I want you to stand, walk around the room, and take each person’s hands in yours. Look in their eyes and greet them with the phrase ‘I see you.’
Thus, I began a year-long program to “deepen my practice” through the study of the Satipattana Sutta– the main Buddhist sutra, scripture, on mindfulness (more on that later). The program involves weekly meetings, readings of several texts, and monthly one-on-one with the course instructor, Robert.
Tonight’s meeting marked the first time I’d attended this, or any, formal meditation gathering. I’ve been a meditator, on and off if I’m honest, for decades, but on and off doesn’t cut it. I’ve also played the guitar, on and off, since I was 12, and I still suck at the guitar. To be good at something, to really master it, it’s said you need to spend 10,000 hours in regular practice. That’s the thing that differentiates the master from the dabbler– practice and persistence.
My interest in meditation started with my early exposure to the martial arts in high school. Meditation was touted as a way to clear the mind such that one could react more quickly in combat. There’s a reason that martial arts and meditation have been linked over the years. It’s not possible to react quickly enough in combat if your mind is off telling itself stories about how cool you look or how scary your opponent is. When you square off with someone, your mind needs to be quiet and in touch with what’s happening right now so you can react immediately to whatever that is.
What I learned over the years, though, was that this stillness of mind could be useful throughout my life. As much as I couldn’t effectively defend myself if I was lost in my head, I also couldn’t fully participate in a conversation, my work, sex, or anything else if my mind was elsewhere. And yet, it seemed impossible to achieve a state of “no-mind” for more than a few seconds. For years, I struggled to force my mind into extended stillness.
I told the voice in my head to just stop chattering. Sometimes, I’d think I’d gotten somewhere, and then I’d realize the whole time I was narrating the whole experience. “OK, be quiet. Good job. That’s quiet. I’m not thinking anything. Awesome. Oh wait… Dammit!” It was like peeling an onion. Someone was in there talking, and the more I tried to root him out, the more he receded, chattering away. Try telling yourself not to think of an elephant. Good luck with that.
To be clear, I’m not schizophrenic. This voice was just me incessantly yammering to myself. You do it, too. We all do. It’s the nature of being a human with language capabilities. Eckhart Tolle tells a story about following a woman who’d been animatedly chattering to herself from the subway, wondering to himself where such a person goes. After losing her, he goes to the bathroom to wash his hands.
And I suddenly realized, well, I do that too, except that I don’t do it out loud. And then I thought, “I hope I don’t end up like her,” and somebody next to me looked at me and I suddenly realized in shock that I had actually said these words aloud just like her.
— Eckhart Tolle
In fact, we all do it so much that we miss a great deal of our lives because we’re so wrapped up in our own stories of desire for that which will make us happy, complaints about that which is forcing us to be miserable, or a general malaise of the mind remembering the time that one thing happened. We’re all a kind of George Costanza constantly working out the perfect comeback.
Well, the Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you.
— George Costanza
Mindfulness is the ability to train the mind to stay with what’s happening right now. It’s not about forcing ourselves to stop thinking. That’s what I’d missed when I was younger. Thinking is another thing that’s happening, and it’s OK. The problem arises when we immerse ourselves in those thoughts. We identify with them so completely that we think those thoughts are who we are and not just a babbling story that our language faculty feels compelled to create because that’s what it’s evolved to do– talk.
But we are so much more than the chattering in our head. What most of us learn on the cushion is that this yammering voice in our head is, to quote Dan Harris, “kind of an asshole”. It’s boring. It’s self-centered. It’s jealous, resentful, whiny, and so, so repetitive. It spends heaps of processing time rehashing the same offenses, mistakes, and dangers over and over, typically without offering much in the way of a solution.
Did you ever read a book and get to the end of the paragraph only to find that you didn’t remember anything you’d just read. That’s him. He was thinking about something else you should be doing right now. Did you ever have to ask someone to repeat themselves even though you were sitting right in front of her while she was talking? That’s him. How about driving down the highway right past your exit? He can be such a dick that way.
One analogy that I heard recently that does a good job of demonstrating the idea is from Andy Puddicombe of headspace.com. Our greater mind is like a person standing near a highway. The thoughts in our head our like cars passing on that highway. We can’t stop the traffic; the danger lies in our becoming so fascinated with a particular car that we climb in and drive away with it. We are not the traffic. We are the observer of the traffic.
What we learn when we catch a glimpse of the difference between these thoughts and the observer of these thoughts is that the observer is so much more than these stories– or anything that we could possibly cram into the few thousands words in our vocabulary. Our senses know continuous spectrums of sounds, sights, feelings, and emotions. Taste an oyster and describe the experience. My guess is that you’ll have trouble really coming anywhere near it. “Uh, it’s slimy and tastes like ocean.”
And yet, we experience all of our lives this way. We attempt to cram an expansive universe of experience into crude boxes of language and notoriously leaky memory and then live through the retelling in our heads– even in the face of a constant flow of new experiences happening at every moment. More often than not, we infuse these hacked together memories (and expectations) with layers of desire, aversion, and inferred meaning.
As a result, life passes by, and we miss it. The practice of mindfulness is about learning to identify those thoughts as just that– passing thoughts of an involuntary talking muscle. The heart beats. The mind thinks. But there’s a level of awareness above that jabbering. That’s what we work to recognize. It’s there. You don’t have to make it happen; you just need to spend the time to learn to see it clearly. That’s the part that takes the persistent practice.
So, as much as my inner voice screamed “This is weird! I don’t want to do this!” at me, I took my fellow meditators’ hands, looked them in the eyes, and said “I see you.” At first, I didn’t see them. I saw labels: old lady, tall guy, hippie girl. I got it. That’s why we were doing this. These were all people, just like me, trying to get away from the world of texting, driving cars, and shopping online to one where we really saw the person right in front of us as another human just like ourselves.
It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s also very difficult. Hopefully, the next year will bring more insights like this, and I’ll be able to share them here.