Meditation

Okay, here we go: my take on meditation.

First of all, I’ll note there are many types of meditation, arising from many religious traditions. Furthermore, individual teachers may have their own homegrown approaches to meditation, based on whatever they’ve found helpful or even approaches they’ve invented themselves. Many people think that meditation is always just sitting quietly, but there are forms of meditation that involve walking, lying down, chanting, running, yoga positions, and lots of other activities.

But let me talk about the forms I know best. These forms do one of two things:

  • Either the practice is intended to focus the mind on something in order to shut out external and internal distractions. This means quieting the mind.
  • Or else the practice is intended to open the mind to observe whatever thoughts and sensations arise.

Often in a meditation session, you do the first type of practice for some length of time to calm the mind and make it less busy. You focus on your breathing, or chanting, or a mental image, or a phrase. Then you move on to the second type of meditation form.

A phrase used to help you focus is called a mantra. It may or may not make sense. One of my teachers taught us a particular mantra saying, “I’m not going to give you an English translation. That’s not the point. Just focus on the sounds.” This illustrates an important principle: meditation isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s not something you figure out or think your way through. In fact, it’s the opposite—it’s designed to quiet the talkative intellectualizing part of your mind and to get you into a more non-verbal state.

The second type of meditation practice is basically watching your thoughts and body sensations. You do this after your mind has settled down enough. Notice that you pay attention to your body, not just your brain. Ideally, you get out of your head completely and just make note of whatever is happening in your entire realm of experience. But you don’t make that a goal. You don’t make anything a goal. You do nothing except observe.

That way, you see what you see, moment by moment. You aren’t trying for a result, you’re just observing. Why? To get past your mistaken ideas of who you are, to get past your habits of ignoring the truth, and to see what’s real.

One last note about meditation: I strongly recommend you find a teacher. Meditation is hard, and it doesn’t get easier with practice. In fact, once you accumulate some experience, it’s embarrassingly easy to find yourself just going through the motions and not really paying attention. You get in the groove…and that means you start ignoring your mind and body again because you’re doing what you did before and you think you’re “there”. A good teacher will keep you honest, and help you stay awake.

The Three Poisons

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the causes of bad behavior. Given the way that things are now, how can anyone not think about the causes of bad behavior?

In the Western tradition, this kind of thinking can go two ways: talking about psychology, or generalizing about evil. But Buddhists look at bad behavior from a different angle.

Why do people act in ways that increase their own suffering and/or cause suffering in others? The Buddhist answer is that people are affected by the Three Poisons: the three roots of unhealthy behavior. These three are translated into English in various ways, but I’m going to use craving, aversion, and ignoring.

Craving and aversion are familiar moral “evils”, even in Western thought. Craving is wanting something in an unwholesome way; it lines up with the Christian deadly sins of Greed, Lust and Gluttony. (I’ve talked about the deadly sins before.) Craving is the urge to fulfill our desires even when we should realize it’s going to be bad for us or someone else.

Aversion is the flip side, corresponding to deadly sins like Wrath and Envy. We hate or fear something so much that we go to extremes to reject it: fight or flight.

The third poison is the one I’ve been thinking about the most: ignoring. We cause suffering to ourselves and others because we ignore things.

We ignore our own feelings and the feelings of others. We ignore the probable consequences of our actions. We ignore the real consequences of our actions. We ignore how other people have different experiences and viewpoints than we do, so their reactions to our behavior will differ too.

Although I’ve translated the name of the third poison as “ignoring”, another common translation is “delusion”. If we’re ignoring significant aspects of the world, we aren’t seeing things as they are; we’re deluded. And if we’re deluded, it’s no wonder we make bad choices. How can we get things right when we’re seeing things wrong?

This leads to one of the major reasons for meditation: to pay attention to what’s actually going through your head. If you learn to pay attention to your mind and body, you start to notice when you’re ignoring things: when you’re in denial about something, or skipping over inconvenient truths. The more you notice that you’re ignoring things, the less you’ll let yourself do it, and the less you’ll poison yourself and others.

On that note, I’ll step off my soapbox…but sometime soon, maybe I’ll talk a bit more about meditation.

