If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time in your head trying to figure “it” out. I recently managed to work myself into a pickle with my retirement savings. Without going into details, my actions cost me a lot of money through sheer impulsive stupidity. The hard fact is, though, that it’s done. There’s not a damn thing I can do about it anymore. Continue reading
My understanding of the practice of meditation is not really about “doing” anything– in the sense that if you get caught up with an elaborate vision of silky white fog filling your lungs on every breath or a glowing sphere in your center, you’re now mostly spending your time thinking about that. It might be great for relaxation, but it fills the mind with just another bunch of stuff to block out the thoughts you don’t want to have.
No, I think the best thing you can do when you meditate is as little as possible to look at what’s already happening in there, verbally and otherwise.
Doing Nothing to Understand the Noise
A regular practice of meditation gives you the time to really examine what’s going on inside your head. It’s the very struggle of focus that brings clarity to how the mind works. The more that you consciously try to concentrate on something as simple as the feeling of the air passing through your nostrils, the more you realize how much other stuff is constantly happening in there. My stories will rudely interrupt my perfectly innocent breath-watching to take center stage, and if I’m keeping my focus simply on my breath without adornment, I notice when it happens– usually not right away, but eventually.
That’s when the magic happens. There’s a moment when I see that I’m off in my “wouldn’t it be great” or “wish I hadn’t done” or “god, how horrible” stories, and I have the opportunity to come back to my breath with the awareness of another mental dust bunny. I can now take the intentional moment to look at that dust bunny objectively. Force it to explain itself. I can dive into what it’s about without getting lost in the story itself.
Very often, by staring directly at this mental cobweb, I see that it’s really nothing. It’s just neurons somehow worked into a pattern that jabbers out this nonsense. There’s nothing needing doing, and I can safely turn away from it and back to the present moment. One less piece of clutter to fill the spaces.
Sometimes, though, I see that the story is more persistent. There’s something there, and I haven’t dealt with it. These stories won’t go away until I look right at them and find out what they want. This is when I put my focus squarely on the issue. Let’s have it out. Is it remorse about something I’ve done to harm someone? Can I make amends? Is it fear of loss? Can I do anything to prevent it?
Looking at these thoughts through the lens of the three “marks of existence” (yes, another one of THOSE)– impermanence, dukkha, and non-self– often helps to unravel the mystery of what gives the story the heft that it has.
Nothing is forever. The universe started at some point, and it will end. We’re all born, we live, we get old (again, if we’re lucky), and we die. That new car will get a dent and rust. Your new MacBook will be outdated and useless before very long. Boobs sag. Houses rot. Chips get stale. No one gets out alive. Period.
Now, is the story about failing health? Well, that happens. Is it about losing wealth? It comes and goes. We need to ask ourselves what we’re thinking we’re going to do about it. We need to understand that change happens, like it or not, and grinding away on how much we’d rather it didn’t… doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is possible, and really the only thing that makes logical sense, to accept everything, good and bad, as how things are right now. It won’t be that way forever, guaranteed.
I’ve come to understand dukkha as dissatisfaction more than suffering, as it’s often translated. The idea is that you never “get there” in life. There’s always more to have or less to tolerate. It’s the 500 lb. gorilla in the room. We manifest it in wanting more of these and wishing for less of those. Stuff hurts, there’s a nicer house, impermanence sucks, hangovers, I want something to eat but I’m not sure what, relationship problems, bills…
Is that what’s going on? Is this thought about my wanting something that isn’t or hating something that is? If I could change it, would it make me happy? Forever? Or would I just move on to the next thing? If so, maybe the problem isn’t the thing itself, but the desperate need to control it and make it how I want it. I need to accept how things are and take real, concrete steps to change what I genuinely believe needs to change. Muttering to myself isn’t that.
This one’s heavy. What am I? I mean… am I my thoughts? Am I my body? Am I the same ‘me’ as I was when I was six? How about when I’m going to be 90? Or dead? Or dust? What about before I was born? Am I my brain? Which part of it is ‘me’ and which part is just biological goop?
