The following is part of an exchange with a very experienced meditator who has concentrated on the Vipassana, or insight, wing of the bird of meditation (Samatha, or what the Tibetans call ‘calm, abiding, meditation, is the other; and I note here that a bird needs two wings to fly); this is part of my reply, which I put here in case it might be useful to someone.
Only this morning, I had been discussing with a colleague who has difficulties with experiences of desire and associated feelings/sensations in her meditation practice. I can tell you these kinds of thoughts or feelings have never disturbed my practice (of course they could at any time!). Yet, as a person in ordinary daily life, I’m perceived as someone who is carnal/sensual/sexual in the physical sense so, her thinking went, would I not be more prone to these kinds of disturbances?
When I first started to practice, the practice itself was disturbed by thoughts of a great many things. I think my friend’s practice is disturbed in a very similar way and I note in passing that she is anything but grounded in her daily life. I made the cultivation of the deepest physical relaxation the focus of my practice for years, and with zero regard for what the consequences of this might have. It simply felt like a worthwhile objective, especially for someone who had the physical tension I had.
What happened (and this was completely unexpected) was the cessation of most thoughts, and a few that remain are experienced simply as distant ripples on the surface of vast pond. In ordinary daily life there are long periods where I don’t think. Now of course not all days are like this! But the key point here is that I believe that cultivation of deep relaxation has a very powerful effect on settling disturbing thoughts in general and helping to disconnect one from the apparent reality of one’s thoughts. And, further, this practice does not require any mental effort. I am wondering whether Vipassana might be, in fact, a misdirection for some Westerners because of their constant thinking? In my experience with Vipassana, I wonder if its practise might not actually increase the obsession (now we move to thoughts about thoughts, whether ‘noting’ or any of the other instructions given)?
In contrast, cultivation of deep relaxation in my experience always leads to cessation of thoughts naturally. Now there’s a question here of course whether this cultivation will move you to any ‘higher’ stage following the Buddha’s teachings—this I cannot say. Perhaps (as my friend has suggested) all it leads to is relaxation!
In my own personal life, I simply try to be kind and I try to make decisions that are the best results for all concerned in whatever process/situation I’m involved at the time. As I wrote to my friend, no notions of yamas or niyamas in my mind at these times—only dealing with what happens in the moment with these simple guidelines as a background. Enlightenment? Hardly. Maintaining an awareness on what’s happening inside the body at all times does provide a very gentle restraint on the mind’s radical movements, however, and as you say the majority of people are not only controlled by their concepts and conceptual schema but believe them to be utterly and completely true and real. I am certain that they are not, and the cultivation of deep relaxation has helped very much to make this clear.
I hope this note may be helpful. I also want to note that the vast majority of my practice in those years where I was cultivating deep relaxation was actually done in the lying posture. I am talking here not only about Yoga Nidra, but also lucid dream practice and a number of other explicitly deep relaxation practices. (As an aside, I found lucid dreaming extremely difficult to achieve; I have had two utterly vivid lucid dreams.)
In the meditation world in general, I feel that there is an over-emphasis on the sitting posture (and it is often aggressively positioned as the only “proper” meditation posture) and I do not believe that this is helpful for many beginners. Whenever any meditation retreat has ended and moun has been lifted, all everyone can talk about is the pain that they have suffering over the previous week or two. Now, I have observed before that pain can be very useful meditation object, but there are also many other useful meditation objects.