The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Some Lessons of Meditation

I’ve meditated, on and off, for years.  The last couple months I meditated intensely.  Five hours a day average. as much as 10 hours a day on occasion.

Meditation has a “woo” reputation, an idea that it’s peaceful and serene and lovely.  Now maybe that’s where you’re aiming to get, but meditation is a tool, a process, and it is hard bloody work and often unpleasant.

In general, in meditation, you’re trying to detach from your thoughts.  To stop identifying with thoughts as yourself. You don’t exist because you think.  Your thoughts are witnessed by something that is close to you.

As you detach from your thoughts a few things become clear: most of what you think is repetitive.  You have a number of loops, a pile of triggers and you run through them incessantly. You think in cliches (for you); you think other people’s thoughts, and you rarely think anything you haven’t thought before.

What this means is that you don’t, actually, think very much. You have thoughts but they are almost entirely event and loop driven, and not under conscious control.  One reason, as you meditate, that you come to desire less thoughts is that you becoming achingly aware that most of what you think is tediously, boringly repetitive.

As your thoughts die down, you find out that many of them were defense mechanism. Absent thoughts to occupy it, your mind hones in your fears, your lusts, the stuff you fear the most; the stuff you desire but find shameful: all of that comes to the fore.  Sexually explicit imagery (this is common, not just me) with completely inappropriate objects, terrifying fears you had buried; hatreds you thought you had gotten over years ago; trauma that was only half healed.

Meditation gives you a good hard look at your mental habit and fixations, and you probably won’t like what you see.

Meditation is, thus, hard.  A friend of mine who is an enlightened guru of “recognized lineage” says that when people come to him, interested, he tells them to meditate for an hour a day for six months: the minimum requirement for the lifestyle.  Almost no one does.

The thing is that if you face what meditation brings up, go through it, and learn to not care or judge, it loses its powers.  The fears, the lusts, the hates pale, and rust and blow away.  The repetitive thoughts slow (and for some, go away completely), and if you engage in them, you tend to do so consciously, rather than unconsciously.

The fixations, the chatter, stops commanding you nearly so much.  You gain a certain amount of mental freedom: to think about what you want to think about, or nothing at all.  To truly put down the traumas of the past.  To look clearly at lusts and desires and decide to act on them or not, but not care much either way.

But it’s hard work, and it hurts, and that’s why most people don’t get very far with it.

Oh, there are types of meditation which avoid the hard work for a time: chant mantras, for example, and keep your mind constantly occupied, and you can avoid your demons.  But generally, still the mind, and your ring-fencing thoughts die away then your demons step through the gaps and face you with yourself.

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The Ubiquity and Importance of Operant Conditioning


  1. Dan H

    Any recommended intros?

  2. peter cowan

    Sounds like you’re practicing some sort of vipassana?

  3. Ian Welsh

    I do a number of different types:

    Anapana (breathing)
    Vispassana (watching thoughts)
    and some mantras

  4. oldskeptic

    I got into that in my teens (in the early 70’s) to try and deal with anxiety attacks. Now the meditation I never really got into, but the breathing control really helped me. Also helped me even more when I got into scuba diving.

    I find the best way for my personal meditation … is reading….clears the mind wonderfully. A good book, heck even an average book just takes you away into another place and stops that annoying ‘chatter’.

    Though I have found some other tricks, when there is nothing to read, to stop that…visualisation (anything works), self story telling(you can combine with visual images of your mind works that way) , talking to yourself (just the act of talking helps stop that ‘chatter’ and focuses you) used to be called ‘thinking out aloud’, which is a much better term for it.

    Depends on your mind, if you can imagine a 3D image and rotate, move, etc it in your mind then you need to include visual images in your story. If not then go with words.

    I suffered terrible insomnia in my 20s, early 30s until I read a tip somewhere.. create a story before going to sleep. I have created thousands of them since, many continue over many, many nights. A part of a chapter at a time.. it settles the mind so you can sleep, drives away that annoying ‘chatter’ that gets in the road of actual thinking (and feeling) and relaxing.