I don’t think that’s just intellectual masturbation. If I can’t identify myself in the first place, how can I feel that something is “mine”? How can I say that “I am a nice/mean/lazy/cheap kind of person”? What does that even mean? The only thing I am is what I do right now. The rest is history or over-simplified caricature.
Now, I have to examine my story with the question: who is this affecting? Is it affecting my idea of myself professionally? Is it attacking my idea of myself as a man? Is it about “my stuff”? “My money”? At best, for whatever reason, we have temporary use of something. That’s it. See impermanence.
We come into this world and leave it with nothing– no material goods, no thoughts, no existence, nothing. We’re just a flash of awareness in a massive rushing torrent of life– in an inconceivably huge universe about which we really understand nothing. Now maybe the problem is not with the thing but with this self-important idea of “me” and what “I” deserve or don’t.
Getting Beyond Words
Behind all of this storytelling and analysis are words, but words are pretty small when held up against the great expanse of everythingness. I used the example before of eating an oyster. Try to describe that experience in words. Do “oceany” or “slimy” really come close to the actual experience?
Now expand that idea out to the experience of awareness. Describe what it feels like to love someone or lose them. How about the feeling of going outside on the first warm day in the spring? It’s like describing red to a blind person. None of us can accurately communicate in words what our existence is like. We can only experience it.
Meditation allows us to “think” however we like. We can take in all the sounds, smells, and other sensations completely without having to transcribe them into ham-handed words like “good”, “beautiful”, or “awful”. We can contemplate our experience and existence in their complete depth using words when useful but leaving them behind when they’re insufficient.
After years and years of various approaches to meditation, I’ve come to believe that it’s the ultimate onion. Every time I do it, another layer comes off. Occasionally, I get a glimpse of the center. For just a second. It really is an amazing experience. But then I blink, and there, in front of me, is the whole onion again.
Still, I’ll keep at it. If I haven’t completely extinguished my craving and aversion, I’ve at least seen it and shaved a little off the top. Meditation’s been like a refuge for me in times of stress and chaos. It’s given me the ability to stop taking the universe so personally. Cultivating mindfulness in meditation helps me to listen more carefully, to work with more focus, and to experience more of my life without the veil of yammering thought in front of me.
So, that’s why, man.
Last night’s class focused on dissecting the Eightfold Path. Just for reference, here’s an image taken from a blog called “In Our Shoes“:
I’m sure I’ll go into more about the pieces of that in another post, but for now, I wanted to talk about something I’ve found to arise a lot in the initial stages of this class that relates to that last section– Concentration. In mindfulness training, you often hear about the five hindrances. (Yes, I know, there seem to be a lot of those “12 Holy Containers” type things. Bear with me.)
The Five Hindrances
Firstly, what are they hindering, exactly? I think of the hindrances as obstacles to my practice. These are the roadblocks that I encounter in making progress towards a clearer understanding of myself… or Things As They Are, if you will.
Desire and Aversion
The first two, desire and aversion, are in a way the key to the larger game. They are, along with a neutral numbness, the states that we’re trying to see clearly in our practice.
If you think about it, we generally suffer– whether it’s because “the remote’s over there, and I’m over here” or because our house just burned down– not because of the thing itself but because we’re so pissed that it’s not how we want it to be. It’s not fair. It’s inconvenient. It’s painful. Whatever. We’re upset that we have to do something we don’t want to do, be with someone we don’t want to be with, or feel something we don’t want to feel. That’s aversion.
On the flip side, desire is that miserable feeling that you should have something, someone, or an experience that you don’t have. Chocolate, sex, silence, more money, a BMW… It doesn’t matter. Even if we get it, we’ll just move on to the next thing on the list. At another level, it’s a deep misunderstanding of the whole idea of “having” anything, but more on that later.
