Recognising Peace

Peace is one of the aims of meditation but at the start of our practice we can struggle to believe that we have achieved any kind of peace. This is simply because we cannot see it yet. In my previous post I talked about the importance of cultivating joy from our practice and one of the important things we need to learn as part of that is the ability to recognise the moments when we are experiencing good feelings. Now this might sound like an odd idea, how could you not notice that you feel good? It’s usually pretty obvious isn’t it? Well when it comes to meditation practice actually it isn’t always that obvious. When I first started my meditation practice I was always waiting for some thunderbolt out of the sky type moment to hit me and leave me suddenly awash with bliss, but the reality of 99.9% of your meditation sessions is that this won’t happen. What actually happens is that you sit watching your breath, then 5 minutes later realise you haven’t been watching your breath for the last 4 and a half minutes because you have been thinking about parking spaces at the supermarket, so you kindly and gently acknowledge that you got lost in a train of thought and put your attention back on watching the breath. Now repeat this about 6 times and that is your average half hour meditation experience. Where’s the joy in that? Exactly.
When your meditation is like this then any kind of pleasant experience is hard to spot, in fact you might be entirely convinced that there is no joy in it, only hard work and effort. But the work we do in the beginning of our practice to strengthen our mindfulness and concentration is essential for getting us to the place where we can start to access those good feelings. Watching the breath develops our ability to see phenomena in more and more fine detail, the further you get into your meditation practice the phenomena will only become more subtle. This eye for detail that we are cultivating is the tool that will allow us to cut through to the heart of reality. But long before we get to that point we will experience the benefit of these keener eyes because they will show us that things are already happening to us that we haven’t been able to see before and give us access to good feelings that we didn’t know we were having. In Buddhist practice we talk about the path and the fruit of the path; one of the great joys of practice is that we get some of the fruits of our labour while we are still working on the path, we don’t need to get to the end before we get any goodies.
Practicing mindfulness we learn to notice thoughts and feelings as they come up for us, and the feelings that come up for us aren’t always bad ones, sometimes we do feel good. Sometimes we aren’t sure we feel anything so we turn our attention to it and can be surprised by what we find. You see the thing about peace, as opposed to something overwhelming like bliss, is that it can be an incredibly subtle experience especially if it is one you are not familiar with. If you had asked me 10 years ago if I had ever experienced peace I would probably have said yes of course I have, but it is only now after many years of meditation that I can tell you categorically that I had never experienced peace before I started practicing. The feeling of peace is incredibly subtle compared to the exalted highs of sensual pleasures and this makes it hard to recognise in the beginning. When you are used to living life at full blast you lose the ability to notice the quieter moments and the same is true for our ability to notice the sensations that arise in our experience. If you listen to music at full volume through your headphones you know it takes a little while for your ears to recover enough to hear quiet sounds, if your sensual pleasures are always turned up to full volume then it will take you a while to recover your sensitivity enough to notice subtler experiences.
You might not realise it but in the modern world all of our pleasure experiences are amped up for maximum impact. The food we eat tastes good, in fact the food we eat often tastes amazing; yet our human ancestors spent the best part of a million years eating anything that moved charred over a fire and without mayo, food was rarely ever as good as it is now. We can absolutely lose ourselves in a big screen blockbuster action movie at the cinema; everything about movies is designed to take our emotions to the limit, the sound effects, the visual effects, the soundtrack, the dramatic storylines, everything is designed to stimulate our senses as much as possible. Then we have the instant access entertainment of the internet and social media, we never need to be bored. We can jump out of a plane with a parachute on, drive a fast car, ride on a rollercoaster, have sex with as many Tinder hookups as we like, get drunk on vintage champagne, go to a festival and dance all night; the world has never offered us such easy access to sense pleasures, and such intense ones too.
