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Sun, March 24

What Meditation is and Isn't

I know that I said I didn't intend to lecture on Buddhist subjects specifically, but I thought a divergence from that intention was warranted here. I can't simply spout platitudes, after all, without responding to legitimate inquiries. That's out of touch, at best - and may seem rude or downright arrogant. Hopefully this won't be a lecture so much as an offering of explanation.

Recently Loyd Peterson, in a comment to this blog, expressed puzzlement as to the meaning of Buddha (one who is awake), noting that many Buddha images appear to have closed eyes. How does this reconcile with the idea of being awake or aware? he seemed to wonder. Is meditation simply withdrawing from everything into some kind of inner landscape?

This is a legitimate question. If you go to Asia you'll see a lot of Buddhist monks cloistered away behind walls and gates, engaged in mediation practice, mantra (chanting) practice and even forms of yoga - all while remaining, for the most part, shut away from the world. It would seem easy to live in such a structured, sequestered environment and claim that one is somehow more "in tune". After all, what's really all that upsetting or real-world about such an environment? (I'm not suggesting monastic life is serene; just pointing out what the appearance is.) So, in this context, Loyd's query is valid.

To clarify, most Buddha images model a posture of meditation. Generally they're depicted as seated cross-legged with the hands in the lap, though some show a reclining pose (I call them couch potato Buddhas; you can easily imagine the TV there in front of them). Seated meditation is probably the commonest Buddhist practice, but there's also a formal walking meditation, and you can even incorporate physical activities such as yoga or tai chi. Other routines, like structured dance or the forms practiced in martial arts, can also serve as meditation-in-motion. There is an entire subset of Zen practice that is nothing but archery.

However, only some Buddha images have closed eyes; and usually, the eyes aren't fully closed - just mostly so. This is because a certain amount of sensory withdrawal is the norm in the practice of seated formal meditation. (By the way, use of a Buddha image in meditation practice is not worship, at least to me; the image is there to remind me of what I'm supposed to be doing - meditating - when my mind wanders. Which it does.)

Formal meditation, as I understand the term, does not mean randomly thinking about various subjects, nor even (generally) on one subject. It's not contemplating the navel, or wondering what you're going to make for dinner, or remembering that you have to go shopping, and fill the tank with gas, and oh by the way the oil needs changing and maybe the tires need work, and I should call that gecko company and see if I really can get better insurance rates, and oh yeah I have to get the kids after soccer practice and Junior needs some new shoes since he's worn out another pair, and I really wish he'd stop writing on them with those Sharpie markers, and he's really shooting up like a weed this year, but at least I have the deduction on the taxes, and...

And you've gone from planning dinner to dealing with the IRS in just a few moments.

That's not meditation. It's daydreaming. We all do that.

Meditation is more like concentration, a focus of awareness without necessarily seeking an object of awareness, though often the breath is used, because it's something we can easily be conscious of and it's always there. When discursive thoughts arise (keeping Junior fed despite the Fed) and we become aware that we've been carried away, we return our focus to the breath.

That focus is much harder to manage than you might think. One of the things many people experience when they first take up a formal meditation practice is surprise - even alarm - at just how busy and distractible their minds are. Usually, in the course of a typical day, we aren't even conscious of the flood of thoughts, impressions and reactions that go bouncing around in our heads. We're too busy to notice. It's only when we settle into a quiet space that we begin to see just how active the mind can be. This is sometimes called monkey mind - in the sense that monkeys are excitable, full of energy, and all over the place, like our minds often are. (And they are known to throw poop around, like our minds sometimes do.)

With time some of that subsides, but there are other things which surface, such as the time in third grade when that one kid smarted off and you got blamed for it, and the teacher made you write I will be polite in class 25 times, and your parents grounded you for two whole days, and suddenly you're eight years old all over again and burning with indignant injustice. Or how that jerk at the office is always trying to suck up to the boss, and this time you're really going to let him have it - and you realize you're deeply involved in acting out a confrontation that not only hasn't happened yet, but probably never will. Remembered events, or imagined ones, also take time to work off, to let go of.

So on balance, yes, it's normal for a Buddhist to close his or her eyes (most of the way) while formally practicing meditation. There are enough inner distractions without adding to the mix by looking around the room, watching the dust motes float in a sunbeam, seeing birds in the branches outside, and so on.

However, the techniques learned in formal mediation practice can - and should - be carried off the cushion. One experience that most meditators have sooner or later is realizing how transitory moods can be, and especially how transitory thought is. While we're experiencing it, it's the entire world; but five minutes later all that anger, or fear or frustration or joy or sadness, can be replaced by a completely different state of mind. Meditation allows us to observe this directly and for ourselves, in a reasonably-controlled environment, which lets us learn to simply be aware - and to let go. Applying this to the real world does take time, but the more one practices, the better one gets to be at it. (This is, of course, one reason why we call it meditation practice.)

Over time, one might choose an object of meditation and concentrate on it, subjecting it to rigorous analysis. This is called insight meditation (as opposed to the awareness meditation that I've been describing). One of the first things one studies in this way is the concept of I. What does it mean when we speak of I? Where is this I that we speak of? Where in the mind or the body is this presumed unchanging, eternally-present I? Where does the I go when we're deeply asleep, or under anesthesia? What does it mean that the I which used to exist when we were ten years old is not the same I we perceive now? (The fruition of this analysis can be quite unsettling for some.)

Is meditation for everyone? I don't think so. I don't think I'd recommend it for kids, not the least because getting them to sit still for even five minutes (without a liberal application of duct tape) is an exercise in futility. It's also not an instant cure for whatever might trouble you; more broadly, it is not a cure for anything that troubles you. (I've been doing it for eight years or so now, and I'm very far from perfect.) It won't make your life quieter, better or more peaceful. It won't stop the neighbor's stereo from annoying you at 3 AM. It won't make your in-laws easier to get along with. If you're looking for a quick fix, meditation isn't what you want.

Is it of benefit to some? Indubitably. Formal meditation practice can, with time, provide the insight necessary to allow us to better choose our responses to things that trouble us. The neighbor's stereo will be just as loud at 3 AM, but we might be able to deal with it a little more appropriately than by heaving a brick through their window. (One of the more startling things I was told by a fellow Buddhist, many years ago, was that anger is a thought. I had to ruminate on that one for a while before I understood what he meant, but I believe he was right.) This insight can also be gained simply by life experience; we call this wisdom. Meditation may be one way to get some of that wisdom before we've actually had to live through a lifetime of pain to honestly earn it.

Meditation can sometimes be the most uninteresting thing imaginable. It's easy to settle in for a 30-minute session and, less than halfway through, be thinking about all the things you could be doing instead of perching on your fanny and breathing. Even housework begins to look appealing after a while.

So why do it? As I see it, meditation is a kind of exercise, a sort of mental workout. Plenty of people go to a gym to keep fit, but lots of others don't; and some people don't need to. Their lives are active enough that they don't require a workout to be in good shape; or they may have incorporated fitness into their daily routine, perhaps by riding a bike to work.

This may be true of meditation as well. Some people might not need it at all; they may already have a good grasp of the transitory nature of thought and mood, and may already be able to handle whatever comes their way with equanimity and a touch of humor. Would meditation benefit them? I don't know, and I can't presume to judge.

Ideally, meditation allows us to do something similar to physical exercise, carrying the benefits we've gained on the cushion into our lives, perhaps incorporating what we've learned into our daily routines.

So is it for everyone? Probably not. I believe it's been good for me, though, and that's why I keep doing it, even if sometimes I'd rather be vacuuming.


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