There are a fair number of clichés in circulation about meditation. Let me point out right away that meditation is not an attempt to create a blank mind by blocking out thoughts—which is impossible anyway. Nor is it engaging the mind in endless cogitation in an attempt to analyze the past or anticipate the future. Neither is it a simple process of relaxation in which inner conflicts are temporarily suspended in a vague, amorphous state of consciousness. There is not much point in resting in a state of inner bewilderment. There is indeed an element of relaxation in meditation, but it is connected with the relief that comes from letting go of hopes and fears, of attachments and the whims of the ego that never stop feeding our inner conflicts.
Mastery that sets us free
The way we deal with thoughts in meditation is not to block them or feed them indefinitely, but to let them arise and dissolve by themselves in the field of mindfulness. In this way, they do not take over our minds. Beyond that, meditation consists of cultivating a way of being that is not subject to the patterns of habitual thinking. It often begins with analysis and then continues with contemplation and inner transformation. To be free is to be the master of ourselves. It is not a matter of doing whatever comes into our heads, but rather of freeing ourselves from the constraints and afflictions that dominate and obscure our minds. It is a matter of taking our life into our own hands rather than abandoning it to the tendencies created by habit and mental confusion. Instead of letting go of the helm and just allowing the boat to drift wherever the wind blows, freedom means setting a course toward a chosen destination—the destination that we know to be the most desirable for ourselves and others.
The heart of reality
Meditation is not, as some people think, a means of escaping reality. On the contrary, its object is to make us see reality as it is, right in the midst of our experience, to unmask the deep causes of our suffering, and to dispel mental confusion. We develop a kind of understanding that comes from a clearer view of reality. To reach this understanding, we meditate, for example, on the interdependence of all phenomena, on their transitory character, and on the nonexistence of the ego perceived as a solid and independent entity.
There is indeed an element of relaxation in meditation, but it is connected with the relief that comes from letting go of hopes and fears, of attachments and the whims of the ego that never stop feeding our inner conflicts.
Meditations on these themes are based on the experience of generations of meditators who have devoted their lives to observing the automatic, mechanical patterns of thought and the nature of consciousness. They then taught empirical methods for developing mental clarity, alertness, inner freedom, altruistic love, and compassion. However, we cannot merely rely on their words to free ourselves from suffering. We must discover for ourselves the value of the methods these wise people taught and confirm for ourselves the conclusions they reached. This is not purely an intellectual process. Long study of our own experience is needed to rediscover their answers and integrate them into ourselves on a deep level. This process requires determination, enthusiasm, and perseverance. It requires what Shantideva calls “joy in virtuous ways.”
Thus we begin by observing and understanding how thoughts multiply by association with each other and create a whole world of emotions, of joy and suffering. Then we penetrate the screen of thoughts and glimpse the fundamental component of consciousness: the primal cognitive faculty from which all thoughts arise.
ABOUT MATTHIEU RICARD
Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who had a promising career in cellular genetics before leaving France thirty-five years ago to study Buddhism in the Himalayas. He is an author, translator, and has been a participant in scientific research on the effects that meditation has on the brain. Ricard’s work is held high regard in intellectual circles in Europe, and two books he co-authored, The Monk and the Philosopher and The Quantum and the Lotus, are best-sellers in France. He lives in Tibet and Nepal.