  5. atcooper

    Dan, Mindfulness in Plain English by Gunaratana is a good primer. I also highly recommend finding a sangha if you make a habit of it.

  6. James

    Mindfulness meditation literally changes your brain (for the better).

  7. someofparts

    This is why I can’t write fiction. The effort takes one into unnerving territory, beginning with facing oneself without defenses or illusions. Emotional work that leads to such upheaval is not compatible with a life lived constantly on some employer’s time clock. You make me wish there were time for it though.

  8. atcooper

    Someofparts, it is very similar to fiction writing as you suppose. At least it seems so to me. I’ve got a long way to go with my meditative practice, but I do think that I eased into it more easily than many because I had spent so many years trying to write fiction, way back when it was ok for me to be relatively poor. I’d already had a good share of introspection by the time I sat for my first time.

  9. Ian Welsh

    And for that study we’re dealing with people who are only averaging 28 minutes a day. Hard core meditators, I suspect, have even more significant results.

    “The Little Book of Meditation” by William Bodri is good in its own way. Bodri’s not a very good writer, it’s repetitive, but there is detailed information you won’t find most other places and I found that encouraging.

  10. drugstoreblonde

    I have been a distance runner for a number of years, and, while there is certainly a meditative aspect to the practice, I have long looked for new approaches.

    Are there any texts that you could recommend, Ian?

  11. davers

    Thank you for this post. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and PTSD. Electroencephalograms (QUEEG) show that my frontal lobes are in overdrive and just won’t take a rest for anything. Inside my head it’s like somebody left the radio playing. Since I can’t sit still I’ve been taking long walks and quieting the internal chatter and music by focusing on my surroundings. The effort has paid off and it’s becoming easier to identify the tapes that endlessly replay and shut them down when they reappear. Your post and the comments here come at a good time and provide both information and encouragement. Thank you again.

  12. You will pry my useless repetitive thoughts from my cold dead synapses. As far as I am concerned, every one of them is worth rubies, you thinkofascists.

  13. subgenius


    My teachers generally make the point that true meditation is achieved in stillness of the body – the moving practices (while related) are a different game – the intent goes into the act of movement etc. Qi gong and yoga poses/sequences for example.

    You might want to take a look at “chi running” for a take….. Personally I would recommend doing both stillness and movement practices. Each can inform the other.

  14. subgenius


    It might be worth your while to spend time tending to plants – even just a window box… There have been interesting cases of reducing PTSD in sufferers that engage with raising plants in an attentive manner – daily care and observation.

  15. subgenius

    @ Ian

    Respect! Don’t see nearly enough on this out in the general info sphere…

  16. davers


    Your comments are quite interesting. An athlete or craftsperson who is focused and “in the groove” is truly living in the moment. There is no chatter, and time stands still.

    A friend who is dealing with very similar issues to mine repeatedly admonishes me that I need to spend more time meditating. He has worked at different trades and has finally found his place as a farmer. Tending his plants has given him peace of mind that has evaded him elsewhere. This spring I resurrected my long neglected water garden and have found great joy in tending the water lilies and lotuses. Nurturing the little plants is very rewarding.

  17. steeleweed

    I’ve found it impossible to completely shut down thinking for more than about an hour or so and even that is rare. What I find useful – aside from relieving stress – is that while we cannot absolutely control our thinking, we can guide it to a remarkable degree. I rather liken it to how cowboys dealt with a cattle stampede. They would get trampled standing in front of the herd, so they stayed on the edges and gradually turned the herd into circling until it got tired.

    Directing one’s thoughts is often useful for problem solving in general and psychological issues in particular. Directed Dreaming can also be learned and useful if one understands how to interpret dreams.

