At its heart, meditation is an uncompromisingly pragmatic approach towards being human.
The Buddhist path begins as a first-person exploration of dissatisfaction. It isn’t a theoretical or philosophical exercise.
If we look closely, we will see that our interest in spirituality implies a search for meaning, purpose or content. So, it is safe to say that dis-contentment—the absence of content or vitality—is an active feature in our lives. I didn’t mosey on down to the local Zen temple and learn to meditate because I wanted to take up spiritual practice as a hobby. I sought out instruction in the practice of meditation because my ass was falling off, and I was looking for something to sew it back on. In other words, spirituality—meditation, prayer, and/or yoga—in the beginning, is just another attempt to solve the subtle feeling of dissatisfaction that plagues us all.
The Buddha prescribed a path of inquiry that begins with an investigation of discontentment, as it manifests in our day-to-day lives. Meditation isn’t meant to be studied; it is a tool that enables you to study yourself. The practices are instruments that we can use to excavate our lives, and the teachings are meant to support the practices. So, our investigation of suffering can, at times, be dark, grimy, and uncomfortable. We have to be willing to get our hands dirty—to turn our attention towards those darker, less desirable aspects of our self. We have to taste our personal disappointment, fear and ambition. We have to see first hand the movement of suffering in our lives without any filter. The practices enable us to do just this.
If we watch suffering, instead of react to it, we will see that it is a movement or a cycle, rather than an event. At a pervasive level, suffering is a subtle but violent brand of shame—a belief that we are broken or incomplete. This basic experience of dis-contentment gives rise to a search for a solution, fix, or some-thing to fill the void. Inevitably, we bump into some one or something—a potential lover, teacher, book, practice, or political ideology—that we believe is the magical missing ingredient or the answer to all of our problems. In the beginning, it is very promising, but over time its luster fades, and our solution is revealed to be little more than a cheap distraction. Soon we find ourselves right back at square one; only, this time, with the added frustration of having tried and failed, yet again, to escape the seemingly inescapable conclusion that we are defective organisms doomed to an unsatisfactory life.
Meditation is an invitation to develop a pragmatic or down-to-earth relationship with this chronic cycle of dissatisfaction. Pragmatism is precipitated by acceptance. You cannot work with anything until you first accept it, as it is. Acceptance, in this case, is not a passive dismissal of the situation, but a practice of embracing the situation through simple observation. Meditation is a relationship with reality or the restoration of basic sanity. We must start where we are. We must see our insanity, as it is, which is a moment of clarity.
Meditation enables us to discover the internal origins of our external un-manageability.
Suffering is a movement, and this movement is the movement of our formed, conscious mind. The suffering and un-sustainability in our daily life is nothing more than an expression or the pressing out of an inbred pattern of consciousness. So, we sit and watch as our mind hallucinates a problem, imagines a solution to that problem, then gets frustrated when our make-believe problem is not obliterated by our imaginary solution. We just sit and sit, watching this pattern emerge and pass away.
In practice, we watch as we slip into the present moment as if it were a refuge, feeling so warm and relaxed. Then, triggered by boredom, we notice as our minds drift off into some fantasy. We come back to the breath, but only after gently acknowledging the thoughts that are berating us for thinking too much. The mind is addicted to entertainment, and we simply observe as the thinking mind obsessively tries to score its next high. Then, we observe as it detoxes from entertainment in a moment of boredom triggered by our return to the breath. The thinking mind is pervasively dissatisfied, so we sit and watch this dissatisfaction in motion.
First, place your body in a comfortable posture. The posture should be erect and open (For more on the importance of posture in meditation practice, click here). Once you have relaxed into the posture, place your awareness on the breath. You can either place your awareness at the tip of the nose, feeling the coolness and precision of the in breath and the warmth and openness of the out breath, or you can place your awareness on the cycle of breath, feeling the expansion of the chest and stomach on the in breath, and the contraction of the stomach and chest with the out breath. Once you have chosen an object of awareness, stick with it. The practice should have an immediate or somatic orientation—we are not thinking about the breath. Taste the breath through basic experience. When, not if, you notice your mind drifting off into thought, simply label it “thinking” and return to the breath. There is no need to reprimand yourself for thinking, just return to the simplicity of the present moment as symbolized by the breath.
Eventually, you will notice that “drifting off into thought” means succumbing to the tendency to think about thoughts—each successive thought emerges as a commentary on the previous thought until we are a thousand thoughts removed from the freshness and vitality of the present moment. This is the development of insanity or the steps we take to distance ourselves from reality.
The practice of meditation enables us to effect a different relationship with the thinking mind. Currently, we are unable to see the difference between reality and our version of reality. We are addicted to thought. Simply labeling this addiction “thinking” introduces space, and enables us to see the difference between basic experience and our subjective commentary on experience. This enables us to invest in basic sanity by divesting from inbred thought. Meditation is a practice of being true to your Self by returning time and time again to the simplicity that is the essence of both your Mind and this moment.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger