Wednesday, January 31, 2007
What's all this about meditation?
I missed an opportunity the other day, when I bumped into Amy, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to in about ten years. She looked exactly the same, seemed so familiar that it felt like we’d just finished a conversation ten minutes ago, not ten years.
Amy is having headaches, she says, moreso since she started home schooling her kid. There was no reason to state the obvious, so we didn’t. But Amy asked me if I knew a meditation teacher. I’ve been asked that question before and it always throws me. I never have a good answer. A good answer might be, “I can teach you meditation”. But that’s never the answer that I have at the ready because when somebody tells me they need to be taught to meditate, I don’t get that. I don’t understand it. Like if somebody asked me to teach them to walk-- I’d start out saying, “Well, make sure you’re standing up first, then put one foot in front of the other.”
I might know full well that bipedal locomotion is actually a pretty complicated way to get around, and that if one were to count the muscles actually used to simply walk, the tally would probably include most of the muscles in the body all working in a perfectly orchestrated symphony of movement. But most of the people I know do it all the time without thinking.
So to start out teaching somebody how to meditate, I think I’d first have to say:
“Do it without thinking.”
Aha. That’s the part which stops most people dead in their tracks. That’s the excuse anyway. “How am I supposed to meditate, when my mind keeps thinking thoughts?”
I say it’s an excuse, because most people I’ve known who are going to start meditating just as soon as they find a teacher are lying. Maybe that’s another reason I don’t have an answer for people who are looking to learn how to meditate: they aren’t really looking. "I'm going to start meditating" is right up there with "I'm going to lose weight this year." and "The check is in the mail" for things people say but don't mean.
Why would a person who isn’t actually looking to learn to meditate ask me if I know of a good teacher? There’s exactly the crux of why people find meditation difficult to learn:
A part of them knows there is great value in it, unfortunately that’s not the part currently in charge of walking, talking, finding meditation teachers, having conversations with old acquaintances, home schooling and getting mysterious headaches. The Brain does all that. I know I said a minute ago, “my mind keeps thinking thoughts” but at the moment I’m going to say “brain” and not “mind”. A few minutes from now I’m going to call that entity something else. Wait for it, but be patient. All in good time. There is no need to anticipate, and no need to reflect upon the previous paragraphs. All is as it should be. Be in the moment. There, now you’ve meditated.
Meditation is one of the simplest things to do, but people have all kinds of reasons not to do it. The Mind (capital M: MIND) knows it’s important, the brain wants nothing to do with it. As long as the brain has appropriately small bits of free space upon which to cram thoughts, the brain is happy. The brain likes to be excited, generally stays that way all day, gets tired and then goes into sleep mode wherein it still can’t keep still but generally gets rested enough to get up for another day of being excited and busy cramming thoughts into small bits of free space. That’s the brain’s job. Most people who want to meditate get interested in it because they’re stressed out and meditation has been sold as something to help you to relax. As a tool, meditation is so much more than that-- selling like you’d sell a barcolounger is doing a tremendous disservice.
Back to the brain: brains do cool stuff, no need to pick on the brain. The brain doesn’t know what it is, except through self awareness generated by subject/object interaction which we start learning from birth-- some say before birth. Picture a subject (you) picking up and holding and object in your hand, say, an apple. We start life with similarly simple interactions necessary to survive and thrive, and our brains grow in this environment to believe that everything there is to know is all about subject/object-- a dichotomy. In meditation it’s possible for the brain to relax enough for long enough to recognize a different reality: one where there is no separation between subject and object. But the brain isn’t really used to this concept and can resist going there.
When the brain gets together with self awareness we call that the ego. The ego is good. Ego’s do cool things. Don’t knock the ego. Without the ego there is no self awareness, which makes it really difficult to do subject/object interactions. Subject object interactions are, in a common sense, everything which impacts a person, or upon which a person impacts. A buddhist might describe the whole of reality as a complex of interaction between causes and conditions, or Dukha, which roughly translates as “suffering”. It would take too long to explain that in this article: don’t get too hung up on this because the nature of reality isn’t all that important really. It’s only important to the ego because the ego suffers under a very popular and persistent misconception. The ego, which is a very small, specific and specialized part of you, thinks in fact that it is the all of you. Worse yet, because the ego exists solely through habitual subject/object interactions, this self awareness called the ego has a sense that if or when these subject/object interactions cease, all hell will break loose: heaven and earth will part, fire will rain from the sky and death will result.
Well now I’m just being dramatic. Let me simplify. Subject/object interactions are “noise” the cessation of which results in “peace”, but unfortunately the ego interprets this as “Rest In Peace”. There's a good reason for this. From the standpoint of the ego, which considers itself to be the totality of you and sometimes even further than that the totality of everything (much like a small child thinks his parents are masters of the universe) too much peace will reveal to the ego an essential truth: that it only exists as a byproduct of this modulated noise. When it gets too quiet the ego realizes that it has no reason to exist. If it stays quiet for very long the ego realizes several more things in rapid succession: that maybe it isn’t the all of you, isn’t the all of everything, and oops, now wait a second: the ego realizes that it does not exist at all when isolated from it’s environment (noise) which probably means ... it doesn’t really exist at all anyway. The ego realizes it’s own nothingness when it enters the quiet environment of meditation. That’s why the ego, the brain (which thinks pretty highly of itself and prefers to be called “the mind” even though it’s not the MIND) all conspire to fill up with thoughts, run around interacting with with other egos and things-- overworking themselves and getting headaches when all they really need to do much of the time is sit down and shut up. Phew.
But you can’t really blame the ego, the brain and such for acting they way they do. They have a good sense of self preservation, and depending on the degree of self delusion, they may strongly believe that if they let down their guard the whole of the universe will wink out of existence. That’s a heavy load to bear.
Contrary to the popular opinions of human egos everywhere-- annihilation of the ego isn’t so bad. If you’re in a safe place when it happens and not much is being required of you, most people find it a very enjoyable experience. Some call it the experience of non-local consciousness, also called an experience of the numinous, or many people call it an enlightening experience.
Also, in healthy people the ego has an amazingly resilient ability to regenerate itself. It pops back to the surface like a beach ball released from the bottom of the pool. “Pow! Splash! I’m Baaaaack.” In fact, somewhat ironically, the ego often identifies itself with the enlightening experience and then there’s hell to pay. Your average meditation teacher probably fits this category. Maybe that’s another reason why I never have a teacher to recommend when I’m asked. Anyway, the ego which once thought it was everything, or in the very least the whole of you, and yet feared it’s own annihilation, now knows that it is indeed everything, is still in charge of you, and despite it’s recent annihilation it has reincarnated at will.
The enlightened ego has just opened a yoga center in your neighborhood. She has a habit of smiling beatifically, staring into your eyes a little too much and she hugs everybody. When she talks she sounds like Madonna for some reason, and even her closest friends sometimes wish that she would fall into a mud puddle in the middle of discussing “the Akashic records”.
But I digress, again. Quite possibly my ego doesn’t want your ego to meditate. But I think some part of me does, if some part of you wants to. It’s not about how it’s done or whether or not a teacher is needed or if it’s too boring to sit still for. Ever heard of Sufi dancing? There are all kinds of ways to get there. Before you start it’s better if you have some idea why you’re doing it. The rest is easy.