    The most interesting aspect for me is that while thinking can be shut down, perception isn’t necessarily turned off. I once walked for about 1 hour or more across highways & noisy, crowded, neon-lit streets in a completely non-thinking mode. One thing it taught me is that 99% of dealing with the world around me does not require thinking. I suspect what we call ‘thinking’ is a late-comer to the development of the species . I’ve always felt the biblical story of The Fall was man’s attempt to explain how we acquired the messy, misused thing we call consciousness, which is like a squirrel’s cage, kept spinning by our thinking.

    Not saying he’s 100% right but Jayne’s “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” is a interesting read..

  18. Chamomile

    I’ve done the 10 day Vispassna retreats a few times. I swear it is the best psychotherapy money cannot buy.

  19. Ian Welsh

    The conversation chatter of thought can end: I haven’t done it, but I have a friend who has (he is officially enlightened), and it’s a common feature of enlightenment. Usually enlightenment happens within seconds to minutes of ending the chatter.

    Another thing is that thought comes in various flavors: fully verbalized thought is the most inefficient, most reasoning/decisions can be done without ever using words per se–thinking it out is post-decision/post-thought.

    (Thus the obsession of martial artists with no thought. It’s not no decision and it’s not the same, as best I can tell, as running completely on reflex/instinct (trained or otherwise.)

    One of the things meditation has taught me is that by the time I think something, I’ve generally already thought it – often at least twice.

  20. joe marchal

    When in my thirties i took a serious shot at learning Spanish, although i have yet to achieve solid fluency, i realized early in the process of the repetitiveness with which we use language in daily interaction. One generally expresses themselves through very few words placed in a few different orders to achieve basic i want i think communication. We are generally exceedingly simple. The verbs change tense the pronouns change to fit them. The subjects, nouns and the person addressed vary slightly the ideas are mostly repeated. It was a humbling realization.

  21. Krishnamurti counseled thought-watching, which I suppose is what is mentioned here as Vispassana. For many years I was diligent (as per his suggestion in his writings) in periodically stopping and tracing a current train of thought all the way back to its origin… those origins got further and further back. It became second-nature after awhile, then I started doing that as I was thinking, all of the time, and my thoughts slowed down to cold maple syrup speed. Mostly empty-headed now, except when I want to figure something out.

    I used to be quite anxious all the time (weird childhood) as a sort of background noise, and it all just stopped on a very emotional November afternoon in, I believe, 2005.

    I never had the discipline for meditation, and I liked K’s idea that if you cannot meditate as you are “in the world,” then it might become like Sunday for Christians – the rest of the week being walled off. I’m not saying this as criticism – I’ve always admired (and I still do) those who actually have the discipline to do the work… and there’s enough testimony out there that I am convinced that it certainly does work for those who commit and understand what they are committing to. I’m just a very lazy person. 🙂

    I join the others here in lauding this post.

  22. EGrise

    (Thus the obsession of martial artists with no thought. It’s not no decision and it’s not the same, as best I can tell, as running completely on reflex/instinct (trained or otherwise.)

    I once read a book about the Old West that was written by WPA writers interviewing people who were actually alive during the era. One interviewee discussed gunslingers, and he said that the chief difference between a gunfighter and a normal person was that the gunfighter had made the decision to kill long before he touched his gun – if he even thought about it at all – so there was no hesitation, whereas the rest of us would still go through the thought process even while drawing our weapons, thus the gunslinger always had an advantage in an otherwise even fight.

    Don’t know why I wrote this out, I probably need to go lie down.

  23. Ian Welsh

    There’s plenty of ways of getting there, Petro. One famous Indian guru was told by his guru to just ask “who am I” and it worked for him. You sound to me like someone who’s just pre-enlightenment, though who knows, I’m hardly an expert.

    Different methods work for different people. I was told that “you’re a serious guy, sitting meditation should work for you”. that doesn’t mean it’s the best path for everyone, nor the only one.

