What is Meditation?
Meditation is what leads you to an awareness of choice and the thing you do to open your life to genuine freedom.
There's your answer.
However, we've learned to slop one word––“meditation”–– to cover a wide range of practices that are as different from each other as a gorilla differs from those red butt monkeys that throw snowballs at each other, so if you seek clarification, read on below.
One way of seeing our limitation is to remember that eskimos have a whole bunch of words for snow: when all you see around you is snow, but there’s slushy snow and fluffy snow, and yellow snow and even that brown sludge that passes for “snow” as seen in NYC, you need to carefully categorize the crystalline frozen water molecules to avoid confusion. So you’ll never hear an eskimo ask “How’s the snow?” You’ll hear instead: “Yo, Umiaktorvik, the aquilokoq looks soft and pretty in the sunlight,” or “Tukkuttok, hoist your sled, the piegnartoq is ready for a smooth ride!”
Our culture’s undercooked understanding of meditation is someone sitting on the beach cross-legged, eyes closed, with their palms upturned and fingers making a circle––give or take a few degrees of perceived pomposity on either side. Many people who see this kind of person are often tempted to punch them in the nose––there’s something deeply agitating about seeing someone pretending to have their shit together when you just saw them last night at the bar performing all kinds of grotesque mating rituals with a 0% rate of return.
But if you’re motivated to make the most of the short time you’ve been given on earth, and you know your current routines and habits are a poor imitation of feeling alive and purposeful, and you want to make some genuine changes in how you live your life, moment to moment, day by day, month to month, year to year, then you really have got to take the time to understand meditation in a more thoroughly examined way––it’s the key to your freedom and to your impending fierceness and vitality. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit about this.
First, meditation is not just some kind of eastern thing. Although it did originate in India and we would be good to acknowledge and be grateful for that culture’s tremendous gift to us, the Greeks and Europeans were also interested in similar kinds of activities. For example, check-out the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s work Meditations in which he wrote:
“You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.”
The Emperor was simply not fucking around. He understood and reflected on life’s quick coming and going and he made damn sure he was going to pay as much attention to it as he could.
Another example is French philosopher René Descartes’s book Meditations on First Philosophy in which he thinks about what can be known and what can’t. He was, in other words, carefully and deliberately attending to all assumptions about life he inherited from his elders––Aristotle and Plato and the original philosophical gang of toga-wearing, wine-drinking Truth searchers––and testing which ones he still agreed with and which Truths needed a new software update.
And what about the Indian version of meditation? Its core principle is “simply” the practice of altering the practitioner’s vision and way of being in the world, and it was done in all kinds of ways we’ll talk about below.
A technical aside: “Dhyana” is the Indian word for meditation. “Chan” is the Chinese translation of dhyana. “Zen” is the Japanese translation of chan. So now when you hear “zen master” you know it means “meditation master” in Japanese. You also begin to understand that meditation is a practice and as with all practices, you can develop your skill based on your commitment and motivation to actually do it (as opposed to, say, pulling a Bart Simpson and trying to try).
Meditation vs. Meditative
A quick distinction between the practice of meditation and the quality of being meditative seems in order. Let’s say you mostly buy what I’m selling and eventually begin to practice or “do meditation.” What is it that actually happens? One answer is that you begin to attain the character of a meditative person.
What kinds of qualities does a meditative person have that would be worth the often non-negligible aches and serious discipline? To varying degrees, dependening on the type of meditation practice you train in––more on that below––you’ll become some combination of:
- Clear-eyed and present
- At Ease with yourself and the world, despite all the wedgies the world gives you
To be a bit of a bugbear, though, let me tease out the obvious implication: if you don’t practice meditation to any degree, you’re setting yourself up to be a distracted, reactive, dull and angry person. Ok, obviously that’s a polemical exaggeration, because we all know that most people don’t meditate and they’re not stupid, reactive, dull or angry. At least not all four things at the same time. But the important point is relative: compared to how you live your life now, you could be that much more thoughtful, contemplative, imaginative and calm, and therefore that much less, stupid, reactive, dull and angry whenever any of those qualities do surface, like, say, when the dishes obviously should have been washed by the time you came home, and they obviously weren’t, because obviously your partner person has been put on this earth to help you develop your meditative character.
Have you ever heard of an ancient practice called “yoga”? If so, did you know that it means “union” or to unite the body and the mind? It’s also where we get our own word “yoke,” as in “to yoke the mind to the body” as we do a horse to a carriage. In the Yoga Sutra of old (sutra meaning “story” or collection of stories), it means the practice of restraining the agitation of thoughts. All this is to say that “yoga” is actually the broad and general original description of meditation. So if you’re going about your day and doing things in any old way based on your habits and whims, you’re not meditating. But if you’re consciously paying attention to what your mind and body are doing, in whatever format, you’re engaging in some form of meditation. That’s the good news. The bad news is there is one way to really fuck this up.
How to Fuck up Meditation
The most common and most problematic way by far to fuck up meditation is by not doing it. This is a thorny chicken and egg problem. The reason you find a million reasons not to meditate is because your mind is a disaster and, like a wild monkey looking for another wild monkey with whom to do the jungle butt-bongo, it will look for any excuse not to sit still and instead will start swinging from the branches. Which makes sense: a mind that is wild and agitated and constantly bouncing all over the place will of course claim to be too busy to sit still. A monkey mind not wanting to sit still is as natural as a poker player looking you deep in your eyes and lying to you––it would be foolish to deny the reality of the game. So then but how do you sit still when the last thing you want to do is to sit still and will lie to yourself and others about how busy you always are in order to avoid the sitting still?
Motivation: How to get going by avoiding the Three Poisons
The answer is you need enough motivation to overcome the agitation. (We’re making the T-Shirts as you read this). Allow me to rephrase: there’s a point at which your Monkey Mind is perfectly content jumping from branch to branch, chasing fine monkey tail and whatever bananas it might find along the way. But one day all that hassle clearly becomes more of a pain in the hind quarter than the trouble it requires. Maybe yesterday you found a lovely monkey lady-friend to scratch your big floppy ears. Maybe you saved your bananas and now have over 100 safely stored in your banana stand. What would be the point of going out and jumping all over the goddamn place again, when you could sit your monkey ass down and simply enjoy a banana daiquiri, with your well-groomed primate partner, just luxuriating in the feeling of being safe from predators and gloriously alive? You’re now becoming motivated to just sit your monkey ass down by remembering clearly the bullshit involved in swinging from the branches all the time. In non-monkey terms, there are three reasons why we’re ever motivated to do anything wholesome.
