Why Meditate?

Emptying the mind of thoughts; concentrating on just one thing.

The Buddha didn’t say this. It’s a contemporary definition of meditation; how most people conceive of it.

It certainly has a ring to it. When I sat on my bed fifty-odd years ago and tried meditation for the first time, I wanted to forget humdrum thoughts and drift off into the universe. Being young and rather stupid, I didn’t realize I was already in it.

Later on, emptying the mind became more imperative. The more I tried to figure myself out, the more I got entangled in my own thoughts. The mental chatter drove me nuts. That’s when I started looking for some serious training. I needed to believe just one thing: that the mind could be emptied.

Can the mind really be emptied of thoughts?

I had no experience to go on, no hard facts. I believed it because I wanted it to be true. I think that’s true for most people, why it’s still such a popular idea.

The Buddha claimed that his path brought an end to the effluences (āsava). He never said anything about stopping thought. To achieve this dubious goal, many people (myself included) have retreated from everyday life to focus on focusing. It’s a difficult experience that delivers some wonderful moments, but its contingency is never more apparent than the day you return to the world. When I realized that my hard-earned detachment, concentration and clarity depended on an artificially minimal environment and an unsocial lifestyle, and that leaving that environment returned me quickly to the busy mind, I finally questioned my premise. Could the mind really be emptied of thoughts? More upsetting still was this question: even if it could, what was the point?

The meat and potatoes of life lie in how we act and how we see

The great attraction of mindfulness is the idea of dwelling in the present moment. Anyone who tries it soon admits they can’t sustain more than a few moments at a time, and yet that’s okay. The effort has its rewards: a relative slowing down, greater comfort in our own skins, a more thoughtful stress response. Just attempting to do it helps.

This is the clincher. We don’t meditate to think less, but to think better. The mindless version of mindfulness may inflame our imagination, but what sustains us is considerably less sensational.

Talk of emptiness, non-duality, non-discursive awareness and enlightenment might spur us on, but it’s just abstraction. The meat and potatoes of life lie in how we act and how we see. The more plainly we do those things, the more human we become; all the more real.

Slowing the mad rush of thoughts is a great idea because it enables us to think critically (yoniso manasikāra) — to process all that data we’re being mindful of. That means neither emptying the mind nor taking off on flights of philosophical fancy, just using your wits to keep things in perspective.

That’s why we meditate.


How Meditation Improves Relationships

I was talking to a friend this week about my upcoming workshop on relationships. He went silent for a moment, looked me in the eye, and asked, “What the f*** do you know about relationships?” He didn’t stick around for an answer, but I thought it was a good question anyway.

The full question is: How (the hell) has my training as a Buddhist monk and a lifetime of mindfulness meditation improved my relationships?

If you think of meditation as just a way to clue out, it’s hard to see how it can help anything. Mindfulness meditation, however, is anything but. Rather than trying to escape the ickyness of difficult relationships, the goal is to listen and learn. The twist is that we’re listening not just to the other person, but also to ourselves. It’s not uncommon for our inner dialogue to say one thing and our behavior to say another.

Two people shouting at each other hear nothing

The most complicated thing we do in life is to interact with people. To create good business relationships, make friends and be loved we need to suppress knee-jerk reactions in order to establish trust and avoid trouble. We also need to be honest and not fake. We practice this and get better at this balancing act, but it’s an ongoing process; we never get it perfect.

Sometimes it’s hard to be entirely honest about underlying feelings even with ourselves. We have the ability to put a face on anything, and tend to use it as a matter of convenience. That’s when relationships grow strained. The way my friend spoke to me the other day upset and baffled me. I tried to answer his question literally, to explain what I’d learned about relationships, but he only became more incredulous. If I’d been listening to myself I would have realized that I was being defensive. If I’d really been listening to him I would have realized that the question had nothing to do with what I know or don’t know. It wasn’t even really a question. He was expressing a frustration or bias of his own.

The ability to separate our reactivity from our thoughts can be bad, but it can also be good

There’s so much nonsense spoken about forming perfect relationships, finding your soul mate and exercising power over others. However, the very existence of that conversation means it’s an issue.

Two people shouting at each other hear nothing. It’s a pointless exercise, yet some people don’t just do it sometimes, they do it routinely with colleagues, friends and family. All relationships take on habitual patterns; sometimes those patterns are dysfunctional, even toxic. Returning again and again to conflicted relationships and strained silence is a strange comfort zone that no other animal on the planet would likely put up with. We humans are a strange lot.