  24. Concur completely.

    And, while of course I don’t know you, after reading you all these years (“serious guy” who has not incidentally helped make the dismal science comprehensible for me) the advice you were given makes sense…

  25. EGrise, I found that very germane. Thanks.

  26. Jordan

    Sounds too difficult for me. I can almost never stop thinking.

  27. guest

    I had a similar sort of enlightenment in my youth during one of my few experiments with drugs. This one time I had a really horrible trip where those repetitive thoughts became deafening and emotionally debilitating (I was just curled up in a ball feeling absolutely horrible about myself). But when the drugs started wearing off, I realized that those horrible thoughts were running in loops as background noise, as Ian says, ALL the time, and I had just got to the point where I stopped recognizing them, even though they constantly affected me and how I felt about myself and others. At that point I just turned them off and banished them and for a several days or maybe a couple weeks, I felt so liberated. I wouldn’t say it’s like the bible where if you banish a demon and don’t fix things, 100 more will come and take it’s place. Of course they crept back in, almost unnoticed and I’m back almost to where I was before. But now I pretty much know they are going on in a the dull roar of my almost subconscious mind. But I rarely am able to pick the individual thoughts, or recognize the part of myself that is actively engaged in running the loops.

  28. gregorylent

    do it for years .. learn the secret that those in the business of satsang don’t like to talk about .. nothing changes.

  29. Michael Berger

    Ian, this has to be – on a purely personal level – the most “useful” (not quite the right word, but I don’t have a better one at hand) observation you’ve ever shared.

    Sitting for the past year or so (30 minutes a day, every day I can w/o outside disturbance), I’ve found what has come up for me is disturbing to say the least.

    Some of the most disturbing of which you’ve touched upon succinctly.

    To know that there’s nothing wrong with me, that it’s “normal” (again, not quite the right word), is… good to know!

    I thank you Ian. More than I can express right now.

  30. Ian Welsh

    It is best dealt with, Michael, by pushing through it. It may also affect your dreams.

    If you can find some time to spend hours a day even for a week or two to a month or two, do so.


    1) you are trying to reduce your breathing to almost nothing. Naturally as your throughts are reduced, your breathing also reduces. You will notice a distinct link between breathing and thought, including that you tend to think on breaths.

    2) If you do so and hold it for longer periods, you may start getting rushes of heat, or even a feverish feeling. This is natural and even a good thing but don’t pay undue attention to it.

    3) there are those who think that celibacy (including no masturbation) is a good idea for men during the initial phases. This is not for moral reasons (sex is not bad) but for technical ones. It will, however, make some of the issues comes up far far worse, but if you can get through them, there’s a lot of freedom on the other side. (I went through most, but not all of this, recently, and the level by which lustful attachments bother me any more has really been reduced. They’re less strong, and what exists I almost entirely don’t mind.) Don’t go nuts with celibacy, but if you can manage a month at a time, a few times, that will help. Of course, if in a relationship this may not be possible.

    Again, meditation is really unpleasant, and the more you’re doing it right (in the initial stages) the more unpleasant it is.

    Also, if you start hearing “voices”, thoughts that seem not to be yours, don’t sweat them, or it, again, this is pretty common. If you’re doing very well, your body may start taking actual actions without your choice. Let it, and don’t worry (I’ve had this happen all of once, but three are those who go through a period where it is quite common.)

    If you want to meditate and need a “break” do some manatras. I don’t, personally, think too much mantra meditaiton is a great idea (but people have gone all the way to enlightenment on it, so clearly it’s good for some people), but it’s a nice mental break. If you believe in God (or Goddess), try something like “The Goddess loves me, and I love her.” Something warming. Or look up mantras on the internet, there are plenty of traditional mantras good for whatever you’re looking for.

