I’ve recently read, for the second time, a great little book that was recommended to me called Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. Self-described as a how-to manual for meditation, it is all that and more. The first chapter, “Meditation: Why Bother?”, has a few passages that really resonate with me. Perhaps they will resonate with you:
“[Meditation is not easy...] So why bother? Why waste all that time and energy when you could be out enjoying yourself? Simple. Because you are human. Just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life that simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time; you can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back, and usually when you least expect it. All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you sit up, take stock, and realize your actual situation in life.
There you are, and you suddenly realize that you are spending your whole life just barely getting by. You keep up a good front. You manage to make ends meet somehow and look okay from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you – you keep those to yourself…Meanwhile, way down under all of that, you just know that there has to be some other way to live, a better way to look at the world, a way to touch life more fully. You click into it by chance now and then: you get a good job. You fall in love. You win the game. For a while, things are different. Life takes on a richness and clarity that makes all the bad times and the humdrum fade away. The whole texture of your experience changes and you say to yourself, “Okay, now I’ve made it; now I will be happy.” But then that fades too, like smoke in the wind. You are left with just a memory – that, and the vague awareness that something is wrong.”
Now, before you ask, no, I’m not depressed. I’m actually quite happy, and believe I suffer far less than most people do when it comes to the passage above [of course, that could just be some sort of fundamental attribution error on my part]. But as happy as I am, the passage still resonates with me, because it’s right. I do have intense moments of happiness – I feel on top of the world, unstoppable, every thing I touch and see and hear is so clear and precise, life just feels crisp and clean and wonderful. But most of the time, I’m just pretty satisfied, chugging along, doing my thing. Then every once in a while, I wonder to myself: “What in the world am I doing?”
“Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, those brittle-tongued voices that express fun on the surface, and fear underneath. Feel the tension, the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it…these are not people who are at peace with themselves.”
Perhaps my experience has been different from most people’s…but this is pretty much exactly how I feel. This has college party written all over it.
“Life seems to be a perpetual struggle, an enormous effort against staggering odds. And what is our solution to all of this dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the ‘if only’ syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I could find somebody who really loved me; if only I could lose twenty pounds; if only I had a color TV, a hot tub, and curly hair; and on and on forever.”
Pretty hard to argue with this one. Lots of research has been done showing that emotional well-being can’t be bought, and yet we long on and on and on.
“The essence of our experience is change. Change is incessant. Moment by moment life flows by, and it is never the same. Perpetual fluctuation is the essence of the perceptual universe. A thought springs up in your head and half a second later, it is gone. In comes another one, and then that is gone too. A sound strikes your ear, and then silence. Open your eyes and the world pours in, blink and it is gone. People come into your life and go. Friends leave, relatives die. Your fortunes go up, and they go down. Sometimes you win, and just as often, you lose. It is incessant. Change, change, change. No two moments ever the same.
There is not a thing wrong with this. It is the nature of the universe. But human culture has taught us some odd responses to this endless flowing. We categorize experiences. We try to stick each perception, every mental change in this endless flow, into one of three mental pigeon holes: it is good, bad or neutral. Then, according to which box we stick it in, we perceive with a set of fixed habitual mental responses. If a particular perception has been labeled ‘good,’ then we try to freeze time right there. We grab onto that particular thought, fondle it, hold it, and we try to keep it from escaping. When that does not work, we go all-out in an effort to repeat the experience that caused the thought. Let us call this mental habit ‘grasping.’
Over on the other side of the mind lies the box labeled ‘bad.’ When we perceive something bad, we try to push it away. We fight against our own experience. We run from pieces of ourselves…Between these two reactions lies the ‘neutral’ box…We pack experiences away in the neutral box so that we can ignore them and return our attention to where the action is, namely, our endless round of desire and aversion… The direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill race to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, and endlessly ignoring 90% of our experience. Then we wonder why life tastes so flat…”
Again, maybe I’m weird, but this is just absolutely spot on for me.
“The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At first glance, this statement seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren’t there? No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension that no matter how great this moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are inevitably either going to lose some of it, or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die; in the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.”
Yeah. That’s something I wrestle with a lot, the concept of death. It’s going to happen one day, and your consciousness just isn’t going to exist in the world any longer [well, depending on your beliefs, I suppose]. What is the point of anything you do?
“We are beginning to realize that we have overdeveloped the material aspects of existence at the expense of the deeper emotional and spiritual aspects, and we are paying the price for that error. It is one thing to talk about the degeneration of moral and spiritual fiber in America today, and another thing to actually do something about it. The place to start is within ourselves. Look carefully inside, truthfully and objectively, and each of us will see moments when ‘I am the delinquent’ and ‘I am the crazy person.’ “
Yeah. It’s taken me quite a while to come to terms with this, and I’m still not very good at it. I hate not being right, I hate losing, and I don’t deal with it well. I am a crazy person.
These passages come from the first 10 pages. There are almost 200 more. The remaining pages detail the purpose, goals, and practice of Vipassana meditation. The full term is Vipassana Bhavana, which can be roughly translated as ‘the cultivation of the mind toward the aim of seeing in the special way that leads to insight and full understanding.’