1. Because we realize we’ve become too greedy. At first we think we need more shit than we have and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it, until, one day, the thought of working hundreds more hours to buy an even fancier car than the plenty fancy car we already have strikes us as undeniably ludicrous. Same goes for: shoes; dresses; hats; diamonds; pearls; motorcycles; fancy girlfriends; fine boyfriends; beer; vodka; bourbon; cocaine; boats; donuts; vacations; bitches; hos; and fine cashmere sweaters. Or as Jay-Z has yet to realize, “New watch alert/ Hublots/ Or the big face Rollie/ I got two of those” might be a few watches too many. But once he does realize this, probably because he ran out of wrists on which to wear the watches, he’ll have a gnawing sense of feeling empty and agitated and a sense that more new shit won’t help him and is actually slowing him down. That extra freed-up energy can be transformed into motivation to find a new path and all of a sudden, finding time to meditate becomes a little bit easier because trying to get even more new shit is actually harder, comparatively speaking.
2. One day you realize that everywhere you go there are all kinds of dicks around you and they just keep multiplying. Your boss is a dick, and your parents are dicks, and your girlfriend is always a dick and your friends talk like a bunch of neon pulsating dicks who listen to Skrillex all the time. Everything starts to bother you. Few things are ever your fault. You start blaming others as your first and usually only reaction. That’s how you know you’ve drank the poison of aversion, and your mind is mostly reactive and defensive and mostly doesn’t like much of anything. If you have the blessing to realize this, you almost immediately begin to feel there’s got to be a better way, and probably one of those people who seems to always be at ease knows how. So you talk to that fellow and odds are he will tell you he meditates in some capacity. You’ll cringe at this and you still won’t start meditating, but your motivation to stop being so pissed-off by everything and everyone around you will increase until one day you maybe will look into meditation to see what it even does. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this right now?
3. The last way to gain motivation is to realize that you’re an ignorant boob. I know that sounds harsh, but most of us are exactly that to a greater or lesser degree. There is so much we don’t know but most of us pretend otherwise. But there’s actually a deeper sense of knowing that leads to an increase in motivation to lead a more alive kind of life. It’s a kind of knowing that gets more finely in-tune with how the universe operates. I’m not even talking about mystical shit here, though of course there is some of that if you keep digging. But when you’re delusional in the sense of thinking you’re much more important or central to the universe than you really are, you tend to keep doing stupid shit over and over again. Which means you feel bad about yourself over and over again. There are also the delusions that revolve around sensual desire, negativity toward others, being lazy, swimming from manic elation to immobile depression, and doubt about what any of it even means. But let’s save those goodies for another time. Anyway, when you finally begin to realize that you’ve been “deluding yourself,” you immediately power-up and gain extra incentive to see more clearly and meditation is one of the primary tools through which you can do that. So you begin looking into it for real.
It would be one thing if I was a six year old boy-genius writing this, telling you how I saw through all my inner human turmoil and through all our cultural veils and realized that I only needed three Playstation games a few Transformers to be happy forevermore and that I started meditating when I was seven. Truth is I didn’t find enough motivation to look into meditation until I was a grown 30 year old man, and then that was only because some girl broke my heart. And even then, once I started, my “I’m waaaaay too busy excuses” were still convincing at least 64% of the time. But as my life continued to kick my ass (i.e. trying to teach me), my ears began to open more and more and eventually, about a year later, at the ripe age of thirty one, I settled into a daily meditation practice. And if a complete boob like me can do it, so can you. I promise.
More Bad News
Actually, there’s a bit more bad news as long as we’re being honest with each other, and here at CxD we always are. The extra bad news is that yes, it’s true, if you’ve lived a life full of the three poisons I wrote about above––greed, aversion, and delusion––and you’ve done so vigorously, and for a long time, and you’ve been unlucky in never having found a hearty role-model and friend or teacher to help you in your dark times, and you’ve developed some serious addictions which sap most of your strength and desire to make a change, and you think throwing rocks through car windows just for fun is cool, then there’s not much I can say that will probably get you interested enough to experiment with meditation. I’m not giving up hope on you, but meditation is kinda sorta mostly hard at the start (and in the middle and even maybe always in a way) so if you don’t have the chutzpah to get going somehow, life will just keep on kicking you in the nuts until you either poop out, or come crawling to the meditation mat. Most people who’ve experienced this exhaustion and despair call it “the bottom.” It’s not necessary, but it’s not a rare occurrence either. If that’s what brought you here, don’t let the momentum go to waste––the next kick in the nuts will be even worse.
Meditation Cast of Characters
“Ok, that’s all fine, but I don’t know what meditation even actually is. My life’s not the greatest, but no one’s is, and meditation is so fucking boring from the looks of it, so, you know, I’d prefer not to” you say. “Fair enough,” I reply. So let me first tell you about meditation by describing the kinds of characters you’ll meet along Meditative Way. Note: there are lots of combinations and permutations of these types, but the archetypes below are good enough for our discovery purposes.
Most people are non-meditators and being one in no-way, no-how makes you a bad or even semi-bad person. My Pops doesn’t mediate and he’s a man who is deeply generous and always keeps his word. He does get angry pretty quickly, though, so, in that sense, meditation would probably have spared him lots of self-inflicted pain on himself and on others had he practiced. But the point is that he’s a man of integrity and he doesn’t meditate, so the equation mediation = good human is a fallacy best avoided.
But the kind of non-meditator I want to address here is the kind that neither meditates in any capacity, nor has developed much daily reflective capacity, which is a way of living that’s closely related to meditation and can be done with all kinds of complementary reflective practices like writing, playing music, going for walks just cuz, gardening with your phone turned off, etc. That means the non-meditator who has no reflective practices suffers from a combination of the above problems––greed (pulling things you want toward you), aversion (pushing things you don’t like away from you), delusion (doing stupid shit out of ignorance)––and can’t imagine there’s another way; it’s simply not on the non-meditator’s mental map. So they don’t try. And as year after year passes, their habits get more and more deeply ingrained until they’re in a rocking chair on their porch waving their cane at the young whippersnappers passing by who are ruing this country with their gadgets and pants that hang too low on their ass. They are sad and angry lots of the time.
Most full-blooded non-meditators won’t ever read this because the idea that the character of their lives can be cultivated and shaped in a vibrant and wholesome direction beyond endless self-centered tasks won’t ever occur to them. I’m trying not to sound condescending here, which is a bit tricky but important because this isn’t a question of better or worse; it’s merely a fact that some people are so caught in their own brain bubbles that they jump from thought to thought to thought and rarely consider that there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars above them and that life is much larger and more inclusive than their endless habitual thoughts allow them to believe.
Monkey Mind Interlude: Evolution's way of Staying Alive
In contemporary life, having a Monkey mind is a pain in the ass because you can't sit still long enough to finish one goddamn thing even. But in the jungles of our primal days, it's a good thing we were always paying attention to every last noise and shadowy image: it might have been a gooddamn saber tooth tiger ready to lunch on some prime homo sapien nuggets.
The Aware but Lazy Non-Meditator
This category of folks belongs to those who do know there’s more to life than jumping from one thing to the next until they croak. But because meditation requires energy and discipline, they’d simply rather not do it. If you’re a donut whore, but you don’t have any kind of energizing activities to counterbalance your donut proclivities, meditation will simply be too hard a discipline for you to stick with–– Energy is required and you need it to wake up to your life. This is what that whole motivation bit above was about. Nothing against donuts, though, obviously.
