Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Crazy Like Me

I'll admit it. I don't like meditating.

But I do it for much the same reasons as I brush my teeth, and exercise, and go to work: if I didn't do those things, I would be weak and unhealthy, living on the street, with my teeth falling out.

I meditate because if I didn't I would be crazy. I would be, in the eloquent words of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, "a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels, barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless."

I don't think it's just me, actually. It is a fairly common experience to discover through meditation just how crazy you really are. This shock comes in several phases. In phase one, you simply realize that you're a monkey. Try as you might, you cannot keep your mind settled on any one thing for more than a few breaths; peeling away the controlled, civilized mask you try to present to yourself and others, you discover a "shrieking, gibbering" primate who resists any attempts at being trained or coerced. That shock, alone, is enough to make the faint-of-heart give up -- and give up they do. I can't count the number of people I've seen flee in terror from the meditation cushion after one or two trial sessions, simply because they couldn't sit down and immediately be totally thought-free and at peace. Tenzin Palmo compares this to someone who takes their first piano lesson and gives up in frustration because they can't immediately play a Beethoven concerto.

But if you are one of the few, one of the brave, who has the temerity to stick with it and not turn away from the monkey, then you can enter phase two, which -- I'm sorry to tell you, sweetheart -- holds an even greater shock. Peeling away the first layer of the monkey, you begin to uncover the bloody pulp that the monkey is made of -- and, so far, I've never heard of anyone discovering that the monkey is made of sugar and spice and everything nice. The monkey, invariably, is made of slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails and other horrors. What happens, very simply, is that you start to see, with newfound clarity, the patterns of bullshit in your own mind.

You might discover, to your deep chagrin, that although you thought you were self-confident and well-adjusted in your relationships to others you're actually seething with insecurity and vanity and constantly seeking validation. Or you might discover that although you thought you were a "nice" person, you're actually pissed off most of the time -- as full of concealed malice and resentment and aggression as a writhing ball of snakes. Or you might discover that although you thought you were tolerant and open-minded, every other thought you have is judgmental and prejudiced and critical. Or you might begin to lean over the well of your mind and peer into a bottomless abyss of loneliness and sadness that you didn't know was there. Or you might, to your everlasting horror, discover each of these things, one by one.

To put this in terms of Jungian psychology, through meditation you begin to see your own Shadow: that secret closet in your mind where you have stuffed all the skeletons that seemed unflattering and incompatible with your consciously contrived personality. And seeing your Shadow is, universally, an embarrassing and uncomfortable experience. The skeletons that come floating out of that closet are unacceptable, and they reek like corpses: that is why you locked them away in the first place.

But for the brave of heart, there is something strangely satisfying in this. It is satisfying because you know that, finally, you are getting down to something true. "The truth?" screamed Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men. "You can't handle the truth!" And yet, you begin to realize, you can handle it. It may not be flattering, it may be uncomfortable and embarrassing to admit to yourself what you find (forget about admitting it to someone else) -- but it is okay, because it is true. This stuff in you has been there all along, and now you finally have a chance to come to terms with it. Like the young man in the old fable who runs in fear from the sight of his own shadow and the sound of his own footsteps, you eventually realize that all you need to do is stop running and the sound of footsteps chasing you will disappear; sit down in the shade of a tree and your menacing shadow will vanish.

"The truth? You can't handle the truth!"
-- Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men

Here's the dangling carrot: as you let these aspects of the Shadow come up into the light of consciousness, holding them in awareness with simple curiosity and openness, the Shadow begins to loosen its grip on you. The Shadow is the Shadow, ultimately, only because you've been hiding it from yourself. Perhaps meditation gives you, for the first time in your life, the courage to begin to look nakedly at what has been inside you all along. And by looking, and knowing, you begin to grow in wisdom.

And yet, to your disappointment, it doesn't all dissolve into bliss when you shine your little flashlight on it. It's a big Shadow -- really big, stretching back into the recesses of your mind further than you can fathom -- and your little flashlight only illuminates the few feet of ground right in front of you. One nasty spider might emerge into the beam of your flashlight and dissolve in awareness, but you can rest assured there are other spiders and creepy-crawlies there in the darkness, all around you.

The spiritual path, said Chogyam Trungpa, is just "one insult after another." No wonder I don't like meditating. And yet, I keep going -- not because I'm a masochist, but because I have seen enough to know that I must keep going. I must keep peeling away the layers of the monkey -- until I get to the bone, and then I must peel away the bone and get to the marrow, and then I must peel away the marrow and get to -- what? I don't know. But each time I peel away a new layer, I'm confronted with a fresh insult, a fresh whiff of whatever reeking corpse I've been hiding from myself. And that's how I know I'm headed in the right direction.

The further you go into meditation, the more you descend into the charnel ground that is your own mind. But that's the path, sweetheart. If you seek to re-discover what Trungpa called "the sanity you were born with," you must first recognize how insane you have been ever since birth. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. And, sweetie, you've got a big problem. You're crazy, just like me.


Unknown said...

Why don't mentally healthy people ever take up meditation practice?

And when I say "mentally healthy," I don't mean it in the allegedly stereotypical Western definition of "not having any mental problems severe enough to require psychiatric help." I'm talking about health in the WHO's definition, where it's not merely the absence of illness or a diagnosis; it's a state of outright well-being.

Why don't people whose minds are full of well-being take up meditation practice? Do such people simply not exist? Do they just not tend to take up hardcore dharma practice? I'm really not trying to be rude by asking such pointed questions -- I really want to know why (it seems that) everyone who hits the dukkha nyanas ends up discovering the layer of insanity that you mentioned.

Dennis Hunter said...

I think the motivation for most spiritual practice comes from recognition of suffering. The story of the Buddha's charmed life in the palace and then his sudden awakening to the reality of suffering is, to me, allegorical. It's about what happens to any of us when we wake up from the trance of distractions and fantasies and come to terms with some uncomfortable truths about life.

The people who are not meditating do not have minds full of well-being and peace and clarity -- that seems clear enough. If they did, we wouldn't have things in our world like genocide, terrorism, greed, corruption, environmental degradation, exhaustion of resources, and so on.