On Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th November Elio Guarisco led a Course of Meditation and Mindfulness “An Approach to Contemplation. How to keep calm in the midst of the storms of daily life” in Lima, Peru. He was interviewed by Ana Núñez for a local newspaper, El Comercio, about Meditation and Contemplation and how we can come out of the “cage” that we build with our limits and conditionings to become free and autonomous persons.
“To meditate does not mean leaving your mind without thoughts”. Elio Guarisco.
What is meditation?
The term “meditation” is very general, and because of that, everybody understands meditation in very different ways. For example, some people think that to meditate is to pray to God or a deity. Others think that meditation is to chant mantras or to imagine something with the mind.
All these are indeed forms of meditation, but they are not the essence of meditation. The essence of meditation is not to pray nor to recite a mantra nor to do something with your mind.
The essence of meditation is what we call “presence”, but when we speak of “presence” we must distinguish two different types of it: an object bound presence and a presence with object. The mindfulness practice that is widespread nowadays in the West is the cultivation of “presence” as an aspect of the mind. And this means to be fully immersed in the present moment, to consciously notice what you are looking at, what you are hearing, what you are thinking without judgment. Such mindfulness has always an object; it is a form of extended attention. Thus, essentially, for the purpose of the practice mindfulness is to acquire mastery of attention.
The “presence” that is spoken in the ancient Dzogchen teaching is not a form of attention. It is not an aspect of the mind to develop but rather an innate quality of the individual. It is already there fully developed in each individual, but it must be discovered.
If it is an innate quality, this means that we can all experience this presence?
Of course, everybody can experience this, but in general, you need a teacher that is able to create the circumstances in which you can discover it. Only in that way can you have a concrete knowledge it, not only an intellectual knowledge derived from studying or listening to explanations or descriptions. Unlike “mindfulness”, such presence is not an aspect of the mind. In fact, it is beyond the ordinary mind that thinks, reflects and makes judgments. It is beyond what we call “rational thinking”.
Likewise, just as mindfulness and innate presence are different, we should understand that “meditation” and “contemplation” are different. Meditation is a process of familiarizing ourselves with an object, a principle, a state of mind, a peaceful condition. To recite the rosary as done in Christianity, is also meditation. But the innate presence we are talking about here is something that has no object.
However, mindfulness and innate presence are not incompatible; when one is mindful you can approach more easily the discovery and the remaining in the state of innate presence. And when you can be in a state of innate presence, in your daily live mindfulness and awareness will be naturally present.
What is sought with contemplation?
I can give you the answer that the Buddha gave when a person asked him this question: “I cannot say that I have gained something; but I can say that I have lost many things.”
To think that by meditation you will gain something that you don’t have, or that you will become another person than what you are, is a wrong idea. By contemplation you will find your original state, the essence of what you really are. This original state has knowledge, wisdom and all the qualities one may dream of inherently in it. So when you find yourself in this original state, your qualities unfold by themselves, without having to do anything to develop them.
Your awareness and clarity will blossom, and you will become an expert navigator throughout the events of your life; you will not build tension and be more relaxed in your work and in your relationships.
Nowadays, in the world of science, much is being explained about our perceptions of things being conditioned by memory, experiences etc. When you look at something, in the initial moment you have a naked perception, but from the second moment you begin to associate your thoughts, judgments, your stories and emotions with this perception. Thus we never see things as they are. When we discover the innate presence that lies at the core of our being, we will also naturally have the object bound presence, with that, the moment before you go into the conceptualization of what you perceive, we will not automatically associate our concept to that. Everything will become more authentic and simple.
It does not mean that when you practice mindfulness or when you have discovered the innate presence you don’t think anymore, you don’t judge anymore. Many people who practice meditation have such an idea. They think that to practice meditation means to empty your mind of thoughts.
Yes, this is a very common idea that we have, that we must stop thinking.
First of all, you cannot really stop thoughts. And why should we stop thoughts? We need to think, we need our mind. Imagine if we couldn’t think or judge, we would not be able to distinguish one thing from another, what would our life be like? It would be impossible to live a normal life.
But the problem is that we always produce thoughts even when it is not necessary. Our mind is always filled with useless thoughts of worry, of past, of present and of the future. So we need to learn to relax and not always create and follow unnecessary thoughts.
If we have presence, and we recognize thoughts, we do not stop them or follow them, hence thoughts will not bother us. So thoughts can be there also when we are “meditating”, it is not a problem.
Meditation is not to stop thinking, then?
Although many people think that in order to meditate one must empty the mind of thoughts this is not so. As we said before it is not a problem if there is thought. If we are mindful, present, our way of experiencing thoughts changes.
First of all, usually in our unmindful condition, although thoughts occur unceasingly in our mind, we do not even notice them. But even if we do not notice them it does not mean that thoughts do not affect us. On the contrary, we automatically endorse them, and start a chain of reactions. For example, when we have a thought of anger and we are not present, immediately we will feel “I am angry”. The thought of anger will fill our mind leaving no space. Our clarity will become dim and our reactions instinctive, animal like.
Instead if we notice that we are having a thought of anger it means we are observing it. This noticing, this observing creates space between us and the anger. We are not the anger; there is a thought of anger with which we do not need to identify. At that moment the automatic reaction is interrupted. Our clarity remains eventually telling us the best way to deal with the situation.
Elio Guarisco is an Instructor of Meditation, a well known translator and scholar of Tibetan texts. He was born in Italy in 1954 and lived for 20 years in India, where he learnt and applied different systems of meditation. He began his studies in 1970 as a disciple of the renowned master of Vipassana, S. N. Goenka. Afterwards, he explored the Tibetan tradition under the guidance of great masters such as Chögyal Namkhai Norbu.
Translation from Spanish into English by Laura Yoffe