  31. DMC

    Vivakanada’s little books aren’t a bad place to start. Any reasonable translation of Patanjali with commentary. Aleister Crowley has some suprisingly lucid things to say about meditation in his “Eight Lectures on Yoga” and “Book 4, Part 1”. Crowley’s guru, Allen Bennet/Bhikkhu Ananda Maiteya(sp?) was a principle founder of the Sangha in the West. Consequently, Crowley tends to use the Buddhist psychology even while using the classical “eight-limbed” yoga terminolgy for the actual practices to be undertaken. Some introductory materials to the Sufi practices, like “A Sufi Saint of the 20th Century” by Martin Lings. The most fruitful of Christian mystical practices come under the heading of Hesychasm and tend to me associated with Mt. Athos and the Jesus Prayer(of “Franny and Zooey” fame).

  32. t groan

    ‘enlightened guru’?

    Somebody needs to read the Guru Papers. I’d sooner believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

  33. Poppa Jee

    @Ian – I’m curious to know in what tradition your “enlightened friend” is certified as such and in what that enlightenment consists. You mention that “usually enlightenment happens within seconds to minutes of ending the chatter,” in regard to thinking. So for example does that mean enlightenment consists of a permanent end to all thinking, or just that once someone recognizes an experience of no-thought (however brief) they are then considered to be enlightened?

  34. Celsius 233

    t groan PERMALINK
    July 2, 2014
    ‘enlightened guru’?
    Somebody needs to read the Guru Papers. I’d sooner believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
    Interesting post. I’d be hard pressed to disagree. It begs the question; how does one not enlightened, know who is enlightened?
    Krishnamurti is/was probably a most authentic teacher; but, I can’t say for a certainty because I don’t know. But if one follows the Buddha’s teachings; Krishnamurti’s are most like his dharma.
    I’ll not engage an epistemological argument, but only bring this up for thought…
    Question, always question; and if it is the right question, one may find an answer…

  35. Ian Welsh

    Various traditions have lineages, those lineages have methods for testing enlightenment. To be sure, he could be lying. He’s a Hindu Nath, if it matters. The lowest level of enlightenment isn’t that uncommon, Westerners make it out to be a bigger deal than it is. If you believe in Buddhism, enlightened Buddhists simply are not that uncommon in various traditions during various periods, it isn’t “Buddha then no one else”. To believe that you have to believe an absolute shit ton of people were lying, and not just that they were lying that everyone around them were fools. Hindu lineages produce enlightened Gurus on a regular basis, most westerners aren’t aware of most of them, not least because generally enlightened folks don’t make a big deal about it (but if you ask, they’ll usually tell you, too. It’s not some great secret, either.)

    Most meditation teachers in the West seem to know very little about their own art: for example, why did Berger, above, not know that the sort of experiences I describe are very common? Because they are and moreover they’re common at the very early stages of serious meditation. You have to either have made very little progress yourself, or to have taught very few students (if you are one of the few people who get none of those symptoms), not to know of them. (To be clear, I’m not blaming Berger, I’m lamenting the general level of knowledge of what meditation entails in the West.)

    Every real enlightened teacher is an empiricist: they say “if you do X, Y will happen.” They tell you to test their methods.

    I have done X and Y has happened. Repeatedly. Have I become enlightened? No. Will I? Who knows. But I have experienced results from meditation in line with what I expected because I did my research properly and yes, I took the time to talk to someone who claims enlightenment who I have reason to believe is enlightened (and at the very least, has had a good classical Indian Guru education of a particular type.)

    Now there are always those who claim enlightenment and aren’t. They aren’t that hard to spot. The key is to neither have a need to believe, nor a need not to believe. It is also not to make enlightenment out to be a bigger deal than it is. Enlightened people are still people.

    (Is my friend enlightened? I can’t know for a fact, but I think he is. It doesn’t much matter, I take his advice carefully too.)

    (No. Enlightenment doesn’t mean an end to all thinking. It means no thinking when you don’t decide consciously to think about something. That’s not all enlightenment is, as best I can tell, but it’s part of it.)

