As described from a first person subjective sense, each of us live in our minds and experience the world. The quality of our minds dictates the quality of our lives. Simply put, meditation is an active, deliberate and methodical approach to improve the quality of our minds, and therefore our lives.
Regardless of one’s worldview, we can more or less agree that physical phenomena are occurring and unfolding. Change of seasons, metamorphosis, transition from infancy, youth, adulthood to senescence, and so forth. Humanity is an integral part of dynamically changing physical phenomena we call reality. Whether we acknowledge it or not, change is inevitable and the only pattern that is constant.
And yet, most of us ride around in our heads as an absolute, unchanging homunculus we call self, convinced that it has nonnegotiable immunity from change, where as everything else is changing dynamically. That seems paradoxically at odds with reality. If one were to demand any goal for practicing meditation, it would be to investigate this. Resolving this seeming paradox requires a radical shift in our distorted view of immutable self.
All events that our minds have encountered throughout the course of our lives are unfolding through this interface of conscious or unconscious mind. These include good, bad and everything ugly that we have experienced. One could argue that for any event to matter, it must appear in one’s mind. It is possible for events that appear in our minds to go unnoticed, either partially or wholly. In fact, this mind-state seems to be our default habitual mode. And this mode forms the foundation of the unchanging self. These unnoticed events, by definition, unfold while the mind is in some hiatus, a suspended state, in discursive thought, spaced out, simply distracted, or ultimately not present.
Given the enormity of events unfolding in the multiverse, both in frequency and sheer number, evolution has selected us for survival and propagation of genes. It appears we have won the evolutionary lottery, because we are sentient in spite of these selection pressures. One of the super-powers we all possess is simulation.
We can instantly replay events experienced in the past, or the possess ability to visualize possible future events that we want our minds to encounter and those that we want to necessarily avoid. We have to look no further than our pets and observe their behavior to realize this truth. A household cat, for instance is generally not known to plan it’s weekly schedule.
Unbeknownst to us, the simulation super-power is a double edged sword, sometimes causing needless suffering when words or actions are employed to cause harm. The same super-power is also responsible for gedanken (thought) experiments that Albert Einstein is known to have employed to discover the nature of gravity to be curvature of spacetime. We currently hold this to be true as an explanation of gravitational phenomena.
Primordial instincts hardwired into our primate bodies are dictating what is best for survival and progeny, even as we go about our daily lives as sentient humans.
Training The Body
Many, if not all of us, are perfectly comfortable with the idea of training and maintaining our bodies in good shape from a health and nutrition perspective or tone and musculature perspective or both. For instance, some of us may strive to develop stamina for an endurance sport such as decathlon or marathon by dedicating time and resources to get into top physical shape. From a first person sense, the moment one commits to a new year’s resolution to run a marathon, to the intervening moments of training that ensue, to the complex emotions of elation, exhaustion and relief at the moment when one crosses the finish line in a subsequent marathon all constitute mental events. They cannot be happening anywhere else.
Why then, do many of us balk at the notion of training our minds by practicing meditation? How is training one’s mind different from the mental events of resolution, grit and determination and effort, which by themselves are consequential actions prompted by mind? These events are being executed by the body, with the anticipated, express outcome of finishing a marathon — an idea in one’s mind, before it happens in reality, should it come to pass.
What Meditation Is Not
Cast in the frame of training the mind, the answer is not at all obvious. Therefore, many are skeptical and naturally balk at that idea. Meditation is the deliberate act of dropping everything by calling off the agenda; any agenda really. We must not confuse dropping everything to mean slipping into a reverie or endless planning and simulation with our eyes closed. It’s not the doing-nothing that occurs while being spaced out or lost in discursive thought.
Meditation does not require our adherence to specific cultural mores nor does it demand our allegiance to any paranormal events. It does not require one to subscribe to any religious beliefs and dogmas therein. It does not nudge anyone to entertain any New Age metaphysical claims about the nature of reality or spooky entanglement. Meditation is neither napping, nor the anticipation of feelings of inner peace yet to arrive. It is not a feel-good time, although noticing of felt goodness can become meditative.
Meditation is doing nothing, dropping back in a relaxed state of awareness, mindfully noticing phenomena that is already (dis)appearing in one’s mind with clarity. By calling off the simulation search party hashing possible futures with eyes wide open or closed shut. In one’s favorite meditating posture or otherwise. It is the fleeting moment of waking up briefly from the reverie of recollections that one got carried away for unknown duration. The moment of clear awareness after transitioning from feeling constricted, or embarrassed, or jolted, or no felt-judgement at all, immediately after catching oneself awash, lost in thought. Those quiet moments that follow after one recognizes that both the listener and the talker were clearly objects their mind conjured up and silence the hitherto incessant conversation. These moments that the reader recognizes that s(he) is effortlessly decoding and understanding this sentence which is happening all on it’s own and does not require adult supervision by thy “self”.
The self that we think is really real, is really a rent-seeking, credit-taking impostor, a non-entity that has no place to be. And yet, the sense that we need the self to project to the world, and have it, seems unshakeable. That is, until we really meditate. Some shudder at the thought of the loss of a healthy sense of self, even though it is just a thought arising in their minds. Losing the sense of self happens more often than we care to admit — in our default mode or when we are engrossed watching our favorite movie, for instance. But it seems to come back when the movie ends. The same is true when we wake up from a good night’s sleep. Or after any sleep. Most of us anyway.
Shaking the foundation of unchanging self, crumbling the edifice of self built on the shifting sands of dynamic, evolving phenomena is the practice. And deconstructing this notion of self requires prowess in meditation. But goalless mindfulness is the true nature of this prowess, thereby resolving the seeming paradox of needing to do anything to achieve meditation prowess.
Accumulating moments of meditation by mindfulness is akin to prepping for a marathon. Who in their right mind, thinks that they can run a single solitary mile once and become a decathlete? Meditation should be no different. Indeed it is no different. Accumulation of mindful moments can lead to the ultimate realization of the truth of impermanence of all phenomena, our bodies and the notion of unchanging self included. The emergence and disappearance of all events that the mind encounters, with self nowhere to be found, is one good reason to meditate. It can be liberating to just get out of our way and receive events in our minds by noticing them clearly, with no intention to act. Or even so much as notice the intention arise and subside upon closer inspection. Actually not act upon it’s cue when it arises.
So what if we meditate and notice the absence of self and impermanence of phenomena?
Because we possess a super-power of simulation in our minds, we have the responsibility that no other species we know have — empathy and compassion and altering our response to events encountered in the present. By noticing what is arising and passing away, we need not alter those around us, but alter our mental disposition. We have a choice to act or not act. Meditation does not guarantee Zen like monk-hood or arising of anger and eventual psychological and physiological suffering that follows. It allows us the opportunity to watch them arise and subside. The knowledge that everything that can arise will also subside. Allow them to be witnessed closely with mindfulness.
Most importantly, losing the sense of self that didn’t exist to begin with, has the immense potential to make us compassionate, realized humans in spite of our baser ape-like instincts. That is precisely why we must meditate.
- Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization — Ven. Analayo
- Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion — Sam Harris