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.
Even if you aren’t a believer your feet have faith in the earth your lungs are believers in the air your thirst trusts in the water. We are held, nourished with no effort of our own. What other love gives so freely? This is holiness being crucified by those who once again know not what they do.
“I now see the emotional habits that one has as vipaka-kamma (result of kamma). If I accept whatever emotions come up, let them be in consciousness and then let them out, they will be liberated from their prison. I find this a skilful way of looking at it. Even after years of moral conduct and strict practice, it’s surprising what emotions still come into consciousness. But in terms of practice, whatever comes, you don’t make any problems out of it, you just recognise the opportunity to liberate this wretched creature, or this emotion, from its prison. ~ The attitude is vipaka-kamma, resultant kamma. When the conditions ripen, the result becomes conscious. The things that ripen, that come up into consciousness—just let them be conscious and liberate them by letting them go; let them be what they are, and they will naturally move away. With awareness you’ve opened the doors to the deathless, you’re liberating those wretched conditions from their misery. The doors to the deathless are open—that’s mindfulness. We talk about the doors to the deathless, but it’s not something out there, something remote or hidden. The Buddha pointed to this mindfulness—this is the path to the deathless. ~ You can see that every moment of your life you have this. This is your heritage, your opportunity, and so even if you forget about it or don’t want to do it right now, there will be a point in your life when you will want to do it. Even if you’re not ready for the unconditioned experience, for realisation, you will be at some time. You’ll get fed up with the suffering that you create through ignorance and attachment. ~ This seems to be a time when this kind of teaching is becoming increasingly appreciated. It’s not just through the Buddhist convention, but in many ways. It’s as if this kind of practice is being made available to people, or maybe it’s the time of awakening because of the seemingly unsolvable problems and the mess that we’ve created through our greed, hatred and delusion. The population pressures of this age, the pollution, all the wars and weaponry and the materialism, all this has been done—through what? Through desire, and attachment to desire. So much of our intelligence has been used for creating horrible weapons, smart bombs that aren’t so smart, and the problems of human beings and all planetary creatures at this time on this earth, and yet there is this potential for enlightenment, for realisation. ~ If we contemplate in the terms of just being one human individual at this time, we can see that what we learn through awareness is something very ordinary and unimpressive. It’s not as if we light up with flames shooting out of our heads and we have extravagant experiences. It’s very subtle. No one would ever know. Nothing shows. There’s nothing spectacular about paying attention, this expansive intuitive listening, attentive listening, intuitive awareness. It’s nothing fantastic, nothing to write home about. That’s why it is overlooked, why people don’t notice. They’re looking for something spectacular, some kind of mystical experience where you kind of merge with the ultimate in a union of bliss. It’s what we’d like, isn’t it? ~ Sometimes you have moments like that where you feel as though you’re in union with the ultimate and with nature and with everything, but that kind of feeling becomes a memory and then you want to have it again; you get attached to the memory of it; you’re always looking for something through a memory rather than trusting in the very simple ability we have right now of just paying attention. ~ This is humbling. It isn’t like an achievement that we can exhibit for the world to see. Worldly people think it’s not worth anything. All these ways of trying to get you to meditate often come with promises that you’ll look younger, you’ll be able to make more money, your relationships will improve, you’ll be successful, you’ll be happy, your diseases will be cured. These things sell meditation. We’re promised all kinds of good things as a reward for doing it. It’s not that those things never happen, it’s not that the reverse happens and you become poorer and sicker through meditation, but that isn’t the point. It’s the goodies that often stimulate the desire to meditate. But I’m referring to the ultimate purpose of meditation—the realisation of truth. To many people, if meditation doesn’t promise a lot of the good things, then it’s not worth anything. In terms of realising the way of nonsuffering, however, and a fearlessness that comes through that, then that is what is said to be the highest happiness. To be fearless and to understand the truth is its own reward. You don’t need anything more than that.” ❀❀❀ Ajahn Sumedho — Emotional Habits First published in the August 1999 Buddhism Now [Taken from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati in May 1999.]