Reflective-ish Organized Non-Meditator
Many of you reading this might identify as being alert and aware and reflective but not yet on the meditation horse. Like Non-Meditators, you are in no way “bad” people simply because you don’t have an established meditation practice, bad being in quotes because nobody is a bad or lazy person, though there are lots of people who behave in ways that make life pretty fucking miserable for others. In fact, most of you are straight up kick-ass people, doing all kinds of good shit everyday for the betterment of yourselves and your families and your furry four-legged children and communities and possibly even the planet.
Maybe you journal every night to reflect on what went well with your day and what didn’t and what you learned. Maybe you spend two minutes each morning and night feeling gratitude for your life and for your friends and telling them as much. You might go camping to get away from all the goddamn beeps your phone keeps making at you because hanging with bears is obviously way more sane. Deep down you know there’s value in space and quiet to let your mind sift through the what’s what but you don’t exactly act on this knowledge all the time; you just do lots of activities and make room for some reflective space whenever you can in some less than 100% consistent and regular way.
If you’re reading this, odds are that things are going either well, or not so well, but you have a strong hunch that a more deliberate commitment to a structured reflective practice would deepen it in unexpected ways. You have a calendar, but none of it includes “mediation” as a thing to do, and you’re fixin’ to change that.
Writing about the Self-Improvement Meditator is giving me a headache before I even begin. This is in part because there’s a kind of trap lurking here that pretty much everyone falls into, and as far as I can tell, I spent at least six full years hanging out here without really knowing it, or maybe even knowing it a little but denying it a lot. And I still feel this particular magnet’s pull––I’m not sure it ever fully goes away, which is why awareness and diligence is always a good idea no matter how long you’ve been doing something––there are always more subtle ditches to avoid.
The self-improvement mindset is really tricky and often there’s no way to avoid this category except through lived experience and the help of teachers who know what to look for and who can reflect your aspirations right back to you so you can decide for yourself what’s really going on and why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is important because only when you know what you’re doing can you do what you want.
So what’s “wrong” with self-improvement?
Yoga studios and meditation halls, as far as I can tell, are filled with self-improvement practitioners. Not all yoga studios and not all meditation spaces, and obviously not all yoga teachers nor yoga students nor meditation practitioners fall into this category. I can’t emphasize this enough because obviously there are a large number of highly skilled teachers who are not motivated by self gain . But for my purposes of trying to explain what meditation is, I have to talk about meditation (and yoga) practitioners who do it entirely to better themselves. So:
- There is nothing wrong with doing yoga/meditation to better yourself. It’s way better you’re trying this than engineering another derivative based housing and financial crisis.
- You might do this by approaching it as exercise that makes your body feel better. This is good and good for you in the most basic way: a healthy body and mind are better than a neglected body and mind.
- You might do it to feel less stressed out and more calm. There is nothing wrong with this and if more people did this we probably wouldn’t have such an epic shit-show to deal with, planet-wise.
- But there is a tendency when you do something for gain to make that something entirely about yourself and about building a better “you.” And anything in this category is on trial for being appropriated by your ego and for your own ego’s benefit. An extreme example of this would be the person who goes to the gym at first to get healthy but then slowly to start checking himself out in the mirror, and then to get bigger muscles to get the ladies swooning, and then to get even bigger muscles to get even finer ladies swooning, and then even bigger muscles to compete in Mr. Olympia because there are still some ladies that haven’t swooned yet, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this, exactly. But we need enough openness to admit that this kind of self-improvement project is both endless––some fellas get muscles so big they kinda waddle when they walk––and doesn’t result in more clarity or ease or freedom in the life you’ve got––as opposed to the life you imagine you should have–– which are the signs of a mature meditation practice. This kind of health project will get you bigger muscles, though, and you’ll need to drink lots more protein shakes to keep those big muscles bulging. And if it’s yoga we’re talking about, it will make you more flexible and probably more relaxed and calm when you’re in the yoga studio and probably for a few hours afterwards, too. Traffic won’t be so irritating for a spell, probably. It will also stretch your capacity for understanding who you are to some extent. These are all good, healthy things. They’re just fairly limited as far as human potential goes if done for self-betterment purposes.
- If you’re itching to write me a hate message because you feel I just dissed yoga and weight-lifting and maybe even the way you understand meditation, I ask you to take me at my word that I’m not dissing anything. Yoga is good; going to the gym is good; running races faster than you ever have is good; testing yourself and pushing yourself and making muscles is all good. But doing all these things with a mind that wants to gain something from these activities so that you look and feel better is not fully in the spirit of meditation. As long as you know that, we’re all good here.
After reading this tender poke in the ribs, maybe you need a lovely quote to inspire you away from mere self-improvement projects? If so, here’s what Stephen Batchelor said about meditation:
“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and "mine." It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty, and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a lifelong practice.” (After Buddhism 231)
The New-Age Buffet
How many life skills do you know of that are rare and deeply fulfilling and which you can learn and master in a weekend?
In the documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the master sushi chef has his apprentices whip up eggs for like several years before they’re even allowed to even think about making the rice. If you want depth you need to be willing to stick to one path, one teacher, one dedicated practice. I’m sure Bill Murray could have been an excellent trombone player; but he focused his time and energy on being a really great comic actor and we’re all beyond grateful to him for his dedication.
Sallie Tisdale, a zen teacher, says this way better than I can in her essay “The Buffet: Adventures in the New Age” from which I’ll quote two full paragraphs:
“The very difficulty of staying the course is a crucial part of a spiritual practice––and its own reward, no matter the path. Like staying with a relationship through times of boredom and fear, staying with a religion [or meditation practice] through time is the only way to confront certain truths about one's self and what we call the divine. My main objection to the patchwork offerings of the New Age––including the use of mindfulness as a means to personal enrichment––is that I just don't believe it works. Nothing much is learned by sampling…
…If you want a master's wisdom but you don't want to put in the lifetime of work needed to develop it, you can hire the master. Wisdom traditions don't spring up overnight––not real ones, at least. New Age consumers appropriate the labor of many other people who've done the hard work: their apprenticeship, their lives of study––their tedium, their commitment. What is appropriated most of all is the same thing colonialists have always taken: other people's time, the hard long years of those who weren't in such a big hurry.”
So if you find yourself jumping from method to method, teacher to teacher, DVD to DVD, workshop to workshop, slow the fuck down and ask yourself what you’re doing all this jumping around for. And wait for an answer before jumping to conclusions. It’s OK to be curious and to experiment, but at some point you need to go deep and just sit still in one place.
This is the category you should slide yourself into as best as you can, whenever it begins to make sense to you. But it’s slippery and might not make sense for a while, especially after you officially started meditating. Or you’ll catch a good whiff but then get seduced by how good you feel leaving your “bad” self behind, and you’ll plop out of the no-gaining mindset and right back into a fixing yourself project. But as long as you remain aware that this category exists, eventually you’ll settle in and you’ll begin to feel more at ease in your life, even if all kinds of unpleasant and difficult shit keeps happening (because it will).
