Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off.
When I was in high school, I spent a few years going to Tae Kwon Do classes. I was never any good. Every time we had sparring practice, I got whooped—that is, unless I accidentally kicked my opponent in the crotch (which I did a lot). But besides the fun of hand-to-hand combat, one thing that kept me coming back was the meditation. After every class, we would spend about ten minutes in a guided meditation. These were not easy. Most often, the master had us holding an uncomfortable or difficult pose, until all my muscles were quivering and shaking and I collapsed.
Sometimes all I felt was pain and struggle; but other times, something would happen. As I listened to the master talk about energy flowing through my body, I could actually feel it. I felt strange forces in my arms and legs, seeming to move through me. This was weird, since I didn’t believe anything the master was saying—at least not in a literal way. I didn’t believe in qi, or energy centers in the body, or any of that stuff; but I felt something, and it was interesting.
This experience left me with a lingering respect for and curiosity about meditation. A book by David D. Burns about anxiety recently reawakened this curiosity. As I read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I kept thinking that it reminded me of what I knew (or thought I knew) about Buddhism. Besides that, Burns himself drew some parallels with Buddhism in his discussions of fear. So I decided to look into it. A Buddhist friend of mine suggested Pema Chödrön as a place to start; and this book, a practical guide to meditation, seemed perfect.
I was surprised by what I found. The type of meditation Chödrön advocates doesn’t involve holding difficult postures or enduring pain. You don’t even have to close your eyes. Instead, you find a spot, sit up straight, cross your legs (or don’t), and stay there, eyes open, breathing in and breathing out. You don’t focus on energy centers or the cosmic flow of qi. Instead, you just try to focus on your breath. You breathe in, breathe out, and try to keep your attention on the present moment.
I have been doing these exercises for a week now, and I can tell you that being present, focusing on the moment, is far more difficult than you’d think. My mind is like a boiling, bubbling cauldron. Memories randomly appear; fearful fantasies flash into being; my to-do list nags me; an itch on my head irritates; my leg’s falling asleep; a sound triggers an association; a smell makes me think of food; and spasms of impatience surge through me as the time wares on.
Meditation certainly hasn’t induced a Zen-like calm in me so far. But it says a lot that now I’m aware of all these things. Just sitting there noticing what happens in my head, and letting it all pass through me, has been tremendously interesting. I realize that my very brain is not totally under my control. Things are always happening in there, constantly, spontaneously, which draw my attention from the moment; and it takes effort not to get sucked in.
One of the things I like most about Chödrön’s approach is its versatility. You can make anything your object of meditation. You can focus on sounds, sights, tactile sensations, or the taste of an apple. You can focus on fear, anger, sadness, joy, on fantasies or memories. Anything in your life can be the object of meditation, as long as you use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the present moment. Meditation gives you the self-awareness—not through conceptual discussion, but first-hand experience—to learn what your mind is doing and how to interrupt your habitual patterns.
What I find especially appealing is the philosophy. Well, perhaps “philosophy” isn’t the right word; it’s more of an attitude or a mindset. Through the attempt to reconnect with the moment, you realize how much of your experience is transformed by the conceptual overlay you put on top of it. Our heads are full of judgments, opinions, beliefs. We are constantly telling stories about our lives, with ourselves as the protagonist.
Have you ever had an experience like this? When I was in college, I accepted a job doing surveys over the phone. But I was extremely nervous about it. I imagined respondent after respondent yelling at me, hanging up on me, and my manager angry at me and chastising me, and me having a breakdown and getting fired. This fantasy was so strong, I almost couldn’t make myself go to my first day of work. But when I finally did make myself go, shivering with fear, and when I finally made myself call, my voice quaking, I realized that I could do it. What seemed impossible in my imagination was easy in reality. In fact, I ended up loving that job.
This is what I like to call the “novelistic imagination.” Your mind is a natural dramatist—at least, mine is—and it can tell the most outrageous stories about your past, present, and future. But the interesting thing, I’ve found, is that we’re actually quite bad at imagining how things will be. We’re good at imagining possibilities—especially worst-case scenarios—but bad at imagining experiences. That’s because, when we use our novelistic imagination, we assume that life is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But life is not a story: it’s a collection of moments. And the present moment is so different, and so much richer, than all the wild fantasies in our minds.
My hunch is that we evolved our novelistic imagination as a way of avoiding danger by running scenarios. “If I go so far away, maybe I won’t be back by sundown, and the hyenas over there might smell me, etc.” The problem is that this gets out of hand, which is why we humans get so many stress-related diseases—not to mention suffer from chronic anxiety. We developed the mental faculty to anticipate danger and avoid it; but we can’t turn it off, so we sense danger everywhere.
This is taking me pretty far from the book (so you know it’s a good book, because it’s making me think). I’ll only add that this book strikes me as an ideal introduction to meditation. Chödrön writes with warmth, humor, and understanding. She is brief and to the point, but you don’t feel that she’s leaving anything out. She is practical, encouraging, and inspiring. I encourage anyone whose curious to try it. You can be a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist like me—it doesn’t matter. Meditation is not about believing certain things. To the contrary: it’s about getting past your beliefs about the world, and experiencing the world itself.