Thursday, November 27, 2008

Why Meditate?

Why do we meditate? We need a good reason to do something so strange. Because sitting still and doing nothing is a rather bizarre occupation, when you think about it. Why not just watch TV instead?

Many of us who are on the Buddhist path, practicing meditation, have landed here after a rude awakening of some kind. A divorce, the loss of a loved one or a job, an addiction, or some other personal trauma has brought us to the sometimes long-overdue recognition that our old way of doing things isn’t working anymore. We come to the cushion looking for a new way to live.

The Buddha taught that, underneath everything in our human lives, there is a persistent and deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction that we cannot escape. The Buddha’s term for this, dukkha, is often translated into English as “suffering,” but it could also be translated as “unease” or “unsatisfactoriness.” The term is thought to have referred originally to a potter’s wheel that is off-kilter and makes a horrible screeching noise as it spins.

Most of us have spent our entire lives on the run from this one inescapable fact, what the Buddha called the First Noble Truth: underneath it all, behind even the most positive or pleasurable experiences, there is dukkha, the sense that something isn’t entirely right, that the pleasure is temporary and contains its own pain, that the fruit, even at the height of its ripeness, is already rotting from within. We look for happiness in things outside ourselves, but even when we get what we want we always seem to discover, each time with a fresh sense of surprise, that the elusive feeling of happiness dissolves and we have to start all over again.

At some point — and this is the point where meditation becomes possible — we may begin to sense that perhaps the lasting happiness we seek is never going to come from things outside. Seeing a sign in the window advising us to “Inquire Within,” we realize that we need to look at our own mind and discover a deeper truth about our own nature.

And so we land on the meditation cushion, where we are in for another rude awakening. We learn that the first step towards that internal transformation is cultivating attention, developing the capacity to stay present with ourselves and with what is happening right here, right now. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a Theravadan teacher, says:

You can’t make radical changes in the pattern of your life until you begin to see yourself exactly as you are now. As soon as you do that, changes will flow naturally. Mental cultivation through meditation is without rival in helping you achieve this sort of understanding and serene happiness.

Our rude awakening on the cushion comes from the discovery that our mind is wild and distracted, and seems to have a will of its own. We are confronted with the phenomenon that Buddhists traditionally call “monkey mind.” Our mind howls and jumps from one thought to the next, and we find ourselves at the mercy of our moods, memories, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Our noble intention to sit down and discover our true nature is obstructed by the screeching monkey that we discover is our own mind.

The Buddhist masters assure us of something that, at this point, we may find difficult to believe. Monkey mind, they say, is not the true nature of mind — it’s merely a collection of bad mental habits superimposed on the mind, habits that can be unraveled and dissolved. Mind’s true nature, they assure us, is clear and focused and peaceful.

The reason this is so hard to believe — although we may have an intuitive sense of its truth — is that it doesn’t seem to correspond to our experience most of the time. Our mind is a loud, noisy place full of voices clamoring and competing for attention, and we feel lucky if we even have an occasional glimpse of peace.

Tenzin Palmo, a Buddhist nun who spent twelve years meditating in a cave in the Himalayas, says that the modern human mind is like a garbage heap. With today’s technology and media, we have an unprecedented and constant influx of information, stories, ideas, emotions, opinions, images and desires flowing into our minds through our eyes and ears, and most of it is garbage. With no routine in place for clearing away the garbage that comes in, it just piles up there, and then what becomes of our minds? Meditation offers us a way to clear away some of the garbage.

So what stands in the way of our ability to settle into our mind’s natural state? One word for it is ego, which refers in this case to our sense of a separate and truly existent self, the “I.” Buddhism teaches us that this sense of self is an illusion, a hugely mistaken perception that has tragic consequences. From the mistaken sense of “self” comes the mistaken sense of “other,” the notions of “me and mine,” and all the ego’s schemes and maneuvers designed to satisfy its craving for comfort and pleasure.

Our ego’s schemes and maneuvers fall into three basic categories, which in Buddhism are called the Three Poisons. We compulsively grasp at what is pleasant and become attached to it; we push away or seek to destroy what is unpleasant; and we pretty much tune out the rest. Through our compulsive grasping at pleasure and avoidance of pain, we become habituated to reaching for something — food, sex, TV, a person, a drink or drug, whatever it may be for us — to ease the edginess of the moment, to blot out our sense of the dukkha that underlies our experience. Through the force of habit, we learn to instantly go into escape mode, rather than sitting with our feelings of uncertainty.

In the Shambhala tradition, this is what is known as cocoon. It may look different for each person, but in every case, cocoon is ego’s way of wrapping itself up in the illusion of security and protecting itself: it’s your personal strategy for getting all the good stuff, making all the bad stuff go away, and numbing yourself just in case there’s any pain.

The problem with this strategy is that it’s not grounded in reality. The things we habitually reach for to give us pleasure, in the end, bring us more pain. Our desire and our clinging to comfort only makes us more uncomfortable. In India, it’s said that hunters are able to trap small monkeys by boring a hole in the side of a coconut and placing something sweet inside. The monkeys reach through the hole and grasp the candy, but because they’ve formed their hand into a fist to grasp the candy, they’re unable to retract it from the coconut. The monkeys’ own desire, their grasping at the candy, is what traps them, and they don’t realize that they could free themselves very simply by letting go.

Now, here’s the good news: This is all in your mind. The source of all this activity, the place where both wisdom and neurosis arise, is in the mind. Where else could it be? And the mind can be trained. Bad habits can be unlearned. And mind’s true nature can be uncovered.

The Buddha taught:

The consequences of an [undisciplined] mind will follow you like the cart that follows the ox that pulls it. The consequences of a purified mind will follow you like your own shadow. No one can do more for you than your own purified mind — no parent, no relative, no friend, no one. A well-disciplined mind brings happiness.

From this perspective, we don’t come to meditation in order to “get” something — which is our habitual way of approaching things. Rather, we come to meditation in order to lose something: to lose our confusion, our distraction, our preconceptions, our prejudices, our denial, our destructive habitual patterns — all these cognitive and emotional veils that obscure our vision and distort our perception of reality, keeping us trapped in cycles of destructive, reactionary behavior.

What we may discover, as we begin to peel away those veils, is that we already have what we are looking for. It’s been here all along. Our mind’s true nature is basically good, and our life in this moment is fundamentally worth living not for what it could become if we did this or that, or had this or that, but simply for what it already is. The monkey may continue to dance on the garbage heap for some time to come, but underneath it all, we know we are not the monkey or the garbage heap — we are the Buddha, awakened, connected and free from the bondage of our own ego trip.

That, as Pema Chodron would say, is “news we can use.”

1 comment:

Dennis Hunter said...

An afterthought:

I called my mother yesterday to wish her Happy Thanksgiving. She asked what I'd been doing, and I said I was working on an article about meditation.

"What about it?" she asked.

"I guess it's about the question of 'why meditate?'" I replied.

"Does it work?" she asked.

This seemed to me like a trick question, so I hesitated.

"I suppose that depends on what your goals and expectations are," I replied, not committing myself to a yes or no answer.

"Is it like medicine?" she asked.

Another trick question, perhaps. I hesitated again to answer. But then when I thought about it, I realized that I do view meditation as a kind of medicine. Maybe not like a pharmaceutical pill that magically fixes you or rescues you from yourself, but certainly a kind of medicine that, if taken properly, helps you address the root cause of spiritual disease.

"Yes, I guess it is sort of like medicine," I had to respond.