The meditator who meditates without a gaining idea of self-improvement is like the runner who runs because she loves the feeling of breathing hard, of feeling her lungs alive with the cold morning air, her quads burning with life going up the hill and over it. She runs because she loves it, and because running expresses who she is in exactly the right way that, say, blowing on a tuba can’t. She runs because she feels more alive when she does this than when she does not. She does not need the watch to tell her her run was good; she knows it in her blood. Maybe she wears a watch, maybe she doesn’t. But either way, the watch doesn’t dictate how or why she runs, and the medals she gets after races only weigh her down.
Compare her motivation to the runner who is driven by a sense of gain, in order to run a faster Personal Record. That runner will always have someone faster than they are in front of them and will show up to workouts with a sense of dread and anxiety about how hard it’s going to be. And even after running a fast enough race, the clock itself will always be faster. It’s a never ending hamster wheel of achievement. The ego is satisfied for a while… and then starts wanting more.
The irony is that the runner who runs for the exuberance of it, and fully commits herself to that form of expression, will end up running just as fast––faster, probably, if I’m going to speak from experience––as the runner who is running entirely for proof of her egoic excellence. The reason is that the ego’s motivation to keep building itself is endless and exhausting in the most literal sense. The ego is not the enemy, though: without it, we wouldn’t feed ourselves, or keep a job, or take care of the kids, or do basic shit around the house. But when we do nearly everything for proof of our self-worth––including things like yoga and meditation––then we’re fucked. Because that way lies self-improvement project after self-improvement project, after self-improvement project. And the trickiest things to spot this tendency in is often a kind of spiritual practice like yoga or mediation in which the stated purpose is to “forget yourself.” So the ego starts to co-opt even that as a goal: look at how completely I’ve forgotten myself! Look at how long I can sit still without moving! Look at this ego-less headstand I’m doing! Look at how many times I show up to the meditation hall each week!
I’ve had quite the spiritual hangover myself when after many years I finally began to realize that I was hoping my zen teacher was noticing how committed I am. Imagine doing a “useless” thing in order to be recognized for your commitment to doing the useless thing by someone who knows deep in their bones that this kind of recognition is anathema to spiritual growth.
In the zen tradition, there’s a saying that zazen––sitting mediation (za= sit; zen = meditation)––is completely useless. So why do it? Exactly. Sit with that question for a few months (i.e. years) and like the runner who runs for the beauty of it gets faster and healthier anyway, this “useless” meditation practice of yours will slowly start shaping you in profound ways you can’t even imagine with 100% of your brain.
John Welwood, a psychoanalyst whose practice is infused with buddhist philosophy, describes meditation with exquisite insight in his essay “The Perfect Love We Seek, the Imperfect Love We Live”––I’ve actually printed this blurb and placed it under my meditation cushion at home:
"Meditation cultivates unconditional friendliness through teaching you how to just be––without doing anything, without holding onto anything, and without trying to think good thoughts, get rid of bad thoughts, or achieve a pure state of mind. This is a radical practice. There is nothing else like it. Normally we do everything we can to avoid just being. When left alone with ourselves, without a project to occupy us, we become nervous. We start judging ourselves or thinking about what we should be doing or feeling. We start putting conditions on ourselves, trying to arrange our experience so that it measures up to our inner standards. Since this inner struggle is so painful, we are always looking for something to distract us from being with ourselves. In meditation practice, you work directly with your confused mind-states, without waging crusades against any aspect of your experience. You let all your tendencies arise, without trying to screen anything out, manipulate experience in any way, or measure up to any ideal standard. allowing yourself the space to be as you are––letting whatever arises arise, without fixation on it, and coming back to simple, presence––this is the most loving and compassionate way you can treat yourself. As you simplify in this way, you start to feel your very presence as wholesome in and of itself. You don’t have to prove that you are good. You discover a self-existing sanity that lies deeper than all thought or feeling. You appreciate the beauty of just being awake, responsive, and open to life. The more loving-kindness and acceptance you have for yourself, by letting yourself be, the more you can be with others and let them be themselves."
Ok, so What is Mediation?
The above description has been my own guiding compass, but there are many facets to this wonderful way of being, so here are a few more definitions that genuinely resonate:
Meditation is about embracing what is happening to this organism as it touches its environment in this moment.
Sit with that for a bit.
Meditation is when we continue to expose ourselves to ourselves, so that nothing remains hidden.
Because the hidden shit is called shadow, and if you’ve ever walked outside during daylight hours, you know it tends to follow you around everywhere. So if you want to live a life without shadow, you need to drag all the things you’d rather not deal with into the light. Mediation helps you do exactly that.
If you need something less poetic, try this:
Meditation is focused and ritualized practice of attention.
Take some time to absorb that, too.
Now try this, a slightly more technical and expansive definition:
Meditation is a quieting of human noise to gain deeper insights into three interwoven levels of awareness. Its goal is to transform our lives by showing us how we relate to everything we do.
Discerning these three levels is quite useful as long as you don’t get too caught up in the levels being a hierarchical ladder of achievement. They’re just a shorthand way of talking about three different kinds of experiences meditation points you toward, and they all happen simultaneously to some extent. So it’s not a video-game kind of “levels,” but more like three different textures of fabric, all coming together to make one fine-ass suit.
Three different ways of Meditating
“Level 1”: There’s the practice of immediate awareness itself, on a sensory––eyes, ears, mouth, hands, nose––level. What is it that’s here before me? What do I actually notice? The woman who just introduced herself to me two minutes ago––what is her name? Am I breathing?
“Level 2”: Then there’s the pondering we do about that first immediate sensory level. Do I actually want to know that woman’s name? What’s causing my breathing to be so rapid and shallow? Did that tuna and peanut butter and jelly sandwich taste good? Is this movie boring or am I distracted by the girl in yellow who just said hello? We often hang out at this level, caught in our thoughts, and forget to “do” level one, which explains why sometimes we’ve walked for a three minutes pondering this and that and don’t remember actually seeing anything along the way. Can you see how we flicker non-stop between levels one and two? And what that means for our ability to see deeply into just one thing?
“Level 3”: And then there’s self-reflexivity, the level on which we ask “Whose experiences are these anyway?” It’s kinda like noticing there’s some kind of container that “holds” the first two levels. Most of the time we don’t notice the container in the same way that fish don’t notice water. But once we start noticing that what we see and what we think are coming from some sort of view, then we start inquiring into “who” that point of view is and what kinds of lenses it wears when it goes out to meet the world. When you begin to have a clear felt sense of this “self” you begin to notice that your views are not as solid as you once thought they were. But this cannot be fully understood with your head––you must experience this, just like you won’t know what it feels like to run scared until you’ve stolen a bear’s pot of sticky golden honey.
Integration of Thee Levels
All three of these levels can be developed with practice and is why mediation is often called “practice.” You can continue to develop as you do it, like a dentist has a dentist practice at which she hopefully keeps improving. You can learn to see what’s in front of you more clearly and learn to taste your food more fully. You can learn to ask imaginative questions and make surprising connections between events out in the world and your interpretations of them. You can develop a larger holistic sense of who you are, how you see the world and how you interweave with other beings. So the point of mediation is to get better at each of these three levels––keeping in mind the problem and paradox of doing this practice for gain––and then to integrate the three levels so you’re not operating from one of them at the expense of the others.
