Human experience, perceived and filtered through the deeply conditioned and unconscious belief in a separate, inherently existent self, is pure fiction. The ultimate goal of meditation, from a Buddhist perspective, is to remove these faulty perceptual filters, and to free the individual from the confusion and negative consequences of being lost in delusion. Wisdom is the key. In contemporary new age, liberal capitalist thinking, meditation is often promoted as a self-help technique. Therapists and health practitioners advise clients to use it to control blood pressure and calm the emotions. Athletes and stage artists use it to enhance their performance. Corporations use meditation to optimize worker efficiency. While these worldly goals are worthwhile (socialists would probably take exception to the last example), at best they are the essential first steps on a long journey to unlocking meditation’s highest potential – awakening from unenlightened existence. According to the teachings of Buddhism, this potential to awaken exists within every living being.
Lately, several of my acupuncture clients have been asking me about meditation. I offer a few thoughts based on my own unenlightened experience. As with any spiritual advice, don’t take anyone’s words as gold until you test them thoroughly and are able to verify their truth in the laboratory of your own mind.
I began my own meditation journey in 1975 when I discovered transcendental meditation (TM), a technique that involves repeating a personal mantra chosen by a guru. Although I no longer practice TM, looking back, I can see how this helped me a great deal at the time. I was an awkward 16 year old dealing with the social pressures of adolescence in a small town set against the backdrop of the US-Soviet arms race and the ever present threat of mutually assured destruction. For one full year, the twice daily twenty minute regimen of meditation helped to calm and relax my mind and made me realize that I had an inner refuge, a place I could go within, to find peace and clarity, even if it didn’t immediately solve any of my outward questions and anxieties about the sometimes painful and perplexing world. By the time I was in college, I had already stopped reciting my mantra and in any case, I knew I wasn’t satisfied with merely calming my mind. I wanted to understand the meaning of life, to unlock the mind’s potential. Although I did not know it at the time, I now realized that I was seeking wisdom. I ended up majoring in (Western) Psychology which raised more unanswered questions and eventually, found my way to Buddhism.
Buddhism isn’t a belief system or religion in the traditional sense. It is a mind science from the east. There is no merit, advantage, enhanced status or even good karma in believing with blind faith. In fact, blind faith is quite dangerous, especially in spiritual matters, but also in affairs of our current life (e.g. politics). Rather than simply believing in what their teachers told them, Buddha and those who came after him did their own research into the Dharma (truth). They invite us to check it out and see if it brings meaning and happiness to our lives. “Buddha” in Sanskrit, simply means “awake”. If one is already a practicing Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Indigenous – there is no need to renounce one’s native tradition. Buddhist psychology can enhance one’s primary practice or faith. The basic teachings of all major religions are the same – be a kind and ethical person. So in that sense, there is no incompatibility between Buddhism and other spiritual paths.
The Buddha of our current cosmological era was born as Prince Siddhartha in a small kingdom of ancient India. He lived a life of luxury as his father groomed him to be king. But despite attempts to shield him from any experience of suffering, one day a curiosity awakened and he ventured outside the palace walls into the village. There, he witnessed four sights – an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a monk meditating peacefully. Overcome with grief from the sudden exposure to the universal sufferings of aging, sickness, and death, he resolved to abandon his hedonistic life of pleasure and devote himself to a life of spiritual contemplation.
After six years of ascetic practice in which he tortured and starved his body, he realized that a successful meditation practice needs to care for and respect the body, without going to extremes. Unless the energy flows smoothly through the channels, it is impossible to calm the mind, let alone gain liberating insight. Exhausted and emaciated, he accepted an offering of rice milk from Sujata – a girl from the village. With renewed strength, he entered meditation beneath the bodhi tree. Within a state of deep concentration, he analyzed his experience and developed direct insight into the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths – briefly – are 1) suffering, 2) the causes of suffering (namely ignorance), the end of suffering, the path which leads to the end of suffering. The Path has eight parts: Right View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration. Further elaborations of the Buddhist path include the bodhisattva path dedicated to leading all beings to awakening. “Direct understanding” means not through the veil of language or concepts. In other words, simply reading these words doesn’t bring transformative insight – one must also analyze them carefully with respect to one’s own experience, gradually deepening one’s understanding, until eventually, one develops a yoga or union of single pointed awareness and non-discursive insight, unlocking the meaning non-conceptually.
If that sounds like a tedious and time consuming undertaking, it may be helpful to reflect that our twenty-first century push-button culture of instant gratification never delivers lasting satisfaction. We always want more chocolate, another shiny new thing or experience, and then death comes and takes it all away. What then? Anything truly capable of bringing lasting satisfaction requires time and effort. Also, we don’t need to become monks or nuns to walk this path. As one teacher says “Start Where You Are.”
Starting where you are could include some of the following – reading books about Buddhism so that one understands the basic teachings from reputable teachers (see book list below). Today we live in a spiritual supermarket where spiritual paths invented last Tuesday are hawked on the internet by snake oil salesman. Do we have the wisdom to know if their teachings will lead in a positive direction or not? Traditionally, in Tibet, one was encouraged to carefully observe the teacher for 12 years before choosing them as a teacher.
Find a group that meets regularly and help build spiritual community. This can be extremely supportive to our path, particularly as we often find ourselves in situations in daily life where the people around us lack a common (or any) spiritual foundation. Lacking a spiritual community, there is a tendency to slide downwards to the lowest common denominator of awareness – anger, hate, suspicion, greed, etc., which is what we often see reflected in the political divide in the U.S. now. Remember, spiritual practice is much more than just learning to quiet the mind in brief, isolated segments of our day, but something that ideally is integrated with our entire life 24/7. Spiritual discussion can clarify many doubts and questions for ourselves and others.
Similarly, breathing meditation is only one technique among many. Learning to analyze and think correctly about basic truths of life (e.g. the Four Noble Truths outlined above) are essential aspects to developing our spirituality. If having an empty mind were the pinnacle of meditation, then cows would be Buddhas!
Don’t try to convert anyone. Don’t think you have to wear special clothes or purchase expensive courses or paraphernalia that boosts your identity. Be cautious, particularly with courses that seem to have a high price tag that pays for the teacher to have a lavish lifestyle – the Dharma isn’t a commodity. Focus mainly on your thinking and behavior and frequently check up – were my actions today steeped in kindness? Were my motivations based on wise understanding? Honestly assessing in this way is the best method to gauge your spiritual development.
Although meeting regularly with a teacher and other students on the path is best, sometimes circumstances make that difficult. Insight Timer is a smart phone ap that many have found useful for developing a daily practice. Guided meditations by many teachers, including Thubten Chodron, can be streamed via the app.
Group Directory: Northwest Dharma Association