You’ve made it to the cushion, and you’ve found a nice patch of wall. Now what?
One of the most challenging aspects of maintaining a meditation practice is overcoming the wealth of information coming at us from conditioned mind about what meditation should be and all the ways that we are doing it wrong. This is an example of a conditioned process I like to think of as “the expert.” When we try to do something new, we are met by an authoritative voice that seems to know everything there is to know about it and is eager to provide “helpful” information about the myriad ways we are failing to measure up. The expert strives to set our expectations so high that they cannot possibly be met. If we are unable to turn away from this barrage of false information, we can’t help but come away feeling like a failure.
A handy way to turn away from “the expert” and its kin is to choose what I like to call a “talisman.” A talisman is just a simple bit of experience that we practice returning to again and again. It is like a base camp from which we set out on our adventures in the exploration of awareness. As we continue to practice coming back to the talisman again and again, it becomes increasingly familiar. As we persist in its use, deviations of attention away from the talisman become more and more obvious.
Most introspective disciplines employ talismans of some sort or another. Many Zen practitioners count cycles of ten breaths; Taoists and Buddhists of all sorts employ a wide variety of chants; Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian contemplatives focus their attention on the names or attributes of God. All of the above make use of a variety of icons, statues, and other images to anchor their attention.
What sort of talisman should you chose? The Christian theologian Francois Fenelon advised choosing a short word, such as “God” or “Love.” I’ve had success with both (you needn’t believe in any particular notion of “God” for the word to serve as an effective talisman), but my personal favorite of late has been “Thanks.”
Most of the power of the talisman emerges from its use rather than anything intrinsic to the particular word or image.* So long as you have a simple, familiar and - hopefully! - pleasant place to return again and again, the talisman will serve its purpose. Have fun with it, and choose some experience you like. With luck you will be spending a lot of time there.
As with any tool, it’s essential to recognize the time and place for its application. At first it may be all you can do to hang on desperately to your talisman as you are buffeted by wave after wave of conditioned processes trying to wrest control of your attention away from you. As you develop the skills of keeping track of your attention and directing it where you choose, opportunities will arise to let go of your talisman without immediately ending up in the grip of conditioned mind. At times like these we can set out from our base camp and explore the surrounding country, secure in the knowledge that we have a safe place to return should we get into trouble.
Eventually, when we have become well established in tracking and directing our attention, the act of sitting down for meditation will be enough to turn attention away from conditioned mind. As our efforts on the cushion are met with less and less resistance, we can spend more time exploring the deeper reaches of awareness. When conditioned mind is on the offensive, we can fall back on our talisman; otherwise we can dispense with it and go further in our explorations.
As the Buddha pointed out time and again, every teaching is a tool to get us beyond the obstacle in our way in this moment. When you’ve crossed a given river, it’s time to put down the raft.
*There are some differences to be noted between a chant, image, word, etc. - or even from word to word, image to image, chant to chant - but it has been my experience that these differences are dwarfed by the overall effect of having a familiar piece of ground on which to make a stand against the conditioned processes which rally to divert our attention when we try to get a bit of clarity. Pick something you like and stick with it. It isn’t much use to have a whole belt full of tools that all do roughly the same job!