Denial

It’s been a while since I talked about Buddhist concepts, so let’s look at denial.

The Buddha observed that being in denial is a major source of unhappiness. If you ignore truths about yourself or the world, you end up out of sync with reality. This is a recipe for suffering—sooner or later, reality wins. So denial is a defense mechanism that’s guaranteed to fail eventually…at which point you have to face the truth anyway, or else double-down on denial which only puts you farther out on a limb.

Being in denial is often unconscious. Once in a while, we might recognize that we’re deliberately ignoring something important, but usually we suppress that recognition as quickly as possible. We distract ourselves with other things, or we tell ourselves stories to cover up or deflect uncomfortable feelings. And it’s certainly the case that sometimes we just aren’t ready to deal with some truth. It’s too raw, or we feel too battered to cope. It can be a mistake to confront something huge when we’re not ready.

So what to do? This is where meditation and meditative practices come in. There are many many forms of practice aimed at many many results…but in Buddhism, two types are especially important:

    1. Focusing and calming the mind. Left on its own, your brain hops all over the place; or maybe it goes round and round in circles; and sometimes it just zones out into numbness and blah.

      So the first meditative practice is almost always working to focus your mind on a single thing. You might focus on your breathing, or a sight or a sound or a repeated phrase…but always something simple. You practice doing that for longer and longer until you’ve trained your brain to focus and settle down.

      The classic metaphor is letting mud settle out from muddy water. Stay still long enough and the mud will go to the bottom, leaving the water clear.

    2. Once you can focus and set aside distractions, then you begin a different type of meditative practice: just watching your body and mind with awareness.

      Body awareness is enormously important. Some people think that meditation means denying your body, but we’ve already said that denial will mess you up. You aren’t trying to repress your body, you’re trying to feel it fully.

      So for example, if you find yourself bored, what does boredom feel like? Tension in certain places? Itches? Sleepiness? Restless thoughts? But the point is not to suppress any of your natural experience. Simply notice it and be aware, without making up any stories around it.

Building up awareness is your tool for avoiding denial. By increasing your awareness of body and mind, you eventually can notice when you’re lying to yourself. “I’m not angry!” (Then why are my shoulders so tense?) “I don’t care what he thinks!” (Then why have I spent the last ten minutes going around and around inside my head inventing ways to crush him in an argument I know we’ll never have?) “I didn’t mean anything, it was just a joke!” (Then why am I so fiercely insisting that she’s the one in the wrong for being offended?)

At the same time that you’re building up awareness, you’re building your capacity to face what’s what. As I said before, denial is a defense mechanism, and some people have gigantic burdens to defend themselves against. Meditation doesn’t make your problems smaller, but it makes your capacity for truth larger. Eventually, it may let you face anything (including the biggie: you and everyone you care about are going to die).

BUT NONE OF THIS IS EASY. The first time you try “focus meditation”, you’ll discover what Gandhi called Monkey Mind. Your thoughts skip all over the place, despite how much you try to focus them. Even after days, weeks, and months of practice, you can still get distracted sometimes. As for “awareness meditation”, that’s a lifetime of work. As soon as you become aware of some pattern of denial you’ve been caught in for years, you realize there’s another one just beneath it.

For this reason, it’s really helpful to find support: a teacher and/or a like-minded group of people who can keep you going, and also call you out when you go into denial about no longer being in denial…because it’s shockingly easy to lie to yourself at every step along a spiritual path. You can get stuck in comfortable ruts, or just as easily get stuck in ruts that aren’t comfortable but are familiar—patterns of behavior that you know aren’t helpful but you still fall back on anyway.

And getting stuck in ruts about meditation is just as easy as getting stuck in other patterns. You can believe you’re doing great paying attention to your body and mind, when really you’re just running through patterns on autopilot.

Speaking of patterns, this gets us to karma…but let’s leave that until next time.

[The picture of the couch at the top of this post is from the Wikipedia article on Denial. I believe it is Sigmund Freud’s couch. Freud was in denial about a great many things. Photo by ROBERT HUFFSTUTTER [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]