Because, say, if you operated from just the first, you’d be like an animal, who sees well and reacts to things but never chooses deliberately from among the options because other options aren’t in your field of awareness.
If you operate from mostly the second, you’d be like the absent-minded professor who walks into walls and has few heartfelt friends because he’s always stuck “in his head,” coming up with all kinds of formulas but wearing his bowtie a little too tightly. “Want to catch the game a have a few beers tonight, Prof? No, thanks, I’m working on the secret mythology of everything.”
And if you hung out only at the third level, you’d be more aligned with the stars in the sky than with life on earth, and might drift away like a small dog that has a large balloon tied to its tail.
Kinds of Meditation Practices
Calming Meditation: “Be here now. Be someplace else later.”
The basic problem we encounter on the first level of sensory awareness is that we’re unable to focus and concentrate on reality as she actually appears before us. We half-ass many things, instead of whole-assing one thing, as Ron Swanson gently reminds us. Sauntering down the street, we leave behind what we see and jump into thoughts about which Springsteen album is his deepest and darkest (Nebraska), to regrets about having sent a boorish (but true) text message to that hot penis of a co-worker, to all kinds of sensory perceptions that bounce from one to the next to the next without our ability to appreciate and savor any of their details. We kinda “see” a bunch of things but really see almost none of them.
The interference? Our past, our future, our thoughts, our feelings, endless distractions made of ephemeral monkey mind juice, ad infinum. The worst news is that most of us don’t even realize we’re caught in a self-centered dream, meaning that we’re not actually seeing who or what is in front of us. And the current technological shift that put into our pockets (and now our children’s pockets) computers more powerful than the Apollo astronauts had on their entire spaceship makes it even harder these days to keep our heads focused on just one thing, carefully and deliberately. We have eyes but we don’t see; we have ears but we don’t hear; we have noses but we don’t smell; we have hands but we don’t feel. Or at least when we don’t practice mediation on this level of awareness, we don’t do these things as steadily and as fully as we have the capacity to. So are lives feel flat, without our recognition of that savory depth that lurks in everything.
Calming Meditation with attention on the Breath
The prescribed antidote to not being fully in our senses is calming mediation that’s gently focused on the breath.
Your breath is a perfect tool, having come built-in with your body so there’s no need to buy or download anything. Why is it a perfect tool? Because when you focus your attention on your breathing, you learn how to be both alert––because you’re paying attention to your breath––and relaxed–– your breath is a natural relaxant because of some convenient biological facts, namely that a steady flow of oxygen wakes the fuck out of your body and brain cells. So there’s a direct and physical link between the quality of your respiratory function and the state of your mind. It’s also worth noting that it’s not so much breathing deeply that does the trick, but breathing smoothly and consistently, very much unlike your uncle Delbert’s moves on the dance floor after his sixth gin and tonic. So paying attention to your breathing is a form of concentration mediation that asks you to focus on one object for an extended period of time and you become calmer, more focused and more steady in your seat and consequently more grounded in the here and now as you do it.
After you bring your attention back to your breathing as a daily practice, you’ll notice more often when you’ve spaced out away from your immediate surroundings. You’ll still do it––even most of the time––but you’ll gain an awareness that you’ve done it much more quickly than before you started to sit with your breath.
And you’ll also notice that when you get into deep shit, it will feel much more natural to return your attention to your breath to ground yourself in your body, rather than spinning out in your worst-case-scenario thinking. Calmness and steadiness ensue.
Focused calm and the ability to sit still in concentration is not enough. Burglars and sunglass-hoodie-wearing poker players can concentrate and be especially mindful of everything you do, and you’ll have empty pockets at the end of the night if you’re not careful hanging with those cats. So take my word that having a focused mind capable of great feats of concentration is not enough since wisdom can’t be approached if it is still caught in its own self-centered approaches.
The view of mediation as a self-improvement tool that will improve X and Y and help you be a better Z is deeply problematic precisely because it lacks an ethical grounding. What is ethical grounding? It’s a sense that you aren’t alive in this world for only your own myopic reasons and that if you act only from the point of view of improving yourself––to gain an advantage for yourself–– you will develop a larger ego than when you started which will in the long run end up as an excruciatingly painful experience because it defies the nature of reality. Reality is interconnected. Selfish outlooks deny the interconnectivity. Selfishness as a way of life is extremely painful, sooner than later.
Calming Meditation with Compassion focus
Compassion mediation, also known as loving-kindness or “metta” practice, is founded on a simple principle: if your thoughts are focused on wholesome and positive qualities and emotions, your brain doesn’t have the capacity to think about anything else, especially not negative bullshit holding you down. It’s exactly as Robin Williams once joked: God gave men a dick and a brain but only enough blood to operate one at a time. So it is with thoughts––when you think about generous things and wish for the happiness of others, you can’t be much of a negative twit at the same time. And if you deliberately practice thinking like a Care Bear, then your habitual negativity starts to disappear and soon you’re shooting rainbows out of your belly all the time.
When the historical bad-ass of meditation Buddha taught compassion practice, in order to motivate the playa haters, he said compassion meditation will have these benefits:
- You will sleep easily
- You will wake easily
- You will have pleasant dreams
- People will love you
- Heavenly beings and animals will love you
- Heavenly beings will protect you
- External dangers will not harm you
- Your face will be radiant
- Your mind will be serene
- You will die unconfused
- You will be reborn in happy realms
How do you do it? Sit your ass down somewhere quiet, sit upright, and say these things to yourself over and over again:
“May I be free from danger”
“May my mind be at ease”
“May my body be at ease”
“My my heart be at ease”
“May all beings be free from danger”
“May all beings’ minds be at ease”
“May all beings’ bodies be at ease”
“May all beings’ hearts be at ease”
And repeat. And watch what happens.
If you’d like an excellent in-depth resource, check out Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.
Calming Meditation with a Concentration focus (AKA “Jhana” practice)
“Meditation states were not invented. They were discovered.”
There’s another form of concentration practice called entering the eight jhanas–– eight deepening levels of meditation which is all that “jhana” means, so don’t get scared––that are natural states of mind that some people even experience as children. But then our minds start getting scattered by having to be alive out there in the world and doing things like looking both ways to avoid getting pancaked by the bus, and these natural jhana states become increasingly rare and disappear as though they never existed. But if you train, I mean really train your mind like you would train for a Tough Mudder race up a precipitous snowy mountain in Vermont, you’ll begin to rediscover them and to experience increasingly heightened states of consciousness and concentration, each one successively building on the previous one. The effect of doing this practice, like sharpening a sword, is to make your mind more concentrated, purer, brighter, more flexible, steadier, and less likely to get its panties all in a bunch when life’s one-damn-thing-after-another happens. These qualities will enhance your insight practice––the practice that will actually help transform your understanding of reality and therefore your place in it and make you less of a selfish clod and more of a loving being, just like the way your dog thinks of you.
