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Musings on Meditation

Buddhism has a realistic outlook on the human condition. It emphasises the ephemeral nature of our lives. It also cautions us via the First Noble Truth that life unavoidably entails suffering.

If suffering is unavoidable then we must be prepared to deal with it. In this sense we are all victims and it is futile to promote our individual suffering and victimhood to argue that we are somehow a special case. Life for all of us is somewhat turbulent, and such turbulence will present us from time to time with pain and suffering. But understanding this we come to realise that we are not here to calm the waves in the sea of life, but to learn how to surf!

Our suffering is magnified by our desire to be special. This is our ego at work and once we give it reign it seizes on all kinds of attachments – material goods, desire for status and power and so on. Such attachments as we have seen in previous blogs make us vulnerable and more susceptible to suffering and loss.

I have often in my blog essays and elsewhere extolled the virtues of meditation practice. Meditation makes us more resilient and less susceptible to suffering.

At a superficial level, meditation may be thought of as a mechanism of “stilling the mind”. Let us be sure that this in itself is an important function of meditation. The ability to silence our self-talk (a manifestation of the “monkey mind”) is in itself very beneficial.

For example if you are depressed and your depression is exacerbated by continual rumination about your perceived faults and your general unworthiness, meditation provides welcome respite.

But, as useful as this is, meditation has a far more powerful purpose. I might provoke some controversy here – but I believe that meditation helps us to learn how to die.

Why are we afraid of death? It is largely because we believe that this special thing, this separate sense of self that our ego has concocted will no longer exist once our body dies.

Meditation helps us to learn to die to the separate-self sense or ego. Through the process of meditation we develop a sense of meditative awareness that is not impinged upon by the ego. When we put aside our thoughts, our bodily sensations and reside in the pure presence of the Witness we know at this level we are part of something eternal and beyond suffering.

Ken Wilber wrote, “The sages say that if you maintain this choiceless awareness, this bare witnessing, moment to moment, then death is just a simple moment like any other, and you relate to it in a very simple and direct way. You don’t recoil from death or grasp at life, since fundamentally they are both just simple experiences that pass.”

Contrary to the beliefs of modern materialists, the sages believe that the Universe is a manifestation of Spirit. At the level of the individual that is reflected as the Witness. (As we have previously seen the Witness is our “theatre of mind”; it is that which is embedded in all of us that transcends our physical and mental capacities.)

The Buddhist sages in particular believe that reality resides in shunyata sometimes described as “emptiness”or “the void”. But this does not mean nothingness but is more usefully translated as the “spontaneous” or ‘’unimpeded”. Consequently they believe that reality is empty – there is nothing permanent or absolutely enduring that you can hold on to for security or support.

Or as the famous Japanese Zen warrior Miyamoto Musashi wrote in A Book of Five Rings:

“People in this world look at things mistakenly, and think what they do not understand is the void. This is not the true void. It is bewilderment!”

And,

“In the void is virtue and no evil.”

The Diamond Sutra says, “Life is like a bubble, a dream, a reflection, a mirage.”

The ego then is deluded when it seeks to cling to the façade of enduring physical existence. Reality is perceived by letting go. Meditation prepares us for this as we put aside everything to be simply present in the Witness.

The two principal but conflicting drives of humans in the universe are:

  1. The desire to preserve what I see to be my own uniqueness and specialness, and
  2. The desire to reunite with the One that is All.

The first is a destructive drive, driven as we have seen by the motive from an artificially created ego to perpetuate the façade of separateness that it needs to assert itself.

The second is an authentic drive to bring us back to our source. It is reflected in such literature as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and in such parables as The Prodigal Son.

The One that is All goes by many names. Earlier I called it Spirit; maybe you might be more comfortable calling it the Godhead or the Ground of All Being or even more simply God.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to embark on this latter journey without abandoning the former enterprise of propping up the ego-self. And of course here is the benefit of meditation which allows us to put aside the temporal self, the physical manifestation of separateness, to bask in the knowledge that we are All as One.

In this meditative state, which is essentially one of pure subjectivity, as you calmly rest in this observing awareness, watching mind and body and nature float by, you experience simply a sense of freedom, a sense of release. The Witness is then dissociated from your physical self, and your psychic self.

