Mindfulness in plain English: What meditation isn’t | Sunday Observer

Mindfulness in plain English: What meditation isn’t

19 March, 2023

Part 3


Meditation is for saints and sadhus, not for regular people

This attitude is very prevalent in Asia, where monks and holy men are accorded an enormous amount of ritualised reverence, somewhat akin to the American attitude of idolising movie stars and baseball heroes. Such people are stereotyped, made larger than life, and saddled with all sorts of characteristics that few human beings can ever live up to. Even in the West, we share some of this attitude about meditation. We expect the meditator to be an extraordinarily pious figure in whose mouth butter would never dare to melt. A little personal contact with such people will quickly dispel this illusion. They usually prove to be people of enormous energy and gusto, who live their lives with amazing vigor.

It is true, of course, that most holy men meditate, but they don’t meditate because they are holy men. That is backward. They are holy men because they meditate; meditation is how they got there. And they started meditating before they became holy, otherwise they would not be holy. This is an important point.

A sizable number of students seems to feel that a person should be completely moral before beginning to meditate. It is an unworkable strategy. Morality requires a certain degree of mental control as a prerequisite. You can’t follow any set of moral precepts without at least a little self-control, and if your mind is perpetually spinning like a fruit cylinder in a slot machine, self-control is highly unlikely. So mental culture has to come first.

There are three integral factors in Buddhist meditation—morality, concentration, and wisdom. These three factors grow together as your practice deepens. Each one influences the other, so you cultivate the three of them at once, not separately. When you have the wisdom to truly understand a situation, compassion toward all parties involved is automatic, and compassion means that you automatically restrain yourself from any thought, word, or deed that might harm yourself or others; thus, your behavior is automatically moral.

It is only when you don’t understand things deeply that you create problems. If you fail to see the consequences of your actions, you will blunder. The person who waits to become totally moral before he begins to meditate is waiting for a situation that will never arise. The ancient sages say this person is like a man waiting for the ocean to become calm so that he can take a bath.

To understand this relationship more fully, let us propose that there are levels of morality. The lowest level is adherence to a set of rules and regulations laid down by somebody else. It could be your favorite prophet. It could be the state, the head of your tribe, or a parent. No matter who generates the rules, all you have to do at this level is know the rules and follow them. A robot can do that.

Even a trained chimpanzee could do it, if the rules were simple enough and he were smacked with a stick every time he broke one. This level requires no meditation at all. All you need are the rules and somebody to swing the stick.

The next level of morality consists of obeying the same rules even in the absence of somebody who will smack you. You obey because you have internalised the rules. You smack yourself every time you break one. This level requires a bit of mind control. But if your thought pattern is chaotic, your behavior will be chaotic, too. Mental cultivation reduces mental chaos.

There is a third level of morality, which might better be termed as “ethics.”

This level is a quantum leap up the scale from the first two levels, a complete shift in orientation. At the level of ethics, a person does not follow hard and fast rules dictated by authority. A person chooses to follow a path dictated by mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion.

This level requires real intelligence, and an ability to juggle all the factors in every situation to arrive at a unique, creative, and appropriate response each time. The individual making these decisions needs to have dug him-or herself out of a limited personal viewpoint. The person has to see the entire situation from an objective point of view, giving equal weight to his or her own needs and those of others.

In other words, he or she has to be free from greed, hatred, envy, and all the other selfish junk that ordinarily keeps us from seeing the other person’s side of the issue. Only then can he or she choose the precise set of actions that will be truly optimal for that situation. This level of morality absolutely demands meditation, unless you were born a saint. There is no other way to acquire the skill.

The sorting process required at this level is exhausting. If you tried to juggle all those factors in every situation with your conscious mind, you’d overload yourself. The intellect just can’t keep that many balls in the air at once.

Luckily, a deeper level of consciousness can do this sort of processing with ease.

Meditation can accomplish the sorting process for you. It is an eerie feeling.

One day you’ve got a problem—let’s say, to handle Uncle Herman’s latest divorce. It looks absolutely unsolvable, an enormous muddle of “maybes” that would give King Solomon himself a headache. The next day you are washing the dishes, thinking about something else entirely, and suddenly the solution is there.