For the new meditator the intensity of the pleasures of the modern world is a problem because it sets our pleasure threshold incredibly high, unnaturally high. The natural world cannot offer highs of the level of the ones that humans have created for themselves, which has the unfortunate side effect of making our natural experiences feel insipid and unengaging. But human created pleasures cannot offer the all encompassing and persistent joy that comes with peace. Peace is utterly vast like a calm still ocean stretching out as far as you can see in every direction. Peace isn’t a high, peace is a wide, embracing and enveloping; allow it to permeate every cell of your being and every corner of your mind and you will have an experience that is beyond anything that worldly pleasures can give. But it is so damn subtle that you need not only to sharpen your attention but you need to bring that pleasure threshold down otherwise you won’t even notice it.
Helpfully meditation is the perfect exercise to achieve both aims – cultivate attention and bring the pleasure threshold down. How you might ask? Well, when we meditate we are removed from most of the senses – our eyes are closed, our body is still, there is nothing to do except watch the breath and observe the mind. That, in fact, is really quite boring. But in this rather barren situation it turns out that anything that isn’t boring or might be nice is much easier to see and much easier to experience as pleasant. So we notice things we hadn’t noticed before because normally we can only get excited by a 500 foot bungee jump, like how nice it is to move your foot a couple of inches so it doesn’t hurt as much, the relief when you let go of a thought or emotion, or how good it feels when we see one of those gaps between thoughts and the mind isn’t saying anything. Don’t underestimate the power of these tiny observations, keep seeing these little moments and keep feeling the good feelings that go with them and eventually you will start to experience peace strongly and consistently.
Once you do start to experience peace you will start to want to protect it, you will see that exposing yourself to the intense sensual pleasures that were previously your bread and butter entertainments has a massively disruptive effect on your peace. It’s up to you whether you want to keep doing those things but you may find, like many meditators before you that you prefer the peace and decide that the intense highs and lows of worldly pleasure aren’t worth it anymore. So like I said in my previous post, you find that you will just naturally start to let go of those things like watching movies and jumping out of planes.
What about joy though? Didn’t I say that those kinds of meditation experiences were important in my last post? Yes blissed out states of deep meditation are amazing, but the joy and bliss in concentration meditation only happen in the early stages, as your concentration develops the mind moves beyond bliss and into peace. Why? Because peace is more stable, it lasts longer, it doesn’t create clinging in the mind and it quietens down our bad habits long enough for us to notice things about the world and ourselves that we had been unable to see previously. Once our mind develops a taste for peace it loses interest in the highs and inevitable lows that come from extreme experiences, and once we have switched our attention to peace instead of pleasure then we can deepen the experience of peace even more.
If you have never experienced peace through meditation before then my advice to you is to look more closely. One of the easiest ways to experience peace is to focus your attention on the spaces between thoughts instead of on the thoughts themselves, or to the silence between noises. In between the activity there are little moments of peace, sometimes only fractions of a second long but they are there and you can experience them. Look for them, find them, and feel whatever is there as deeply as you can. In time those fractions of a second get longer and longer until you are consistently experiencing peace in your sits. Now don’t get me wrong, if you think you will get to the point where your peace starts when the meditation timer starts and stops only when the bell goes at the end then you will be disappointed and waiting a long time. This is unlikely to ever happen, even for experienced meditators, your sit is much more likely to always have both periods of peace and periods of not-peace. But when you are used to experiencing peace then you have more confidence that you will experience it again, so the not-peaceful parts of your meditation session are easier to tolerate and this makes experiencing peace more likely; the system keeps feeding back into itself so the more peace you have experienced more future peaceful experiences you will have.
If you are worried that all this peace sounds indulgent and will get in the way of your practice then don’t be, this peace is an essential component of your practice. Don’t forget that the ultimate unshakable peace of awakening is the final aim of Buddhist practice. The peace we experience before that point though helps us to let go of the things that our mind is clinging to and soothes the pain of discomfort if the practice is hard. The joy we get from experiencing peace guides us to make decisions that will maintain peace, like turning away from hatred and anger and moving towards metta and compassion. Peace is the fertile soil in which our good spiritual qualities and skilful actions will grow so the time you spend developing peace in your practice will pay you back over and over again.

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