Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why we meditate

I have a confession to make to my digital journal: since my Sundays have been so busy that I've been unable to attend my local Sangha, I have not been meditating. At all.
I realize I've been approaching Buddhism from a very philosophical point of view, ignoring the fact that Buddhist teachers never call Buddhism a philosophy, they call it a practice. Mindfulness meditation really is the path through which all the philosophical ideals of Buddhism are put into effect in one's daily life. Perhaps it's a primitive analogy, but spending all my time reading about Buddhism without practicing meditation is quite a bit like reading about basketball without ever practicing it--I'd be very knowledgeable about the sport, but I couldn't dribble to save my life.

The problem with just thinking about Buddhism is actually a good example of why mindfulness meditation is so useful. You see, we get caught up very easily in our thoughts; understandable, given how present and real they feel. But it's all too easy to get carried away with thinking, to the point where they become more real to us than the outside world. I know I'm guilty of having entire conversations play out in my head--conversations that haven't even happened yet--that create such strong emotions that it changes the way I feel about the person I was thinking about talking with! Maybe you've never done that, but I'm sure you can think of other examples... What are daydreams, if not us getting carried away in our thoughts, away from the prosaic world around us?
There's nothing wrong with this--from time to time--but we musn't deceive ourselves into thinking that thinking is the only way to experience the world. For one thing, as I've blogged before, our thoughts can be quite misleading, sometimes. But more importantly, we have other ways of experiencing things that get too often overlooked. Our feelings, for example, are an important way of experiencing the world. Too often we believe that our thoughts are actually on a different level, different plane, than our feelings, but in fact our feelings and our thoughts are both reactions of our bodies to the outside world. Although, if we're not careful, our thoughts can be a reaction to our feelings, or our feelings a reaction to our thoughts, and we can get caught in a vicious loop of self-created feedback, totally irrelevant to what is actually going on, but still seeming very real to us.

Mindfulness meditation helps to train the mind not to take our thoughts so seriously. When you are calm and still, and can focus your attention only on awareness itself, allowing thoughts to rise and fall in your mind without grabbing onto them and letting them hold your attention, you swiftly realize several things.
You will realize that your thoughts--which we tend to think of as the ultimate expression of Self (in other words, most people would identify their thoughts as "Self" even more than they would their body)--are not actually as... purposeful as we like to suppose. You will find that thoughts rise and fall seemingly quite randomly, without your bidding them (and if capital-y You are not bidding them, then who is?). And your thoughts are almost never alone; always there are several different thoughts, rising and falling, clamoring for your attention, like a little kid who just can't stand silence.

And that's the point--our minds can't stand silence. They're not used to it. Meditation is important precisely because it is a practice; we can't just tell our brains "embrace silence" any more than we can tell our untrained muscles "dribble this ball between your legs."

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