  36. thump

    Hi Ian. Thanks for writing about meditation, something that has been very important to my life, but of which discussions are usually quite superficial. Your descriptions of your experiences sound very familiar to me. I’d like to make a couple points. First, I worry that your description of “an hour a day for six months” as the entry to meditation may scare off people who might otherwise find it useful. My teacher always said that duration is not super-important, just make it daily. If you can’t sit for 30 minutes, sit for 15; if not 10, then 5; etc. I have found that just stopping whatever you wanted to do, in order to sit there and apparently “do nothing” is usually harder than continuing to sit there once you have actually gotten started. (Well, unless it is for much longer than you have been used to.)

    Second, I’d like to offer my understanding of “what it’s about.” Meditation is, as you write, about pausing to non-judgmentally observe your existence instead of getting caught up in it. What I have observed is that all the “parts” of what I had thought of as my existence — my thoughts, feelings, sensations, moods, etc. — have the same basic nature or character at their root. When you see that these parts of your life, including your death, are all part of the same unity, seen in that context, they are all fine as they are, as are all other people. My understanding of what it means to be enlightened (I am not) is that, at all times, you see your life and all other people and animals in that enlarged context.

  37. Ian Welsh

    To be sure any amount of time is good. In my friend’s context, it’s his way of saying “if you want me, as a guru, to seriously invest in you, prove that you’re committed.” Of course you’ll make progress at 30 minutes a day. But often, more will move you along faster. And he wants to know that you are willing to commit a serious amount of time before he, in turn, makes a serious commitment to a student.

    (To be clear, I’m not in a guru-student relationship with him. We’re friends.)

    I should add that given how much time people spend watching tv and on the internet a day, I am suspicious of anyone who doesn’t work two jobs (and/or +kids) who says they can’t find an hour a day. It’s also possible to sneak a lot in, especially once you become a bit more skilled. I can meditate on public transit, for example. And you can do mantra meditation while doing almost anything that doesn’t actually require concentration, which includes a lot of jobs once you know how to do them. If you can think about something other than the activity while doing it, you can use mantras while doing the activity.

  38. Spinoza

    There were moments, when I was a Catholic of a traditional tendency, that I felt utter peace. Typically when I was deep in prayer, either alone in a dark room or before the Eucharist in Church, I would find myself feeling a kind of warmth and vibrating. Its difficult to explain. The best analogy I can think think of is a sort of welling up of feeling. Almost like getting the shivers but accompanied by that warmth. It would vary in intensity.

    After leaving the Church it was one of the few things that made me wonder about such things…

    Somewhat off topic, I know. I’ve been meaning to get into meditation but its difficult. Time is primarily owned by my restaurant job and my attempts to get the fuck out of said restaurant and of course there’s always my laziness.

    I swear, Mr. Welsh, you must be a damn genius. I’ve learned so much and got a kind of confidence just from reading and engaging with folks here.

  39. Ian Welsh

    Prayer is a form of mantra meditation and you can absolutely get to enlightenment, at least a couple types, doing it. You can “ignite your chi” “get the Kundalini rising” doing it as well.

    The fire of God is reported by Saints constantly, it is equivalent to what Taoist and Buddhist and Hindu adepts report. Vibrations are also common.

    If you could do it in the Catholic Church, you can do it outside. BUT it is easier to do if you have faith in a benevolent supreme deity, that allows you to offload a lot of shit and worry onto the God. You can totally do it without, but it does make things easier.

    Consider starting with matra meditation. You can make up your own, or look up Mantras online, there are lots of them.

    Or just visualize something. A common visualization exercise to visualize your own skeleton, in detail, starting from the left big toe until you’ve got it all. Then blow it to dust and reside in the darkness without it. Visualize the skeleton as WHITE or SILVER. (This is known as White Skeleton visualization.)

    If you believe in any God or Goddess, visualize yourself as them. (Doing this as a God of the other gender can have interesting side effects. You may not want to deal with them, but alternatively, it can teach you a lot.) (If you do this as Jesus, do NOT do it as Jesus on the cross–you can totally give yourself stigmata, it happens all the time.)

    Or just do breath meditation, concentrate on the breath, watch as it gets slower and slower.

  40. atcooper

    Ian, I want to thank you for speaking frankly about all of this. For whatever reason, the Buddhists I know here and practice with are hesitant to speak of the various effects of meditation outside of the medicinal. I think in part it is to not discourage the newcomers, maybe in part an aversion to too much religiosity, but it is still a little isolating to have some of the strangeness occur during and after meditative periods, and not have anyone to talk frankly with about it.

    This practice, my own primarily breathing and sitting with some visualization, is truly potent stuff. And like everything that seems to really heal rather than just treat the symptoms, it is painful at times.

    I must say I am grateful to have finally found this missing part of the spiritual path. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what it was till I sat that first time. This seems to be the real deal, what I always imagined prayer should be.

  41. subgenius

    @ Michael Berger…

    Ha long time no see….from an English dude with long hair and needle skills…

    Hope you are well…

  42. Jessica

    Thank you so much for this post and thanks to everyone taking part in the discussion.
    Ian, your sincerity and dedication shine through. I am not sure that meditation always creates such difficulties so rapidly, but your comments are a good antidote for anyone hoping that meditation will bring only calm and peace. One should be aware that at some point, there often comes the phase that is like going into the closet where the skeletons are and turning on the lights.
    Of course, if you meditate as many hours as you have been doing, things accelerate. And your willingness, your desire even, to grab the bull by the horns, rather than duck it, creates a big opening for further acceleration.

    For beginners, there can be a great advantage to learning from people rather than a book. It does make it easier. No need to sign up for a lifetime of shared brown rice. Just folks to sit with who have been doing it a while. If one does consider taking on a teacher in a deeper way, look at the senior students. They are a better indicator of what being with that teacher can produce than the teacher herself or himself is.
    When I started, I learned in a community that used movement to put us into a state in which it was easier to meditate. Typically 45 minutes of movement for 15 minutes of sitting quietly. It taught me what that quiet was like.
    Also, the right kind of psychotherapy can help dealing with what comes up through meditation. I spent 1-1/2 years in a community that used a variety of therapy groups, including some intense encounter groups. After that, I could sit like a normal person.
    Or to put it another way, we are blessed to live in a time when most who are able to read this blog have access to many different paths.
    About enlightenment. From direct experience, there is definitely something there. Recognition within a good lineage is pointer toward enlightenment. Not 100% reliable of course. You are very right that not needing it to be true and also not needing it to be nonsense is the key.
    In my experience, at least on my path, eventually it is not about the cessation of thought or even the cessation of out-of-control mental chatter. It is about something deeper. That deeper something is exceedingly difficult to sense through the mental noise, but once one gets to know that deeper something well enough, one can sense it even with the mind chattering on. (We don’t yet have quite the necessary terms for this. In the sentences above “sense” can be replaced with “be” and be as accurate.)
    What does need to end is being so identified with our thoughts, so enmeshed in them, that we are puppets at their command. Then what needs to end is the sense of needing to do anything whatsoever about them.
    Having said that, for most people, the initial experience of that something deeper can only come when the mind is silenced and it is natural to focus on that silence at first.
    Also, being enlightened frees you from your thoughts and your personality, but it does not necessarily free everyone else from your personality. It is eminently possible to be enlightened and still be an asshole.
    Finally, linking this all back to the more typical discussions here, among the many things we will be able to do when we finally free ourselves from our current social morass is to reach a level of greater maturity of enlightenment itself, as it becomes both more common and more of the world and of society and less cloistered.

  43. anonone

    Rule 1 of Determining Enlightenment: Anyone who personally claims to be enlightened isn’t.