“Vipassana meditation teaches us how to scrutinize our own perceptual process with great precision…we begin to see ourselves reacting without getting caught up in the reactions themselves. The obsessive nature of thought slowly dies. We can still get married. We can still get out of the path of the truck. But we don’t need to go through hell over either one.
…Vipassana meditation is a set of training procedures that gradually open us to this new view of reality as it truly is. Along with this new reality goes a new view of that most central aspect of reality: ‘me.’ A close inspection reveals that we have done the same thing to ‘me’ that we have done to all other perceptions. We have taken a flowing vortex of thought, feeling, and sensation and solidified that into a mental construct. Then we have stuck a label onto it: ‘me.’ Forever after, we treat it as if it were a static and enduring entity. We view it as a thing separate from all other things. We pinch ourselves off from the rest of that process of eternal change that is the universe, and then we grieve over how lonely we feel. We ignore our inherent connectedness to all other human beings and decide that ‘I’ have to get more for ‘me’: then we marvel at how greedy and insensitive human beings are. And on it goes. Every evil deed, every example of heartlessness in the world, stems directly from this false sense of ‘me’ as distinct from everything else”
So now that I’ve given quite the lead up, I’m going to talk about what to do, and how to do it. But keep in mind, I’m no expert. So please go and READ THE BOOK in its entirety! It’s a fast read and it’s totally worth it. But I know that there’s a high cost that most people don’t get over, so I’m going to give you the core, and perhaps that will get you started with me!
“To reach the perfection of all noble and wholesome qualities latent in our subconscious mind. This goal has five elements to it: purification of mind, overcoming sorrow and lamentation, overcoming pain and grief, treading the right path leading to attainment of eternal peace, and attaining happiness by following that path.”
1) Don’t expect anything. Don’t approach your meditation with the thought of ‘a few more sessions and I will be happy.’ That will set you back.
2) Don’t strain. There’s no hurry, take your time. Meditation is not aggressive. Let your effort be relaxed and steady.
3) Don’t ponder. You don’t need to figure everything out. Don’t apply mental constructs to sensation. Just feel.
Pick a length of time for your session – I’m going to start with 20 minutes a session, and work my way up if I see fit to. Set a small alarm or something like that to let yourself know that 20 minutes have passed – you don’t want to be constantly checking the clock just to see what time it is, distracting yourself.
Once you sit, do not change your position until the end of the time you determined at the beginning. The idea being that if you shift for some reason – what is to stop you from shifting again, and again? By committing yourself to not shifting at all, you establish a defense against this distraction. [A 'Schelling' fence of sorts] Moreover, Bhante likens your mind to a glass of muddy water – no matter how hard you stir, the water will look muddy. It is only until you stop agitating will the mud settle to the bottom and yield clear water. Thus goes your mind – during the course of a day, your mind is muddy water, and meditation is the procedure to give yourself a moment of clarity.
“When you first sit down to concentrate on the breath, you will be struck by how incredibly busy the mind actually is. It jumps and jibbers. It veers and bucks. It chases itself around in constant circles. It chatters. It thinks. It fantasizes and daydreams.”
Yup, that’s what my mind does. Let’s do this, I’m sold. So how do you sit?
Find somewhere quiet, preferably not somewhere you associate with your busy day. Get a meditation cushion, or something that will slightly elevate you, about 3 inches once compressed. Get something soft to cushion your legs. You can sit with your legs tucked under, cross-legged, or in full lotus [if you can do it!] – it does not matter too much. Cup your hands in one another with your palms turned upward, and sit with a straight back. Relax your muscles as much as possible – there shouldn’t be tension. Finally, have your chin up, and you can either have your eyes open or closed [I plan on closing them]. The objective here is to achieve a state of complete stillness without falling asleep.
Okay, so now I’m sitting, what do I do?
The goal here is to place bare attention upon the sensation of your breath. As you breathe in and out of your nose, you want to feel and sense and place attention on that sensation. Do not verbalize or conceptualize anything. Just notice the ingoing and outgoing breath WITHOUT explicitly thinking, “I’m breathing in…and now I’m breathing out.” The idea is to become accustomed to the ability to notice things at the basest levels.
Now, your mind being as crazy it is, is mostly likely going to wander off. If it does so, you want to bring your mind to refocus on the sensation of your breath. You can do so by counting. Take a long breath in and count ‘one’. Then take a deep exhale and count ‘two’. Go up to 10 and then back down to one, and bring your attention back to the sensation of your breath. This will happen immensely frequently. Don’t be discouraged, just bring yourself back to the sensation of your breath.
“Don’t think about your problems during your practice. Push them aside very gently. Take a break from all of that worrying and planning. Let your meditation be a complete vacation. Trust yourself, trust your own ability to deal with these issues later.”
And that’s it. That’s what you do! At least in the level of detail that I can reasonably produce on here. The last thing is to establish a schedule. Meditation is something that should be done consistently. My current plan is to sit 4 times a week in the evenings before I sleep – a nice way to clear my mind before I hit the sack.
I again encourage you to find a copy of Mindfulness, and read it, it will delve into a lot more detail than I bring up here. I hope this has inspired you to consider your mental health, I wish you all the best of luck!