Putting aside the physical trials that might accompany it, this mirrors the process of death. It teaches us that there is no fear in dissociating from our physical and psychic self. To be welcomed back into the fold of the One is surely our most fervent desire and the final antidote to suffering.

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  1. 7 Comment(s)

  2.   By Graham Proud on May 26, 2013 | Reply

    It’s not suffering, it’s surfering!

  3.   By Ron McGuigan on May 26, 2013 | Reply

    Ted, I think I effectively meditated as a small child, having quiet times sitting in the garden,just musing about my surroundings. The ability to relax and switch off stayed with me and I recall reading about the subject later in life. However I also think the regimen of praying is a kind of meditation as it is usually based on the structure and content of the Lord’s Prayer, hence focusing the mind on key elements of life.
    It concerns me that the young generation is almost enslaved by mobile phones and other electronic devices that seem to dominate their lives. The human mind needs something like the sabbath day to switch off from life’s daily issues. Hell! I’m sounding like a religious nut which I’m not but these are just random observations I have made during my life.

  4.   By Geoff Higgins on May 27, 2013 | Reply

    Some tricky issues beautifully tackled here again Ted.

    I wonder whether you have tips for the novice meditator. I enjoy the meditation part of yoga, but as it is ‘led’, I am seldom able to park my own conscious mind on demand. I seem to default to a reverie in which I grapple from random directions on the issue at hand. This is useful in solving problems and being creative – at least on the surface of the bubble, but if I want to get inside the bubble, this reverie seems to be a form of ‘anti-meditation’.

    …Geoff

  5.   By Greg Brown on May 27, 2013 | Reply

    I have experienced what you talk about Ted. I almost never meditate now although when I was going through a bad patch, 20 minutes twice a day kept me sane. On occasion as part of the meditation I would get the feeling of not existing. It was as if by focussing my mind on one thing (my breathing) all other thought stopped and when you don’t think you don’t exist. What is death after all but an absence of thought. The body is still there, it looks pretty much the same, it is just still and not thinking any longer. Meditation is as close to death as we get I think while still being alive. When I write this now I can’t help thinking that this may seem scary to some people. The notion of trying to experience death while being alive does sound a little weird. For anyone who wants to practice this though be assured it is not at all frightening. It is a great feeling of calm detachment that lingers with you for some time. The fear returns though. Our ego will not give up without a fight.

    From my perspective I think it is high time I practiced a little death once more.

  6.   By tedscott on May 29, 2013 | Reply

    Thank you for these comments.

    I suppose I should just reinforce the distinction between meditation and reverie/relaxation. Meditation usually requires the suppression of thought or the use of guided thinking processes. This takes some practice to achieve.

    There is little lost however if you are trying to meditate and a thought impinges on your awareness. You just notice it. You then use an analogy like a leaf floating down a stream or a cloud floating across the sky to help you realise that the thought is ephemeral and shall soon pass. Soon you will be able to resume your meditation.

    Some meditations require guided thinking. You might for example decide to meditate on altruism. First you bring to mind those close to you and appreciate how easy it is to show altruism to them. Over a period of time you can extend the circle little by little to include more people into the sphere of your altruism. And so on.

    There are many such guided meditation processes.

    Indeed as I have written before, meditation is essentially “mind training”.

    Geoff, I will e-mail you some simple meditation techniques that you might like to try.

  7.   By John on Jun 3, 2013 | Reply

    Thanks Ted. I have enjoyed reading this. I have one small question. Do you include Mindfulness Meditation when you speak of it? This is a type of meditation I have found works very well in calming a ‘racing’ mind.

  8.   By tedscott on Jun 3, 2013 | Reply

    To my understanding all meditation is aimed at increasing mindfulness. What you talk of (“a racing mind”)is a common affliction. It happens when we let our thoughts overwhelm us. Most forms of meditation are designed to cease the unbidden flow of thoughts into the theatre of consciousness. As I said in the blog, meditation is about “mind training’. It encourages us to be aware without the distraction of extraneous thought. Meditation helps us to understand that our thoughts are often projections of our ego-defense. In order to know our true “Self”we have to put these aside. This is one of the prime benefits of meditation.

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