It just pops out of the deep mind, and you say, “Ah ha!” and the whole thing is solved. This sort of intuition can only occur when you disengage the logic circuits from the problem and give the deep mind the opportunity to cook up the solution. The conscious mind just gets in the way. Meditation teaches you how to disentangle yourself from the thought process. It is the mental art of stepping out of your own way, and that’s a pretty useful skill in everyday life. Meditation is certainly not an irrelevant practice strictly for ascetics and hermits. It is a practical skill that focuses on everyday events and has immediate applications in everybody’s life. Meditation is not “other-worldly.”

Unfortunately, this very fact constitutes the drawback for certain students.

They enter the practice expecting instantaneous cosmic revelation, complete with angelic choirs. What they usually get is a more efficient way to take out the trash and better ways to deal with Uncle Herman. They are needlessly disappointed. The trash solution comes first. The voices of archangels take a bit longer.


Meditation is running away from reality

Incorrect. Meditation is running straight into reality. It does not insulate you from the pain of life but rather allows you to delve so deeply into life and all its aspects that you pierce the pain barrier and go beyond suffering. Vipassana is a practice done with the specific intention of facing reality, to fully experience life just as it is and to cope with exactly what you find. It allows you to blow aside the illusions and free yourself from all the polite little lies you tell yourself all the time. What is there is there. You are who you are, and lying to yourself about your own weaknesses and motivations only binds you tighter to them. Vipassana meditation is not an attempt to forget yourself or to cover up your troubles. It is learning to look at yourself exactly as you are to see what is there and accept it fully. Only then can you change it.


Meditation is a great way to get high

Well, yes and no. Meditation does produce lovely blissful feelings sometimes.

But they are not the purpose, and they don’t always occur. If you do meditation with that purpose in mind, they are less likely to occur than if you just meditate for the actual purpose of meditation, which is increased awareness.

Bliss results from relaxation, and relaxation results from release of tension.

Seeking bliss from meditation introduces tension into the process, which blows the whole chain of events. It is a Catch-22: you can only experience bliss if you don’t chase after it.

Euphoria is not the purpose of meditation. It will often arise, but should be regarded as a byproduct. Still, it is a very pleasant side effect, and it becomes more and more frequent the longer you meditate. You won’t hear any disagreement about this from advanced practitioners.


Meditation is selfish

It certainly looks that way. There sits the meditator parked on a little cushion. Is she out donating blood? No. Is she busy working with disaster victims? No. But let us examine her motivation. Why is she doing this?

The meditator’s intention is to purge her own mind of anger, prejudice, and ill will, and she is actively engaged in the process of getting rid of greed, tension, and insensitivity.

Those are the very items that obstruct her compassion for others. Until they are gone, any good works that she does are likely to be just an extension of her own ego, and of no real help in the long run.

Harm in the name of help is one of the oldest games. The grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition spouted the loftiest of motives. The Salem witchcraft trials were conducted for the “public good.”

Examine the personal lives of advanced meditators, and you will often find them engaged in humanitarian service.

You will seldom find them as crusading missionaries who are willing to sacrifice certain individuals for the sake of a supposedly pious idea. The fact is that we are more selfish than we know. The ego has a way of turning the loftiest activities into trash if it is allowed free range.

Through meditation, we become aware of ourselves exactly as we are, by waking up to the numerous subtle ways that we act out our own selfishness. Then we truly begin to be genuinely selfless. Cleansing yourself of selfishness is not a selfish activity.


When you meditate, you sit around thinking lofty thoughts

Wrong again. There are certain systems of contemplation in which this sort of thing is done. But that is not Vipassana. Vipassana is the practice of awareness, awareness of whatever is there, be it supreme truth or trivial trash. What is there, is there.

Of course, lofty thoughts may arise during your practice. They are certainly not to be avoided. Neither are they to be sought. They are just pleasant side effects.

Vipassana is a simple practice. It consists of experiencing your own life events directly, without preferences and without mental images pasted onto them. Vipassana is seeing your life unfold from moment to moment without biases. What comes up, comes up. It is very simple.


A couple of weeks of meditation and all my problems will go away

Sorry, meditation is not a quick cure-all. You will start seeing changes right away, but really profound effects are years down the line. That is just the way the universe is constructed. Nothing worthwhile is achieved overnight.

Meditation is tough in some respects, requiring a long discipline and a sometimes painful process of practice. At each sitting you gain some results, but they are often very subtle.

They occur deep within the mind, and only manifest much later. And if you are sitting there constantly looking for huge, instantaneous changes, you will miss the subtle shifts altogether.

You will get discouraged, give up, and swear that no such changes could ever occur. Patience is the key. Patience. If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience. Patience is essential for any profound change.

To be continued