That strangeness lies in the ability to separate our reactivity from our thoughts. It can be bad, but it can also be good. We can modify our behavior, though whether get it right or not depends on the role models we grew up with, the effort we put into improving ourselves and the wisdom we bring to it. Mindfulness meditation is a threefold approach to behavior modification, using ethics, intelligence and concentration. The goal is to become less reactive and to act more thoughtfully. That’s not just good for relationships, it opens up an entirely new way of relating to ourselves and to life.

Meditation is No Escape

Buddha talked occasionally about meditative states (jhāna), but he was clearly more interested in bhāvanā, or ‘cultivation:’ literally, cultivating yourself as a moral person. Bhāvanā is about how you relate to all experience, not just sitting quietly. It’s about how you see yourself and how you consequently relate to others.

That isn’t to say that formal sitting meditation is a waste of time. The quiet room and prepared space put you in the mood. The lack of distraction helps you focus, though as every frustrated meditator knows, you don’t necessarily focus on the right things. Once you give the mind all that space it tends to take off on its own.

Meditation is not about calming down and feeling good;
it’s about watching out and growing up

That’s when people declare that they can’t meditate, not realizing that it’s a natural feature of the human mind and that they’re already doing it; it’s just not what they expected. We naturally mull over our experience and try to grasp what’s happening but when we spend too much time thinking about how we’d like to be, we forget to pay attention to the way we are, and end up judging rather than helping ourselves. Meditation is not about calming down and feeling good, it’s about watching out and growing up. Here’s an example:

I was walking the other day through grey rain, under a grey sky. The rising mist met the falling cloud as I plodded along one foot after the other, steady as an animal. In that moment I saw myself as exactly that: a temporary presence on the face of the planet. My heart sank. I felt myself resisting the gloom, wanting the day to be sunny, my heart to be cheered. I invested my attention in that wanting, cultivating my own gloom.

Whether I tug myself away from the gloom or towards the
light the problem is the tugging, not the direction

Then I saw through it to the bawling baby I once was, unhappy with how things are. I almost identified with him but pulled back, realizing that whether I tug myself away from the gloom or towards the light the problem is the tugging, not the direction. Instead of opening myself to life’s fragile contingency, I obscured my situation and added to my burdens. Reaching out for what we want sometimes answers an immediate need, but it also become a habit that leaves us constantly unfulfilled.

Whether you’re sitting in a quiet room or walking through the woods, the meditative mind recognizes habitual reactivity and steps out of it. In an instant I saw the absurdity of resisting my experience. My eyes opened. I embraced the gloom and returned to my surroundings. There was a smell of must in the air, a rustling in the leaves, a familiar contact with unknown nature, a little dangerous and spine-tingling. I no longer felt comfortable. Instead I felt alive. My heart sank but my senses were acute.

Meditation is not an escape from this world but an intimate contact with it.


The Denial Reflex

Theory will never impact you the way experience does. Mindfulness works because it deals with what’s actually happening, not with ideas about how things are or should be. Putting this into action on a cushion is what I call practice. The next step is to bring it into everyday life, and that’s where mindfulness becomes a reality.

For example, as soon as I woke up this morning I saw Caroline was having a hard time.

“Vertigo,” she said. She hates vertigo. Can’t walk, can’t sit up in bed, can’t stand the light. Can’t work. The first MS attack I saw her go through was vertigo: ten days of it. That’s when I found out that physical symptoms are only half of the MS story. You never know how long they’ll last. A day, a week…might be for good. It’s horrible, but it keeps you focused.


I heard it in her voice, the sense of the unknown. Now what? How long?

ethics that don’t translate into behavior are worthless

Since I’ve been with her I’ve faced stuff I’d probably have avoided if I’d had the choice. For one, I never paid attention to the way I — like most healthy people — regarded chronically ill people. Those who meet Caroline for the first time often say, “Oh, I knew someone with MS,” On two occasions they’ve blundered on, “Yeah…she died!” They even laughed, or tried to.

They weren’t malicious, just scared stupid. Fear shuts down sensitivity, and civility goes out the window.

Caroline and I saw this big time when we visited the Boston Aquarium and she decided to use a wheelchair. Discomforted by the sight of an invalid, just about everyone avoided eye contact and pointed their backsides in her face.

