Stuck in the Muck? Open the Hand of Thought.
If we make meditation a daily part of our lives, if we set aside a half-hour or hour every day to sit and watch the contents of our experience, we begin to notice certain regularities in the way our minds function. Certain thoughts return again and again, certain themes come up again and again. We get lost in fantasizing and daydreaming instead of paying attention, and if we catch these fantasies and daydreams and reflect on them, we can see there is a certain unnerving regularity to them. They often relate, for example, to unfulfilled desires for love, respect, admiration, power, status, or accomplishment. We may drift into imagining that we are doing great things, saying great things, or obtaining great things. Maybe we are defending ourselves and our actions and beliefs before an imaginary audience. Maybe we are reacting to some almost insignificant slight or some small crumb of craved for recognition and acknowledgment. The Self is consumed with aggrandizing itself, defending itself, justifying itself, looking good in the estimation of others, satisfying itself. Or conversely, the Self is an anxious Self, anticipating all the ways that what it craves will be taken away, and restlessly thinking about how to avoid this loss or that loss, this danger or that danger. The unrelenting focus of the anxious Self is on safety and self-preservation.
When one gets to watch this same routinized narcissistic or anxious pattern over and over again day in and day out in meditation practice, one wearies of it. We want it to change and be different. We want to have selfless thoughts, prettier thoughts, thoughts that will win approval for us as wise and virtuous beings. But wait a minute! This is just another form of wanting to be better, wanting approval for the Self. It’s the same old trap again! Maybe when we see this we laugh a bit and chuckle to ourselves. We’ve caught ourselves in the act of being ourselves once again! We begin to appreciate that this is who we are and will seemingly always be. We cannot transform ourselves into another kind of being.
At this point there can be a moment of acceptance of ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are and seeing through ourselves. We can take ourselves more lightly. We can momentarily experience our familiar obsessions with greater humor and compassion. This is a true moment of self-transcendence and liberation. The sweetness of the moment doesn’t last very long, however. A few moments later our minds are caught again in the usual ruts, fueled by the same self-absorbed obsessions. But for a moment we have had a delicious taste of freedom. If we continue to meditate month in and month out, those moments of liberation can become a more regular part of the fabric of our existence. This is the nature of gradually awakening to ourselves.
Seth Segall, Ph.D. is a retired member of the clinical faculty of the Yale School of Medicine, the former Director of Psychology at Waterbury Hospital, and a former president of the New England Society for the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation. He is the editor of Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings published by SUNY Press in 2003. His blog,The Existential Buddhist, explores issues related to Buddhist philosophy, psychology, ethics, meditation, and social activism from a non-dogmatic point of view. Seth is also a professional grandfather, classical piano student, gardener, environmental activist, and aspiring novelist. He is affiliated with White Plains Zen. You can follow Seth on Twitter by clicking here, or on Facebook by clicking here. Subscribe to his blog’s feed by clicking here.
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