Meditation and the Image

In Taoist practices, philosophy and physicality are viewed as two sides of the same yin-yang coin. In fact, Tai Chi is often called philosophy in motion, and rightly so. It is through that particular method of movement that we come to a deeper understanding of Taoist philosophy. Likewise, it is from an understanding of Taoist philosophy, that we derive that particular method of movement.

Unlike many other philosophies, Taoism cannot be deeply understood from reading books or listening to lectures (there are good books and lectures on the subject, but they serve more as springboards than tools for greater understanding). Rather, Taoism is grasped through a deepening of one’s perception – a direct interface of one’s awareness with the present happening of reality, and simultaneously, seeing the nature of that happening process. Throughout the centuries, Taoists and other like-minded seekers have done this through the practice of meditation.

Meditation is a widely used and often misunderstood term by prospective seekers. One of the most common misunderstandings is that meditation requires you to empty your mind. This idea has the budding meditator trying very hard to stop his mind from thinking, feeling, and other mental activity – a frustrating process which inevitably leads him to believe that he can’t meditate. For those operating under this idea – relax. Your mind is going to think, feel and continue to operate no matter what. And that’s the point. You don’t need to micro-manage your mind, emptying or otherwise. Another misconception is that meditation is about escaping reality and going to a peaceful place where all the stuff of life can’t get you. Under this premise, a meditator may feel he’s failed if he finds his mind suddenly recalling matters of the ordinary every day. Once again, this is simply not the case. To quote D.T Suzuki, the experience of perception through a mind awakened by meditation “is just like ordinary everyday life, except two inches off the ground.” It’s not an escape from the ordinary; it’s finding the extraordinary within the (supposed) ordinary.

Meditation is the full engagement of your mind in the present. It is the act of mentally stepping back and observing – observing yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, your motions and actions – and letting go of the idea that you need to be in control; otherwise your mental activity can pull you out of the present. This requires a bit of time, patience, and practice. You can’t try to relax; you have to allow yourself to relax. After you do that for a while, you’ll eventually see that there is a natural current to all things and the way they relate to each other, including how you relate yourself to yourself. Not only will you become aware of this current, you’ll feel it, and yourself as a part of it. Then your thoughts, feelings, motions and actions will begin to be in accord with that current, or way of things. That’s what the “Tao” in Taoism means: it means Way. Specifically, the Way reality functions, or happens.

Following this understanding of meditation as direct perceptual engagement with reality – as it’s happening – rather than escaping it, It makes sense that the Taoists often practiced various forms of moving  meditation such as Tai Chi. There is a subtle genius to this, seeing as we experience our reality through our physical being. By focusing our awareness on the act of moving in accordance with the natural design of our bodies and their relationship to our external environment and external forces, we are directly and completely engaging our minds with the universal principle of the Tao. In short, we are mentally and physically having a direct experience of the Way as expressed through our being. In addition to being such a wonderful vehicle for the exploration of universal truth, this concentration on motion makes it almost impossible to get caught up by specific thoughts or feelings that pull you out of the present.

There is a trap in our minds that can block us from a direct perception of the Tao. I call this trap, the Image. Most of us operate on a set of symbols: ideas that represent entities in reality, but are not those entities in actuality. In other words – concepts. Forming concepts is part of the way the human mind works, and an essential part at that. It’s how we think. It is not however, the function of meditation to remove these concepts from our minds (emptying the mind), nor can we escape the formation of concepts as part of our mental processes. They do, however, pose a problem to a seeker of enlightenment.

We too often come to rely upon these concepts to form our understanding of reality. The problem with this is that it freezes our perception and crystallizes our understanding. This is the equivalent of taking a picture of the view outside your window, and forevermore, looking at the picture as opposed to looking out the window. In other words, you’ve formed an Image, and replaced reality with it. A saying goes: “It is like a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.”

Even more dangerous, we can become sort of sentimental about our Images. If someone were to challenge one of them, we may get defensive and angry. We may even become frightened. Somewhere deep within we know we’re relying on Images, but they’ve become the foundation for the belief systems that run our lives. Even though they cause us to live in a state of chronic tension – trying to defend these images from the possibility of being false – the alternative of a total reboot can be overwhelming. When this point is reached we become the jailors of our own spirits. So what to do? How can we prevent Images from blocking us from the liberation of direct perception if we can’t function without them?

The answer is to let go of your images the moment you form them and return to direct perception. This must be a continuing process. Reality is not static, it is a dynamic happening. However, our minds must form concepts of that which we perceive in order to grasp the interrelationship of everything to everything else. In order to keep up with reality, we must constantly be in a process of redefining our concepts – allowing the boundaries of definitions to become flexible, even blurred. Going back to the analogy of your window view, it would be like saying, “since you can’t stop taking pictures, but you can’t rely on those pictures for more than one instant, you’ll have to let one go and take another, and another and another, etc.” In that way, you may be able to keep up with reality as it happens. In other words, meditate.

By engaging in a daily practice of meditation, you are conditioning your mind for direct perception. It’s like a mental workout, making your perceptual muscles stronger and more flexible. The more you do it, the more direct perception will become your natural way of being. Eventually, ordinary everyday life will become a meditative experience – not much different – just about two inches off the ground.