In other words, if you just do this concentration practice for its own sake, it’ll be like getting high off your own mind, which is really lovely––but so is weed for lots of folks which leads you to being a fat couch potato. But if you do it to transform yourself for the benefit of others, your life and the lives you impact will flourish. Whether your intention at the start is for self-gratification or for the benefit of others makes all the difference.
There’s a terrific book called Right Concentration: A Practical Guid to the Jhanas, by Leigh Brasington which is full of the technical guidance needed to follow this particular path. But for those of you who are curious about the lay of the land, here’s the abbreviated version of what the increasing levels of concentration look like based on that book’s teachings.
Preliminaries to get started: Sit daily in some capacity and focus on an object in your mind. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the object without judgment. Eventually, whatever thoughts do come up will tend to stay mostly in the background of your consciousness. In other words, you’ll chill out your monkey mind from jumping to one branch to the next to the next, out of your control. In order to do this, you have to be committed to an ethical way of living, you have to live mindfully––meaning noticing things as they happen rather than daydreaming–– and you have to live a simple life, more or less, so checking your phone a bazillion times a day will not inspire this necessary state of focus. You avoid results thinking. You notice your distractions. You let them go when your mind has wandered.
Charging your Concentration Batteries with relaxed diligence: Place your attention on your breath and notice when your attention has wandered. And then gently return it to your breath. Don’t focus on what you hope or think should happen. Just be diligent about returning your attention to the breath each time it wanders. The longer you stay in this state, the stronger your concentration will be and the easier it will be to recognize the magnetic psychic attractors that are the sensations in the following states of consciousness. A sense of diffuse white light is a sign you’ve become concentrated.
Jhana 1: Concentrate on your breath. After undisturbed concentration when your mind isn’t even sometimes thinking about your fantasy baseball lineup or those pretty dresses at Anthropologie, your breath becomes subtle and you shift your concentration to a pleasant sensation in your body. The sensation will slowly grow and you’ll at one point feel an obviously really pleasant sensation. Simply observe it and nothing more. Focus entirely on the pleasant sensation itself––not its intensity or how long it’s lasting, or where it is; just the quality that makes it easy for you to say “this is really pleasant.” Learn here how to be a human being rather than a human doing: just be with the pleasantness of not having a mind fucked up by wanting shit, or hating shit, or being ignorant. The primary ingredient of this level of concentration is a deep pleasure that feels like glee, called “piti" in the ancient tongue. If you can stay with your undistracted attention on the pleasant sensation, the electric sense of glee and, dare I say, rapture, will keep growing. But if you want or expect the piti to arise, like a stubborn donkey, it won’t. So calm your boots and just concentrate your attention on the energetic sensation itself and nothing more. Access Concentration by focusing on breath —-> Seclusion from distraction born from being concentrated on your breath–––> Pleasant sensation arises –––––> unwavering attention produces glee and pleasantness. This is not a calm, peaceful state but a really energetic and pleasant one.
Jhana 2: Thinking subsides from background and is replaced by inner tranquility. Deep breath will calm the glee, but the pleasantness will remain to focus on it. A sense of emotional joy and happiness is in theforeground, the energetic buzz will shift to the background. Located lower in the body, near the heart rather than the head. Feels like ordinary happiness, but triggered by inner state of concentration rather than any external reality. Like a lake with no water coming in, but a a current of cool water welling up from within the lake. Focus on the happiness.
Jhana 3: The intense glee fades away and you are just happy. There’s a sense of equanimity, with a mind that’s clearly comprehending. You are in a state of wishlessness, a state of satisfaction, and you want for nothing. There is no sense of movement. Feeling of contentment in the belly.
Jhana 4: Quiet stillness. Drift down to the bottom of the well.
Now come the “immaterial jhanas,” meaning the levels where the attention is no longer on your body in any way. This is some serious cosmic shit here and it’s best you have a helmet and a teacher to help guide you. Actually, you’d need a teacher way before getting here, so that’s a moot point, but because things in these “upper” tiers get so subtle, it’s best to talk to someone who’s been there and knows how to guide you.
Jhana 5: Sphere of Infinite Space: Here you are passing entirely beyond bodily sensations. You’re like a tiny observer surrounded by vast space. Spaciousness.
Jhana 6: Space of limitless consciousness: You feel that “My mind is really big,” and can begin to perceive that there are other “little consciousnesses” within your own boundless consciousness.
Jhana 7: Realm of no-thingness: It’s like peering into a dark room, and rather than perceiving the space, you perceive the overwhelming sense that there is nothing at all to be found in that space. You’re still a tiny point of observation which remains surrounded by all the no-thing. It can feel like the void if seen from perspective of fear but can feel incredibly peaceful if you can see it as a space with no disturbances.
Jhana 8: Beyond perception and non-perception: A state of no characteristics to identify, so it's hard to describe, son. Get to concentrating and experience it yo own damn self if you want to know what’s up.
So, yeah, the jhanas are like getting high on your mind. They increase your concentration and equanimity which makes penetrating insight into reality entirely doable. They are also an antidote to the endless trap of seeking sensual pleasures (without love and care) by being pleasurable themselves––so they help in the motivation department by offering another way to experience intense pleasure and enjoyment, minus the hangovers, STDS, and other bullshit hindrances. Can you even believe that you can get beautifully high all by yourself, kinda on yourself? No more sniffing glue, kids.
If you're curious, here’s what it says on the back of the jhanas bottle at your local pharmacy:
- Reduce effort necessary to sustain attentional focus
- Decrease emotionally reactive behaviors
- Reduce automatic fear response
- Move emotional center in the positive direction
- Provide pleasure that is more desirable than worldly pleasures
- Provide antidote to sensual craving
- Provide a pleasant abiding here and now
Insight Meditation Putting the Jhanas to use
Remember all that work you did with the jhanas above, how you sat there for hours and hours and weeks and months, paying attention to your breath, sharpening your concentration until your mind practically pierced your scrotum, it was so pointy and sharp and ready for action? Well now you know what you need to do with all that concentration! You need to think about things, but because your mind is no longer a monkey, you’ll actually begin to perceive and experience reality way closer to how she really is rather than how you merely thought she is. And all that was in the way was your ego’s way of sensing the world. But with that veil lifted, you can now see so much more clearly into things! Hooray!
“Not always so.”
The ability to ask questions about the reality we notice is a level two meditation task. Is what we see really that way?
Dale Wright, Professor of Religious Studies, whose chapter on meditation in his book The Six Perfections is an inspiration for much of this post, writes––
“Does any of us know whether we spend more mental time engaged with past memories or with future plans? Do we know the exact extent to which daydreams occupy our minds, what narrative structures our daydreams follow, and what effects they have on our lives? To what extent do we observe and evaluate our moods, or do we simply suffer them unconsciously? We can answer these questions only to the extent that we have ourselves engaged in reflective, phenomenological meditation. Lacking such meditative practices, we really do not know what goes on in our minds.”
