The importance of community as it applies to the practice of close following

I host a meditation meetup on Saturday mornings. It’s a great group, not always the same people, but it’s one of those activities that I’m ostensibly doing for others that winds up benefiting me a great deal as well.

A couple of weeks ago, Ken and I think Jean-Francois asked me to talk about my practice and I said some things about it which were motivated more by a sense of imposter syndrome than anything that was really true about my practice. Ken was perceptive enough to call me on it, and I wound up talking a bit about what’s been going on for me.

The first observation is that the mere act of doing this was incredibly cathartic. I felt so much better after the call than I had before. This is actually a powerful benefit of a practice community: we can see each others’ blind spots and call each other on them, and perhaps more importantly, we can trust enough to feel safe in admitting to the things that we wish weren’t true.

The point of confession is not to feel bad about whatever it is that you’re confessing. It’s to be freed from the part of the mind that wants to not see it. Once you’ve confessed to it, there’s no benefit to not seeing it. Maybe something will change, maybe nothing will change. But at least you see it, and now you can work on it.

What came out of this conversation was a refocusing of my practice. My practice has felt a bit stuck for a while. I don’t have a strong motivation to change, because it’s fine, and I’m happy—I don’t need something from my practice. But there are things I’d like to explore in my practice, and it feels like practicing benefits the people who show up for the meditation meetups—I can often see things they are missing, and relate my own experience in meditation to what they’re experiencing in a way that is helpful. This blog is called How to Suck at Meditation, after all, because sucking at something helps you learn how to get better at it; being perfectly brilliant at it does not, although that’s nice too.

Out of this discussion on the meetup came a couple of changes. I’ve been paying a lot more attention to what’s going on in my practice, and what I could try that might change things. This means keeping a journal, and having intentions for what I’m going to work on, rather than just sitting down and hoping trying to meditate.

From that have come some new things to work on. First, it’s always very clear to me that I can’t force anything to happen, and that forcing produces stress as well. But as a result of this I hadn’t been doing close following, because close following felt like forcing. So one thing I did was to figure out how to close following without forcing. This involves setting intentions and renewing intentions often enough to keep the close following happening, but not trying to actually do anything to follow the breath. This works really well, and feels much more relaxed.

Second, I’ve made it actually my primary practice to be aware of even a little bit of dullness, and to take immediate action when I notice it by checking in on the state of awareness. Am I hearing sounds from the environment? Are they clear? Are they diverse? This involves checking in with attention, but it works because it counteracts the tendency of awareness to collapse when attention is tightly scoped. It’s a stage four practice—ultimately I need to be able to drop it, but first it has to become automatic, and it’s not automatic right now.

And third, I’ve started really working on the distinction between gross and subtle distractions. This is important because in stage four, you do not work on subtle distractions. It’s okay for subtle distractions to come up. If I notice a sound, and have a thought about it, and then go right back onto the breath, that’s fine. It’s when I find myself following the breath but having long streams of thought that it’s a problem. And when that is happening, it’s too late to do the correction. The practice is to notice the subtle distraction before it becomes a gross distraction.

So the way this goes is that I start off with an intention to notice subtle distractions before they become gross distractions. I’m also intending to notice dullness and do close following, so I’m setting three intentions, but not holding them. I’m just setting them and letting them go, the same way I set an intention to pick up a glass and drink from it, but don’t keep holding that intention as the actions happen to pick up the glass and bring it to my lips.

Sometimes the intention-setting works, and I notice a subtle distraction that could have become a gross distraction before it becomes one. Other times I realize that I’m in a gross distraction; when I do this, I’m happy I noticed, and I renew the intentions and keep going. Over the course of a practice, this seems to be a pretty reliable way to get to where there are no gross distractions happening.

Of course, these practices are kind of like navigating between two extremes: when I am doing close following really well, dullness tends to come. When I correct really well for dullness, distraction tends to come. So there are lots of opportunities to learn in this process, but it’s getting to the point where I can get to a non-dull, non-distracted state with a lot of energy will closely following the breath fairly early in the practice now, rather than a few seconds before the bell goes off; when this practice goes well, I can start off feeling tired and get up at the end full of energy. Very nice.

Close following, by the way, is simply intending to follow the breath in continuous detail. This can be difficult: as you sit, the breath can become indistinct. This is a sign of dullness, so you can correct, but the breath is actually just an idea made up based on a lot of discrete sensations, so actually the more clearly you perceive it, the more discontinuous it becomes.

So to closely follow the breath you have to follow not only the sensations, but the times in between the sensations. It’s really easy to turn this into multitasking, and that becomes distraction. You can multitask simply by thinking about the practice in between sensations. When I do close following really well, there are no thoughts about what is going on in the practice during the following—there’s just the experience of following, and whatever is happening in awareness—sounds, occasional flickers of thought, the feeling of an intention to stray from the breath coming up and being released before it’s acted upon.

These are not things I’ve never experienced in practice before, but I’d drifted away from these experiences over time. It was the community, the sangha, that brought me back to them. So thanks for that!