I try to understand behaviour like this by looking into myself. On the surface we’re different, but underneath we’re all guided by the same primal drives. I had to admit, I too had been insensitive in similar situations, instinctively turning away from someone in a wheelchair. Why? Guilt, discomfort — or, if I was truly honest with myself, horror. Weakness and disease await us all; it’s just a matter of time. Some instinct tells us we’re better off ignoring this truth. Watch out for instincts.

if life weren’t such a bitch we wouldn’t
spend it trying to justify our existence

Facing the ugly stuff may not be pleasant, but nothing is more liberating. If my self-image as a philosophically compassionate and caring man involves denial of my insensitivity, what use is it? Ethics that don’t translate into behaviour are worthless.

Now when I see someone in a wheelchair, I make eye contact; I smile. I’ve developed an inner eye for that ugly side: the denial reflex. I know myself better now; when I’m not who I want to be, or think I should be, I face it.

Living with Caroline has honed my listening skills. It’s taught me that helping out is an art: it takes practice. It’s much easier to take over, and much less compassionate.

Life is a paradox, sometimes a bitch. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t spend it trying to justify our existence. Our only option is to approach it as a moving target. Who knows what’ll happen tomorrow; or even if we’ll make it that far?

mindfulness is not just
to feel calm and collected

The healthy forget; at least, they try. For Caroline that’s not a choice. I don’t carry her burden, but I do share her sense of the precarious. Living with her is a slow-burning emotional explosion. In facing each day head-on, I’ve tuned into her courage. I see the depth this brings to her work as a life coach.

I sometimes imagine all the fun we’d have if she didn’t have MS. Then I wonder again: what would happen to that special intimacy. It’s deeper than love.

We hope and dream, but fantasies are futile. There’s no cure for MS, not even close. Caroline gets emails from well-wishers all the time offering a ‘new cure.’ She tells them that nobody knows more about their own disease than MS sufferers. It’s a long, slow burn and there’s plenty of time to ponder. Attempts to fix MS may or may not work, but close attention to the present moment, especially to your reactivity, can free you from fantasies and unrealistic expectations. There’s no need to compound the suffering. Anxiety is — of all things — a comfort zone.

This moment is all we have. We too quickly forget that simple truth, though we can scarcely afford to. This is what mindfulness is for: not just to feel calm and collected but to face what we’re trying to avoid.


Mindful, or Mind Empty?

I don’t know what to do with my disappointment. It took me years to accept that Buddhism was not just profound scripture but also an infernal institution. Today, mindfulness has been hijacked by The_Corporation, distilled into twenty-first century opium. Where’s a modern-day subversive supposed to lay his head?

I don’t know what to do with my disappointment. It took me years to accept that Buddhism was not just profound scripture but also an infernal institution. Today, mindfulness has been hijacked by The Corporation, distilled into twenty-first century opium. Where’s a modern-day subversive supposed to lay his head?

Why subversive? Think about it: the Buddha declared everything contingent, unsatisfactory, selfless — and chose homelessness over a life of power and influence. He abandoned his wife and son. He spent the rest of his life begging on the streets. Literally. Even after fulfilling his quest, he stayed away from civilization.

Today, who follows the Buddha into homelessness? Even venerable Asian monks live in nice monasteries. Meanwhile, mindfulness is settling very comfortably into the Googleplex and elsewhere where, as the BBC says, ‘it’s highly beneficial to both businesses and their employees.’

Funny, I thought the point of mindfulness was to see the futility of gain and fame. Evgeny Morozov’s right when he says that CEOs are on a mission to ‘finally reconcile spirituality and capitalism.’ Have your cake. Eat it too. Lovely.

I thought Morozov made his point rather well, but instead of being attacked by rabid capitalists, it was the Buddhists who got upset. He committed the sin of discussing mindfulness as if it were a new fad, not an ancient spiritual practice. God forbid.

Joshua Eaton writes about ‘Gentrifying the dharma: How the 1 percent is hijacking mindfulness.’ Professors Ron Purser and David Forbes protest that ‘Google Misses a Lesson in Wisdom 101.’ When the founders of Google and Facebook recently joined Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner to award prizes for life extension research, British philosopher John Gray asked, ‘Are Sergey Brin And Mark Zuckerberg God-Builders?’