What professor Wright is saying here, in essence, is that reflective meditation is a kind of deliberate inquiry you do in an attempt to see beyond your typical daily-level surface of things. It’s similar to the kinds of skills you learn in college English: if you read the words on a page quickly, you’ll assume you know what they mean, and you’ll create the most obvious meaning with them which will bore your professor way beyond any extent you can possibly imagine, trust me on this. But if you slow down enough, you’ll find that words have multiple shades of meaning, and that each sentence interacts with prior sentences and all kinds of unexpected and powerful meanings emerge that are actually real and exciting and insightful. There’s a richness that is not “hidden” below the surface, but one that requires care to be able to experience. Aliens looking down on a game of basketball in the mid 90s would just see a guy throwing a round thing through another round thing; here on Earth, we marveled at the athleticism and grace of Michael Jordan’s last shot to win the last championship game agains the Utah Jazz. We didn’t just “see,” we reflected on what we saw.
Calming Meditation that’s Just Sitting
Another form of calming meditation, called shikantaza in Japanese, means, “just sitting.” A Chinese meditation master calls it “the method of no-method.” While just-sitting, you observe whatever it is that arises in your mind and body, without any precise goals of concentration or focus––your intention is to just notice whatever comes up. And then you try not to get obsessed and lost in that thought, image, emotion, story, ache, whatever it is. You will, of course, get lost. But as soon as you notice you’ve wandered off, you gently return your attention to your body on the cushion without any harsh judgement. (And if you start judging yourself, just notice that too: “Judging myself for daydreaming.”) It sounds simple. And it is simple. But how simple can you let it actually be shows you way more than you can imagine about yourself and about your body and mind. In this case, I think “mindfulness” as a descriptor of this form of mediation is an unfortunate misnomer, because you’re paying as much attention to your body as you are to your mind, allowing that artificial split to slowly fade away. You begin paying attention to life itself, and you do this without moving. Sooner or later, a deep sense of just being alive fills you up and feels deeply satisfying, no matter what it is that you are alive with inside. You learn to stop picking and choosing and get more comfortable with just existing, which turns out is plenty.
This just sitting practice is also a worthwhile ear-flick to all those gaining instincts we have, because “just sitting” feels like an enormous waste of time if you’re trying to gain something from it. The most insight I’ve gotten out of it is on mornings when I have a bazillion tasks lined up later in the day and while just sitting I notice my mind rushing around like a banshee, getting ready to do all the things. But as I remain seated, upright, and still, I let the thoughts come and go as I continue to just sit. The awareness of my banshee state as a banshee state is therefore heightened and I’m not so susceptible to it as I go about my day afterwards. The manic energy is transformed into a steady clarity. And after the bell rings, I begin doing the most appropriate thing first. Most of the time––I remain a procrastinating half-wit some 5% of the time despite myself.
Immediacy of Just Sitting
My own meditative life has been shaped most completely by "just sitting." When you "just sit" as opposed to doing meditation for some instrumental purpose––to be more calm, to be less stressed, to concentrate better, to relax––when you just sit still and allow life to speak for itself, you remove the distance between life as it actually is and your views of how it should be, which gap is the reason why you have more pain in your life than is necessary. Just sitting, you begin to feel life as opposed to merely thinking about it; you become the expression of yourself instead of a projection of an idea. There is a startling immediacy to just being, just breathing, just sitting. It is completely useless and entirely beautiful, like an artist who uses his body to express his life. There's nothing to grasp or deny or try or fix. It's a supremely powerful way of teaching ourselves to return to life, to begin to trust its course, and to let it show us what we were born to see.
A zen master was once asked by his eager student:
“How long should I sit for?”
“30 minutes, first thing in the morning.”
“But I’m way too busy to sit for 30 minutes.”
“Then you need to sit for 2 hours.”
But what about the Boredom?
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Boredom as a lack of inner resources is an intriguing definition. What are inner resources? If we leave behind Berryman’s teasing poetic voice and answer this question in a literal way, I’d say inner resources are the ability, born of discipline and the imagination, to pay deliberate attention to something long enough to really begin to experience that thing’s depth. Picture someone who digs wine taking a good long whiff while swirling the glass and explaining why it’s so damn good.
People who practice some form of concentration and calming meditation learn to find pleasure in the simplest things because simple things reveal their beauty when you actually notice them and stay with them. The shift that occurs is one that goes from “I’m not ok, and I need to find something to take my mind off this feeling of anxiety” to “I’m fine just the way I am, and even this anxiety is something to be curious about.” It’s not that the little things in life are exciting in and of themselves; what’s exciting is when they’re noticed by your consciousness, and in that noticing you create a relationship and relationships are exciting, no matter how quiet.
There’s a much simpler way of saying all this: Wisdom needs a calm quiet meadow where it can roam and gain composure. If your mind is agitated all the time by this or that, wisdom, deep wisdom that will actually make a difference in your life won’t ever have the space it needs to frolic. But if you see things clearly, as they are, you’ll have gained an increased capacity to appreciate your life and everything in it, leaving behind: you, love.
Reflection with Emotions
You can practice this kind of reflective mediation with your emotions as well so that instead of always being ruled or dominated by them you can actually choose the wisest course of action. Take anger for example. Usually you think of it as a red bull that’s there to impart vengeance on some ass-hat that cut you off in traffic. But if you meditated reflectively on anger––before the asshat cut you off, obviously–– you’d notice that it has a cool, clean, intense quality meant to protect you from harm. The red that you see afterwards is based on a reaction and a story about how you should protect yourself, which is often done by laying heavy on the horn or flipping someone off. So you confuse the emotion for what you do with the emotion, and what you tend to do with it usually isn’t terribly helpful, right?
Or take sadness. Like in the excellent Pixar film Inside Out, we usually don’t want to do anything with sadness. But when you sit with it and bring it closer to you rather than pushing it away, you’ll see that sadness is you paying homage and respect and care to something you lost. To not feel sad when your pet died would be to say that you didn’t care. But if you find yourself inconsolable four months later, you’re definitely no longer feeling sad but telling yourself stories about how unfair it is that X happened, and it’s the constant re-poking the story that rules your life rather than the original authentic sadness.
If you practice reflecting on your emotions with enough care and courage, you’ll recognize your emotions' qualities much more quickly and you’ll be able to respond to them much more skillfully, rather than the often unhelpful stories they inspire. Your life will in turn become more spontaneous and heartfelt and simple––you’ll stop doubting yourself about how you respond to life; instead, you’ll just live it fully. So in this instance, to meditate means to examine carefully your emotional life and to dive deeply into your discoveries.
Reading as a form of Reflective Mediation
If you’re reading to gain knowledge––“Like, will this be on the exam?”––then you’re not meditating on life, you’re ingesting and vomiting information, a kind of mentality I saw way too often in college students who were fully committed to sucksess. But if you’re reading as a form of questioning your assumptions about the heavens and the earth and all the different ways you might sail through your days or because you have a hunch you haven’t quite figured out what makes the hairs on your neck truly stand up, then you’re interested in the art of cultivating and shaping your character since your character is your destiny. This kind of meditative reading is in essence what philosophers do, and as long as they read with clear eyes, a full heart, then they’re not going to lose.