Sloth and Restlessness
Sloth and restlessness are actually kind of easy to understand. If your body or mind are sleepy, your awareness is dulled by factors difficult to control. You can’t meditate, if you fall asleep. On the other hand, if you’re so amped up that you have a hard time sitting still, your mind is probably like the dreaded monkey locked in a house– running around looking out all the windows, one after another. Neither is impossible to control, but they’re definitely stumbling blocks.
My current favorite hindrance, though, is doubt. Doubt is that creeping sense that this is bullshit. Or that your teacher is a flake. Or that you’ll turn into a zombie if you stop wanting things. Doubt creeps up, like a demon, and suggests that you look pretty stupid sitting on that cushion with your eyes closed.
I’ve primarily studied Buddhism by myself because of doubt. I feared that I’d be exposed to people or situations that would distract me from the meaningful content. There’d be Birkenstock-wearing, puffy sweatered, huggers saying crap like “I see the loving vibrations coming from your chakras tonight.” Or, I’d make some horrible faux pas like sitting on my cushion wrong. I didn’t want anyone to spoil something that had become very important to me.
Recently, though, especially after listening to podcasts like Audio Dharma, I started seeing that I’d been limiting myself to only what was comfortable. Learning is not about hearing what you want to hear in a way that you want to hear it. It’s about putting yourself in front of the truth and dealing with it. The uncomfortable truth for me, in this case, was that not everyone talks, dresses, or thinks like I do, and yet, we’re all the same at a very basic level. I needed to face those triggers and learn to let them go if I wanted to make progress.
In fact, when I considered signing up for this class, I spent some time on-line researching it and the community where it was being taught. I watched part of a talk that Robert gave and immediately latched on to his habit of playing a hand-drum when he reads poetry in his talks.
Whoa, there, Major Tom… how groovy are you? Don’t try to feel my aura, space traveler! I decided, then and there, that this class wasn’t for me!
But, for whatever reason, I decided to sit and listen to the rest of his talk the next day. The topic: doubt. His talk was a pitch-perfect addressing of the doubt that I’d used as an excuse to get myself out of acting on my intention. I was using one meaningless thing that didn’t resonate with me personally to make a blanket judgment about the value of everything else he might be able to give me. He plays a drum when he reads poetry. So what?
A crack in my cone of judgment had opened, and it became pretty inescapable that I do it a lot. People say, do, or wear something, and I toss them into a category. They lose their individual humanity and become a “new-age weirdo”, “conservative jerk”, or “hipster douchebag”. After that, everything they say is processed through that lens. It’s all rough with no diamonds.
Now, I’m very aware of it happening. In class, he talked about the idea of Right Livelihood– basically doing a job that doesn’t cause harm– and listed some that the Buddha apparently singled out as unwise. They included soldiers and fishermen. Wait a minute. Soldier? You mean the people who defeated the nazis? The ones who show up to deliver humanitarian aid in disasters? Fisherman? What the what? I was off and running. If that’s a basic piece of the Eightfold Path, maybe the rest of it is a load of crap.
And then it hit me. Doubt. What if these careers are being taken out of context of time and culture? Even if they’re not, does the fact that I disagree with one relatively insignificant part of this demonstrably (to me) true philosophical system mean I have to throw out the whole thing? That’s… kinda crazy, isn’t it? Why not just make a note to think about it and move on?
The rest of our session was great. I still have some intuitive confusion about how some of the pieces fit together (e.g., what’s the real difference between a “mental state” and the “mind”, how do right concentration and right mindfulness differ?), but last night moved me just a little closer to really getting it. Had I allowed myself to get caught up in that attack of doubt, I’d have thrown out the baby, the bathwater, and the tub, all because I saw some lint in the water.
The lesson learned was that, with all the hindrances, the key is recognizing them. Awareness is more than half the battle. Once you realize that you’re wishing you were somewhere else, it’s easier to identify where your sense of irritation is coming from. If you are aware of sleepiness, you can choose to push through it or to just take a nap. Once you see your discursive, jabbering mind using doubt as an excuse to go back to “how things were”, you can call bullshit on it and get back to working on a better understanding.
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. Continue reading