Then there are the activists. Amanda Ream disrupted the Wisdom 2.0 conference while claiming that it presents, ‘evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.’ Sounds like communism to me, but that’s okay; the Dalai Lama’s a self-declared communist and he’s always being fêted at the White House, by democrats and republicans. They don’t take him too seriously.

What exactly is going on?

I’d say, same old. The nineteenth century captains of industry weren’t shy about co-opting the message of Jesus Christ. The Protestant Ethic turned out to be the twentieth century’s dominant ethic. We need our myths too, and what with the decline of religion and the ascent of scientism, the great myth of our time seems to be that we’ve finally broken free of myths.

We’re a passionate, crazed species. What other explanation is
there for continued optimism in the face of our deadly insight?

How anyone can fall for that one I have no idea. If we have no more mythic drives, why do we spend our lives chasing dreams of capitalism and communism, Buddhism and atheism? How come Hollywood’s still in business? We’re human beings. Myth is what we do. Ecclesiastes nailed it two and a half millennia ago, “…vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Mindfulness is not like that, we’re told. It’s ‘being in the present moment,’ no illusions, no judgment, no mental wandering, no disturbance. Full frontal focus.

The way to sell snake oil is to tell people exactly what they want to hear, and I’m disappointed because I practice mindfulness and I teach it, but Morozov’s right: it’s become a fad. Real-world mindfulness reveals that mental stillness, total concentration and stress-free living are fantasies of desperate longing. Mindfulness may involve acceptance of what we can’t change, but it also impels us to engage with what we can. It clarifies our minds, but reveals our demons.

I don’t so much believe that mindfulness should be subversive, revolutionary or seditious. It’s more something I feel. The Middle Way is no wishy-washy compromise; it’s a dangerous tight-rope walk over the abyss of what Giacomo Leopardi calls ‘the emptiness of all things.’ We’re all going to die — remember? All that keeps us on our feet is the irrepressible delight we’re biologically programmed to take in our illusions.

To take those illusions as real dooms us, but without them we’re doomed too. Philosophers have found no satisfactory answer to the question of life’s purpose. Observe human behavior though: our intent is clearly to love and be loved. Hell, that’s even why we go to war. We’re a passionate, crazed species. What other explanation is there for continued optimism in the face of our deadly insight?

We’re on the verge of being too clever. Industrialization has gone digital. Efficiency’s measured in megahertz. Anomie is exponential. We live in times of epic change. All we can foresee is faster change. Are we about to outgrow the illusion that change equals progress, or will it soon be so taken for granted that we forget to question it? Decadence is just around the corner.

If this leaves you at a complete loss, go read Ecclesiastes. It’s only eight pages in my 1870 Spottiswood edition. Don’t be shy: they’re idiots who say you have to believe in a personal creator God to read the bible. This is a creation of the sublime human mind. It reaches through the ages. It grips you like a lover.

Buddhism has lost control of the term ‘mindfulness’

You’ll just have to do with mindfulness what you can. Buddhism has lost control of the term. It drifts through the idiom like a lost balloon, as misunderstood now as Karma™ and Samsara™. Some people will use it to calm down, perhaps even delay heart-attacks. Good for them. Soldiers will use it to steady their aim and be better snipers. It seems perverse, but how did snipers ever become good at what they do, whether or not there was a name for it?

Some of us will still use mindfulness to peer mercilessly into our own delusions. You might say that’s what it’s meant for, but that’s just your opinion. Funny, I used to feel like a deviant when I first came to Buddhism. I feel that way again, now as I distance myself from it.

Most people have no time for this nonsense. They want to get on with their lives. They’ll vigorously deny that living life to the full means questioning everything. Just as everything didn’t change with the arrival of Buddhism, everything’s not lost with its corruption. Life will go on, chaotic as ever, and just as we’ve done since we climbed down from the trees, we’ll continue to believe we’re on the verge of greatness.

Yes, go read Ecclesiastes.

The Importance of Being Mindless

I was in a state of heightened slow motion, sensible to every movement of my body and to the roar of every in-breath and out-breath. I approached the bus stop, acutely alive to the universe of my own body and mind. The sounds of the jungle, wind in the high palms and the crunching of the dust beneath my feet overwhelmed my senses. In this moment of excruciating clarity, I stood outside the monastery gates awaiting the Colombo bus. From the bowels of the earth I felt a vibration that grew into a diesel roar and the screeching halt of the great vehicle in a cloud of dust. I placed one foot on the lower step, transferred my weight, slowly lifted the second and grasped the handrail. With a good-humored sigh, the driver let me climb aboard before pulling away as fast as the ancient motor would allow. I lurched from side to side, trying to follow the movement of my center of gravity, until a sudden swerve threw me conveniently into an empty seat. In the moment before I dropped my head in contemplation I noticed that everybody on the bus was talking, twitching, scratching and getting on and off at extraordinary speed. The passing countryside was a blur.” [The Novice, page 294]

What does it mean to be spiritual?

