote from The Joy of Living.

"The key — the how of Buddhist practice — lies in learning to simply rest in a bare awareness of thoughts, feelings and perceptions as they occur."

Thank you once again for reaching the end of one of my letters. I wish all of you and everyone you know the highest peaks of happiness that the laws of nature allow.