  44. Ian Welsh

    I will let all the Buddhists know that Buddha, having claimed to be enlightened, wasn’t.

  45. I’ve had a couple of moments in my life when my internal dialogue has ceased. Just for 10-20 seconds. The feeling is indescribable, and yes, it is better than sex. It’s a cathartic shift from looking to actually seeing. The sound of silence is perversely, exquisitely deafening.

    @IanWelsh Have you been reading Carlos Castaneda?

  46. stirling

    all of this talk about being an enlightened soul, gets in the way of being enlightened

  47. thump

    There is probably large readership overlap between this site and the Naked Capitalism links, but this one seemed relevant here:

    Some people would rather be electrically shocked than left alone with their thoughts

  48. anonone

    Ian, Buddha recognized that enlightenment or awakening to one’s Buddha nature was the cessation of suffering (“dukkha”) or attainment of Nirvana, as delineated in the 4 Noble Truths. He also recognized that all manifestations of the senses (including thoughts, the self, and the soul or “atman”) are empty of intrinsic existence, so in reality there is no enlightenment or even an “I” to become enlightened.

    Being able to empty one’s mind of thoughts through meditation is certainly part of the path to enlightenment, but it is not enlightenment.

    Buddha urged his followers to test his words, and not to accept them simply because he said them, so we can and should judge for ourselves whether he was enlightened or not (“Rely not on the teacher, but on the teaching”). Spiritual teachers do not need to claim to be “enlightened” to add credibility to themselves or their teachings, in fact, it is irrelevant and inconsequential. However, those that do claim “enlightenment” usually do so in a transparent attempt to add some credibility to an ego-driven guru status or increase material wealth.

    So, yes, Buddhists should question whether or not the Buddha was enlightened or not. And, at least in this lifetime, I have yet to see an exception to Rule 1 of Determining Enlightenment.

  49. Ian Welsh

    Amongst Indian Gurus it is entirely common to claim enlightenment, if they are, in fact enlightened (and in many cases when they aren’t. But self-claiming does not negate the claim.) This includes very famous gurus whom most agree were enlightened, within living memory. The lineage system exists, in part, to certify enlightenment so that people know who to learn from, but Ramana had no lineage yet is generally considered to have been enlightened. (

    Further, the experience of enlightenment for some of them is different than Buddhist enlightenment: for them, there is a self to be enlightened, among other things.

    Within the Buddhist tradition, some do claim enlightenment, for example:

    who died only very recently.

    Whether it is right to claim enlightenment or not is mostly a cultural matter. Indians don’t consider it wrong. If you are, say it.

    Cessation of thoughts is not enlightenment, agreed. It is even possible to have that, as a stable achievement, and not be enlightened. In the accounts of enlightenment, however, that’s very rare.

    One questions someone’s achievements in a few different ways: one is looking for the signs of cultivation success. Another is by following the practices. Buddha’s been dead a long time: we can’t see if he is soft and warm, for example.

    In general, I agree with Jessica in this matter: look at the teacher’s senior students. That said, there are some obvious markers that indicate someone isn’t enlightened, and there’s no reason not to check them as well.

  50. t groan

    Seriously Ian you need to read the Guru Papers unless of course this would be too threatening to your beliefs. The whole guru game and its inherent fallacies are clearly and definitively disproved.

    Unfortunately if you buy into the guru->disciple (leader->follower) nonsense the realities the Guru Papers expose may be traumatic and more than a true believer is willing to acknowledge.

  51. Ian Welsh

    Such amusing condescension. Don’t sweat it. I don’t have a guru/student relationship, my friend does not give me orders, I don’t go to meetings, etc… I have never joined any temple, I have never taken a single meditation class, and I belong to no organized religion or cult.

    Anyone who thinks I fit the profile of an authoritarian follower in any significant fashion simply doesn’t know me well enough to offer useful advice and is likely projecting their own issues or those of people they know, on to me.

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