Thus began my withdrawal from a two-month retreat in Sri Lanka in 1979. It just goes to show that you don’t need drugs to lose touch with the world around you. The simple intention to transcend mundane realities will do the trick.

Unthinking people seek the spirit through disconnection; the thoughtful try to reunite them. Both are preoccupied by the myth of a divided self. Our species seems torn between the spiritual and the material as if they were separate realities, not two sides of one nature.

That doesn’t mean the distinction is meaningless. It’s not good to be too materialistic, and we all like to be in good spirits … but what does it mean to be spiritual?

Today’s cool interpretation is ‘being in the moment.’ This conveniently avoids awkward belief systems and monolithic institutions, enabling modern souls to live spiritually without cultural baggage. When incorporated into a life of ethics, insight and empathy, mindfulness reunites body and mind in ways we can experience immediately. It’s no wonder that in recent years mindfulness has turned from hippy weirdness into a business opportunity.

It suits people who don’t consider themselves spiritual, but it also attracts those who do. In an earlier post I spoke about, “…drifting mindfully around the house like a wraith.” Some people — and I was one — grow unnaturally attached to the heightened awareness of mindfulness. Perhaps that’s ‘spirituality.’

Because of its religious roots, or maybe in reaction to savvy marketing, mindfulness is indiscriminately seen as a a good thing, but it’s not that simple.

A recent brain plasticity study at Georgetown University found that too much attention inhibits implicit learning, which is how we learn without paying particular attention. It’s pretty important. If you had to focus consciously on everything you picked up in life, you wouldn’t get very far. The brain has its own way of acquiring and storing essential information with the least possible effort.

For example, whether or not you formally study grammar, you pick up the rules of your language, more or less; you understand how to use the word ‘I.’ In similar ways we figure out how to ride a bike and use a mouse, when to use sarcasm and when to be sympathetic. Implicit learning has something in common with automaticity, where we learn consciously but at a certain point don’t think about it any more — like handwriting and operating a car. It frees up our attention to focus on what we’re writing or where we’re going.

In other words, we refine our knowledge by taking what we already know for granted. It’s how we get better at things, streamline our work skills and, hopefully, cultivate social graces.

Mindfulness does the opposite; nothing’s taken for granted; everything’s examined — at least in theory. Those who practice it for spiritual reasons tend to judge implicit learning and automaticity as mindless and bad. In fact, they’re mindless and good.

Mindfulness is not an absolute.
It works alongside mindlessness.

This is a real source of confusion for beginning meditators. I’m often asked how to be mindful all the time or, even worse, how to handle the guilt when you can’t. With misconceptions like this, the powerful tool of mindfulness becomes harmful.

So mindfulness takes discrimination. The Buddha, widely credited as its inventor, called it a medicine, and as we all know medicines require caution.

The question that’s too rarely asked is, What’s mindfulness for?

What you do with it is entirely up to you. You might use it to, ‘calm the mind.’ Then, with perseverance, your aim may be to ‘uproot suffering,’ or even to ‘overcome delusion.’ I find it helps separate my emotional motivators from self-serving rationalizations, and ultimately to see mental projections for what they are. For example, I rationalized that my Sri Lankan retreat made me a spiritual person, but what really motivated me was being free of everyday realities. Rather than acknowledging my self-centredness, I projected myself as heroic. It took a while, but I eventually saw through it.

Seeing our motives with immediacy brings a sort of clarity that mere theory and doctrine never will. For this, mindfulness is the tool of choice. However, spontaneity, creativity and flow emerge from the mindlessness of implicit learning and automaticity. Also, in order to be mindful of some things, we have to relinquish our attention to others, and just let them happen.

Mindfulness is not an absolute. It works alongside mindlessness. If you’re stuck on being in the moment just for the peace of it, you’re missing the point.

So take a deep breath and learn to let your mind go. It’s not just okay to be mindless; it’s important.