We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Why People Meditate
The vast majority of human beings who now share the earth with you have never made any kind of connection with meditation, and will never do so in this life. Even if they were exposed to Buddhist teaching and practice, they would not be the least bit interested. So why do people choose to meditate? They approach it with a range of motivations.
Everyone has the basic motivation to experience happiness in this life. Just like you.
Of course there are innumerable versions of the path people follow to pursue happiness. We don’t need to catalog or review them all, but essentially they would like to have what they want in order to assure not just survival but also security—now and in the future. If their life includes some sort of religious belief, they might be good in this life to go to heaven after they die, or to be reborn into a better circumstance than the one they are experiencing now. If they have come to the conclusion that this is the only life there is, then they would like to make it as good as possible, as comfortable as possible, as free of pain and inconvenience as possible—for themselves and for those near and dear to them.
We are all unconsciously embedded in the motivation to be happy because we are human. We hope for the best and fear the worst and take all that for granted.
The fact that you are being motivated and conditioned by hope and fear at every moment is something you accept. If Socrates were observing you, he would tell you that you are living an unexamined life, and that such a life is not worth living. Some people might tell Socrates to mind his own business. But if you do begin to examine your motivation in life even a little bit, you would still have the same basic attitude of wanting happiness for yourself and those near and dear to you, but you might also become curious about meditation. When you hear about meditation, you might feel that it’s wholesome and that you want to be associated with it. You might conclude that practicing it could make you happier and your life better. In this sense, meditation becomes part of your hope. You think, Perhaps if I practice meditation a little bit every day my life will actually go better. It will help me relax, deal with my stress, be better organized and work more efficiently. I’ll be calmer and people will like me more and my family will find me easier to be around. Why not try it? It couldn’t hurt!
You see meditation more as an adornment to the life you already have. It’s like a seasoning that will make things taste better.
This hope that meditation can make your life better is, in some sense, common to all levels of motivation. For most of us, there would be no reason to begin to meditate if we didn’t have some faith it would have this result. We could call this a materialistic motivation, and we would be right, but this is not a reason to scorn or reject it out of hand.
At the next stage of motivation, you come to your interest in meditation because you’ve observed life more deeply—your own life, the lives of others you know and even others you don’t know. You’re looking at a bigger picture.
Relief from Suffering
You notice that there is actually a great deal of suffering in the world, and that your project of making yourself as happy and comfortable as possible is happening against this vast background of suffering. Some people seem to be very comfortable while others seem to be struggling a great deal. Some people have great good fortune, and others have a lot of misfortune and obstacles. Sadly, too, people are often not very kind to each other.
You also experience your own share of disappointment, of not always getting what you want, of undeniably getting older and perhaps having less zest for life, of your work or your children letting you down, and so on. You might ask yourself, quietly, “Is this all there is?” At this point, you come to meditation a little less hopeful, a little more fearful or doubtful. You also start to ask many more questions, such as:
“Why are things the way they are?
“Why do I have this dissatisfaction, despite all my hopes and efforts and good intentions? Is there anything to be done about it?”
“Why do some people have so much and others so little?”
“Why is life so unfair?”
“Is there some justice—karmic or whatever—to how everything is unfolding?”
Meditating a few minutes every day, even if you’re able to sustain such an ambitious commitment, doesn’t necessarily make all that dissatisfaction and anxiety go away, especially after the initial high of novelty wears off. All in all, you begin to suspect that practicing meditation only to make your day and your life go more smoothly, might ultimately have little more effectiveness than changing the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
An Ally in Difficulty
Then the motivation to meditate at this stage may well be that you see it as an ally in your aspiration to meet the inevitable difficulties of life with positive attributes, like courage and dignity.
With this motivation, you have no illusions; it is clear that the existential facts of sickness, old age and death do apply to you and to everyone dear to you. Indeed, as you grow older, it takes considerable denial not to see this more and more clearly. You might even commit to meditation because you believe it can help you die well when death inevitably comes, whether you think there are future lives or not. Notice that hope and fear are still factors at this level, but they are grounded in a more sober view of life, stripped almost entirely of fantasy or wishful thinking.
Freedom from the Causes of Suffering
Beyond this level of motivation, the commitment to meditation is radical, and sits in the very center of your life, all the time. Greater commitment is always the result of greater awareness and deeper examination of how things are. Such a commitment takes root when you conclude that suffering is an inevitable, universal, existential reality and that the aim of spiritual practice is to completely free yourself from the causes and conditions of this suffering, just as the Buddha himself did.
The Buddha called this basic state of suffering samsara, which means “spinning.” Implicit in the meaning of this word is that we all create our own suffering moment after moment because of our compulsive habitual patterns of thought and behavior. We spin round and round in the same repetitive cycle of frustration. Only a deep and thorough uprooting of these habitual and painful distortions will really address the problem.
Very simply, at this point you are no longer trying to make samsara taste better. Meditation becomes a revolutionary gesture, with the aim to deconstruct the whole giant, futile edifice of hope and fear that keeps you trapped in the endless spin cycle of frustration and dissatisfaction.
To Benefit Others
The only commitment to the path of meditation beyond this, comes when you no longer cherish the privacy of your own samsara, or the importance of your own spiritual quest, over anyone else’s.
You find yourself reflecting, “If I am suffering, what about all the others?” If that inevitable tension between your endless wish to be happy and the inconvenient and limiting facts of your life is something everyone else also experiences, what should you do then? What must you do? Your motivation to meditate becomes based on this expansion of your vision and inspired by a sense of generosity.
To make the welfare of others at least as high a priority as your own—not just in occasional moments of crisis or heroism, but as a way of life—is as rare as a star in the daytime. When this is in fact the commitment, not only is there no longer any room for selfishness, but there isn’t even any room for a self. We will examine this teaching on no-self much more deeply later. For now, suffice it to say that the Buddha taught that it is the source of all genuine happiness, courage, dignity, and power.
My teacher had a vision of a meditators as a warrior, whom he called the Shambhala Warrior—a heroic archetype arising out of the discipline of meditation who would speak to people universally, whatever their cultural background or core beliefs. The warrior is an archetype of gentleness and bravery rooted in courage, rather than the conventional warrior archetype of aggression and domination rooted in fear and cowardice. Especially in the secular world of the modern West, this archetype of the gentle but courageous warrior, who works tirelessly for others’ benefit, has great power and resonance.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner