Monday, July 25, 2011


As a student wrote: If one is trying to do something really well, one becomes, first of all, interested in it, and later absorbed in it, which means that one forgets oneself in concentration on what one is doing. But when one forgets oneself, one ceases to exist, since oneself is the only thing which causes oneself to exist. Christmas Humphreys, Concentration and Meditation

E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "How difficult was it for you to begin the practice of meditation? Is this something one can learn on their own or does it require a teacher and community? Can one be a Buddhist without practicing meditation?  Is meditation a key to unlocking a door?  If so, what's on the other side of the door?"

 I first sat in meditation, a version of vipassana (also called "insight meditation"), which the Buddha taught in the Mahasatipatthana Sutra, when I was 14-years-old. It wasn't difficult at all. Perhaps this was so because as a teenager I was so obsessed with art and drawing, which involves concentration (dharana), the first stage in formal meditation (dhyana). 
That first formal sitting was the most peaceful and renewing 30 minutes I'd every known, an experience that radically slowed down my sense of time and cleared away the background noise always at the edge of my consciousness. My mind, from surface to seabed, was suddenly quieted. I was seeing without judgment. Without judgment, there were no distinctions. Without distinctions, there was no desire. Without desire, there was only clarity and compassion. After meditation, I was suddenly no longer squandering my energy and consciousness by worrying about things in the past that could not be recovered or changed, nor was I pre-living in a future that would never come. Rather, all my attention rested peacefully in the present moment, a total immersion in the here and now very similar to the state of self-forgetting artists know well from focused moments of creation. 
To my astonishment, I felt capable of infinite patience with and empathy for my parents, teachers and friends. Within me, I detected not the slightest trace of fear or anger or anxiety about anything. Nor was I conscious of myself, only of what was in my field of awareness, and that, of course, was indeed an unusual event in the life of a 14-year-old American boy in 1962.

As Eknath Easwaran said often, most of us usually invest no more than thirty percent of ourselves in the here and now. Where is the rest? Well, around thirty percent is wasted by dwelling on the past, on our habit of replaying experiences long gone, which we cannot change, and thinking, "I woulda coulda shoulda." Another thirty percent is frittered away by dwelling on a future that always recedes like the horizon. Remember how Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution determined that slaves would count as three-fifths of a person? Ironically, at any moment in Samsara (another form of slavery) we tend to live with only one-third of our lives in the present moment, and at a fraction of our full capabilities. Try, if you can, to focus on your breath and nothing else for five minutes. I doubt you can do this. After a few seconds the labile mind will wander from following the breath to memories, projections for future plans, thoughts, reveries and the entire "mental panorama" that leaves only thirty percent of our lives in the present moment.
 Put simply, we seldom live 100 percent in the present. Vivekananda describes this state of mind beautifully with his metaphor of the drunken monkey:
"There was a monkey, restless by its own nature, as all monkeys are. As if that were not enough, someone made him drink freely of wine, so that the monkey became still more restless. Then a scorpion stung him. When a man is stung by a scorpion, he jumps about for a whole day; so the poor monkey found his condition worse than ever. To complete his misery a demon entered into him. What language can describe the uncontrollable restlessness of that monkey? The human mind is like that monkey, incessantly active by its own nature; then it becomes drunk with the wine of desire, thus increasing its turbulence. After desire takes possession comes the sting of the scorpion of jealousy of the success of others, and last of all the demon of pride enters the mind, making it think itself of all importance. How hard to control such a mind."

But the operations of the mind, through the practice of meditation, can be---and should be---mastered. For this reason, I have long believed that meditation practice should be taught from K-12, and especially when young people reach that tempestuous stage known as puberty. As educators, we try to fill their heads with intellectual content, but we never give them the means for controlling the instrument---the mind---that is taking in that content. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
 In 2010, researchers at the University of Cambridge took 155 boys from two schools in the UK, and put them on a crash course in mindfulness training. After the trial period, the 14- and 15-year-old boys were “found to have increased well-being, defined as the combination of feeling good (including positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, interest and affection) and functioning well.”  The researcher behind this project, Professor Felicia Huppert, said, “We believe that the effects of mindfulness training can enhance well-being in a number of ways. ..calming the mind and observing experiences with curiosity and acceptance not only reduces stress but helps with attention control and emotion regulation---skills which are valuable both inside and outside the classroom.”

          And what is on the other side of the "door" of meditation?

 The answer is peace, skillfulness, and compassion. Meditation, specifically vipassana, has also proven itself to be affective at the William G. Donaldson Correction Facility, an overcrowded prison in Alabama. There, one third of the 1500 inmates convicted of murder, sex offenses and robbery are on Death Row, or serving sentences of life without parole. The inmates at this facility were the subject of a 2007 documentary called The Dhamma Brothers, and what they have done has become a model for other prisons. In 2002, 40 inmates met four times a year in the prison gym for an intense 10-day course in mindfulness training. Dr. Ronald Cavanaugh, the prison’s treatment director, reported that after this experience, “the inmates are less angry, better able to conduct themselves, they’re more mindful of themselves and others, and overall there has been a 20% reduction of disciplinary action for those who have completed the course.”

 As I said in my July 15th post, where I described my meeting with a Buddhist abbot in Thailand, not all Buddhists meditate. There are, of course, many techniques and approaches to meditation, from chanting like Soka Gakkai practitioners to meditation "with seed" (spiritual content intended to change or improve aspects of ourselves, such as metta or "lovingkindness" meditations for opening up our hearts to others) and "without seed" (I see most Zen meditation to be in this category). As the abbot in Thailand said, it is a bridge, a tool, and not something we should cling to when it has served its purpose. But, personally, for the last three decades I've never left my house to do a speaking engagement or an important public event in the social world (or even a radio interview at my house) until after I've sat in formal meditation. I do this because I feel I owe it to myself and others to be fully present when I am with them, which means getting my "self" out of the way and giving them 100 percent of my best thought, best feeling, and best awareness of the unique, unrepeatable moment we are sharing in our journey through life.

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