By exploring the thoughts and lives of others, you’ll begin to ask questions of yourself.
Who are you? And why do you do what you do?
Comic Book Fantasy vs. Reality of Your Life
There’s an aspect of mediation that’s rarely talked about because for some reason people think of it mostly as a boring and pious thing you do to somehow make yourself better, not unlike eating kale. But if you consider that life is about opening yourself to the fullness of all reality and that there are some aspects of it that are still closed to your current state of consciousness, then you’ll accept imagination as a key ingredient of reflective meditation. It’s the reason art exists, and art can’t exist without imagination, right? In just this way, meditation is more of an art than a mere technique, so when you sit with the aspiration to open yourself to an ever wider set of possibilities for your life, you’re meditating reflectively. You just need to do it with a kind of courageous exuberance that’s simultaneously grounded and stable.
But there are two kinds of imaginations, and I think our current cultural superhero movie obsession speaks volumes about the danger of one of them: imaginative and fantastical escape.
When you go to the theater to watch Batman or Superman or Iron Man or Spiderman or Antman or whoever it is that can fly and be stronger and faster and more clever than everybody else, you’re engaging in a fantasy that’s an escape from life as it actually is. And there’s nothing wrong with this on the level of pure entertainment as long as you acknowledge that you’re tuning out for a bit to relax and unwind and to be deliberately and enjoyably stupid for a spell. But something tells me that these movies make hundreds of millions of dollars in the theater, and have for the past several decades, because there’s a desire to feel what your life would be like if you were a better (stronger, etc.) version of yourself. In this sense, it’s a passive fantasy, because you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s fully actualized vision that’s not grounded in the actual realities of either your life, or life as we know it. I’m not trying to get in a debate here about the artistic merit of all superhero films, by the way. My intention is to suggest that from the perspective of active reflection, they represent a kind of ready-made-vision that floats away rather than helps transform your life. I mean, unless you become a vigilante cape-wearing crime fighter yourself.
Whereas, for example, if you reflect deeply on some work of history, or a painting, or work of literature that takes place within the laws of humanity––meaning that it doesn’t ask you to forget gravity, or that cars can’t be lifted to throw at a bad guy––and you experience a sense of someone else’s life that you otherwise could not have lived, and it opens you to some new experience: of being a different gender, or ethnicity, or age, or occupation, or athletic ability, then you’ve likely shifted something inside yourself that could be actualized in real life. Again, no disrespect to Batman, because I’m sure some of you are thinking he’s just a regular guy serving the cause of social justice. But my question to you remains: in what ways has Batman actually, in your own life, helped you transform your own capacities? If there are legitimate ways Batman films have done that, then I’ll readily admit he’s served you in a meditative reflective capacity and your life is more awake than it was before. And if he hasn’t, try turning your imaginative explorations toward your own life and see what kind of magic you can create out of the ordinary materials you have on hand: your job, your children, your passion for painting or making pork pie hats. Meditation is a beautiful canvas for these kinds of dreams.
Reflexive Meditation: Examining Our Own point of View and How it’s Constructed
And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well,
How did I get here?
If you meditate in a level 3 capacity, you begin to gain a glimpse of the point of view from which your life takes place. A common term for this point of view is self-awareness.
What’s odd about this point of view, though, is that scientists and engineers can’t get at it. There ain’t no compass or pipette or test-tube or microscope or telescope that allows anybody to see what’s inside anybody else. Only you can do that.
Conceptually, there’s this thing called an objective reality––all the test tubes and beakers and potions in a chemist’s laboratory–– and then there’s this thing called subjectivity, how the chemist herself feels and how she sees things. Reflexive meditation begins to ask questions about what it feels like to be a chemist doing things in the lab, and why it makes sense to be a chemist, and whether being in the lab makes the chemist feel a certain way as opposed to say, being on the drag in Las Vegas at 3am. The more you examine yourself in a reflexive way, the more you begin to see that who you are and how you feel depend on where you are and what you’re doing and who’s around you. In other words, your own identity is not as fixed as you think it is because it actually depends on what’s around you. This gets a bit complex, so I’ll ask professor Wright to carry us through this part since he’s already articulated this so crisply:
“If you do not understand how the choices you make are conditioned by your background and the context within which you face them, you will have very little freedom in relation to these conditioning factors. If you do not realize that what seems obvious to you seems that way because of structures built into your time and place and the particularities of your life, you will have very little room to imagine other ways to look at things that stretch the borders of your context and imagination. You will have no motive to wonder why what seems obvious to you does not seem obvious to others in other cultures or languages, and to wonder whether you might not be better off unconstrained by those particular boundaries of worldview. The extent to which you are limited by your setting is affected by the extent to which you understand such constraints. The way you participate in your current given worldview shapes the extent to which you will be able to see alternatives to it and be able to reach out beyond it in freedom.”
Do me a favor and read that again.
To be self-reflexive in a meditative capacity is to call to question how you structure your reality, and a beginning of the realization that reality is something that even has the potential to be structured, as opposed to, say, coming pre-made in a certain way, with you just swimming in it but not making any ripples in the water. And the way it’s structured by you, depends on what kinds of experiences you’ve had up to this point. The more you know yourself, the more you can see how you shape the reality around you: you begin to see not only that you have a point of view, but you begin to understand how that point of view was shaped…by you.
And so you begin to see what you notice and what you don’t and how and why certain things anger you––dishes left in the sink are no bueno, but making your bed is only something OCD weenies do, right? When you understand these minutia about yourself, you realize that you have a certain point of view and that the way you see and respond to things depends on that specific, real, and actually existing point of view.
Only when you know what you’re doing, can you do what you want.
And as you begin to know your own ways of constructing reality, you begin to relax a little, as you begin to feel that your reactions are always a construction and you stop fooling yourself that the problem is always out there and you’re the victim of circumstance. As Professor Wright writes:
“Those who have sat long enough with themselves in reflexive awareness can relax and smile while the rest of us grimace.”
Where to from Here?
Meditation is not only the physical activity of sitting your butt down and going deep inside yourself, but the quality of depth and awareness with which you live and which the activity of mediation helps cultivate; it is the extent to which you lead a meditative life that’s marked by calm, focus, insight, openness, and imaginative freedom to express yourself as the fully badass being that you are: the odds of you having been born and able to read this are like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,00 to 1. Seriously. You're a fucking miracle. It's time to wake up to that fact.
You now have a better understanding of what the meditative spirit is. But obviously you can’t quite get started by just flailing your arms like a hippopotamus if it had arms to flail and was very disconcerted. There are correct ways of doing things that involve proper posture, proper intention, proper ways of sitting, as well as obviously picking what kind of meditation you should start with.
If you’re interested in pursuing this path of freedom, send CxD an email we’ll get you going on the path of freedom. Your life awaits.