There’s a war going on. Not between nations or tribes, but in our heads.
For Westerners drawn to Eastern philosophy, the battle lines are unmistakable. In so many ways, our frenetic materialism is the antithesis of meditation. We’re encouraged to imagine a bountiful future. We stumble around in a fog of reverie and anticipation. We’re caught, as the Tibetan monks say, in a perpetual dream state.
And we’re all sharing this dream together. Everyone, it seems, is career driven. Wealth has become synonymous with success and happiness. And if the future isn’t bright with promise, we can’t seem to enjoy the present.
In fact, these beliefs are just that: presumptions drummed into us on mother’s knee. Over the years, our cultural ways have seeped into our conscious and unconscious minds. A well-heeled future, so the story goes, is the key to a happy life. We’re surrounded by people who subscribe to this fantasy. The pressures to conform are enormous.
“A Socrates, a Cato or a Laelius might have been shaken in his principles by a multitude of people different from himself,” wrote the Stoic philosopher Seneca. “Such is the measure of the inability of any of us, even as we perfect our personality’s adjustment, to withstand the onset of vices when they come with such a mighty following.”
Nevertheless, some of us try to change. We want to buck the materialistic tide. More money doesn’t fill our hearts or lead to expressions of unconditional love.
So we do battle with our cultural conditioning. One system, I’ve found, is uniquely suited to this purpose: Buddhism. The teachings may be cased in religiosity, but nothing need be taken on faith. We simply have to admit that observing our minds might be valuable. The research bears this out.
Buddhist meditation trains the mind to adapt to the present. It’s a basic trick of attention: we simply notice sensations like the breath, sounds, or sunlight warming our skin. A six-month vision quest in the unforgiving Himalayas is totally optional. Even in the midst of an urban sprawl, there are always scents and subtle sounds to notice.
“Most people still don’t know the essence of meditation practice,” writes revered Thai adept Ajahn Chah. “They thinking that walking meditation, sitting meditation, and listening to Dhamma talks are the practice. That’s true too, but these are only outer forms of practice. The real practice takes place when the mind encounters a sense object.”
We simply notice sensations. There’s nothing fancy about it. When we use our attention in this way, the mind begins to settle down. Thoughts are recognized as mere appearances in consciousness. Emotions are understood as transient. The mind, having been trained, keeps returning to the breath. Sounds like a comfortable flow of life, right?
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Yet our cultural apparatus looms, ready to squash our hard-earned mindfulness. Without some kind of meditation practice – and it needn’t be formal – we revert to groupthink. Without nourishment, any found wisdom withers and dies.
The more we meditate, of course, the more we de-condition the mind from delusional beliefs. But of course we’ll never achieve a clean break – a full mental reset – from our cultural programming. This isn’t realistic.
Here’s where I diverge from Buddhism. “Enlightenment” – the highest plane of existence for a devotee – suggests a state in which all mental hindrances are permanently abolished. It’s too good to be true. In my experience, at least, the idea of achieving mental Nirvana for more than a few moments is laughable. As a result, I’m deeply skeptical of anyone claiming otherwise. Our minds aren’t supposed to be perfect.
This doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t be improved. There’s always something to notice. If we can remember this throughout the day, our lives will take on a new quality.
As Zen philosopher Alan Watts once wrote, “There is no rule but ‘Look!’”
Campbell, Robin. Seneca: Letters from a Stoic. Middlesex: Penguin, 1969. Print.
Phōthiyānathēra, Phra. Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002. Print.
Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York: Pantheon, 1951. Print.