Anyone who’s studied Buddhism for more than a few minutes has bumped up against the idea of self/no-self (anatta). It’s often misinterpreted that the Buddha said we don’t exist. He actually explicitly refused to answer the question when asked. It seems he thought it was a “do you beat your child often” question. You can’t give the right answer. The question is the problem. Instead, he taught that we need to think more flexibly about the idea of self. 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.