meditation

The Big Questions—Part II: The Supreme Skill

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If you read part I and found yourself on the edge of your proverbial (or literal, in this case) seat, your mind abuzz with visions of self-help marketing packages and Limitless drug cocktails that will rocket you into the state of mind of ScarJo’s Lucy, you’re probably rolling your eyes at the mere mention of meditation. It has, after all, popped up in everything from martial arts parodies to New Age seminars, and you probably know a handful of people who mediate but are light years away from “enlightened.” If meditation were such a miracle cure to the human dilemmas of rage, selfishness, and narcissism, shouldn’t humanity have sorted its nonsense out by now? Well, maybe. There are a multitude of reasons people might bristle at the suggestion of meditation, and I hope to offer a few counterarguments to these reasons that may not have been brought up in more mainstream channels.

Meditation is not a specific pose, nor an exercise, nor a thing to be done. At its core, meditation is a state of being. It’s complete surrender to the world around you, and, in turn, a sense of radical acceptance of any cause and condition that impacts you. But how does it change anything, one might ask. Consider this: Most of us can readily agree that a person in the middle of a meltdown is not at their logical, compassionate peak. What’s the polar opposite of that, then?

Meditation.

A state in which the world can be processed and responded to without the veils of anger, fear, or personal gain is, by most accounts (my own included), the optimal state for a human being. We may not be able to sit cross-legged and meditate while running for a morning bus, but consistent meditation will make you less likely to scream at a stranger or pollute your head with bitter thoughts for the rest of the day, should you miss that morning bus.

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As I mentioned in the first part of this series, we operate in a realm of manufactured reality, and part of that reality is a treadmill of fear and longing that has propelled the human organism to great heights—but at what cost? Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication is being prescribed at unprecedented rates. Substance abuse is similarly peaking. Worldwide self-reported happiness is substantially lower than we might expect from people living in modern, relatively peaceful societies. Industrialized nations, on average, have the same—or even lower—general satisfaction than pre-industrial ones. Believe it or not (it will be mind-exploding, I’m sure), marketing and global economics do not care about making you happy. They care about making you think you will be content if you can JUST have that new iPhone, that new BMW, that new lamp with polka dots and WiFi speakers.

But you won’t be. And you’re not the one taking a paycheck home for the sale of these things.

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I humbly submit, then, that the answer to our happiness is entirely internal. It has nothing to do with this treadmill of wanting, getting, and becoming bored once again. Once sufficiently explored, I’m certain that every human can agree on one thing: Happiness is real, and happiness is available at all times, regardless of causes and conditions. The real cure to unhappiness is nothing sexy or marketable, however, and the modern world has made it more distant than ever. Good thing we have a time-honored, free, and simple vessel for scouring this inner landscape.

We might say it’s as old as humanity itself.

Across the Ages

There have been countless cultures that utilized meditation as a tool for making sense of the world, and, perhaps more abstractly, for making sense of themselves. Which is not to say that they reached the end of the mystery, of course. Even today, with all of our advancements in science and philosophy, we have no idea why consciousness exists at all. (I urge you to look into the Hard Problem of Consciouness if you find this as fascinating as I do). It’s sobering to think that something so basic and immediate has been overlooked since the dawn of sentient life, and in modern times, has even been pushed aside as a distraction or nuisance. Think of how many people, casually or otherwise, make references to suicide, or to sleeping for the rest of their existence? Consciousness has become a burden to vast numbers of people, it seems.

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But for much of human history, consciousness was treated as an essential part of living and knowing the world. In fact, it is our only way of knowing the world. One might say that the greatest outgrowths of humanity have stemmed from being self-aware. For example, religion (love it or leave it) was intrinsically partnered with consciousness because of the sheer magnitude of awe that accompanies realizing that a being, which appears to be no more than a bundle of neurons and flesh, can taste and smell and hear and love things. How can anybody suitably explain this discrepancy between sentient and non-sentient things? I certainly can’t. Not on a meaningful, philosophical level, anyway. There have been various materialist arguments that aim to discuss the functions and mechanisms of consciousness, but ultimately, nothing satisfactory has been put forth to explain why consciousness (and, in turn, self-awareness) exists. This makes it one of the true “final frontiers,” in my eyes.

It goes without saying that meditation was, and still is, a crucial component in the exploration of consciousness. Once one plants a seed of mindfulness in themselves, there’s no going back. Every moment becomes a chance to notice when one has fallen asleep. Many of our modern religious traditions reflect this. For example, most religions look down on excessive drinking, having wild orgies, and killing other beings. The intent of these practices was not to “strip the fun” out of living, but to provide a more grounded, detached view of the world, which was more concerned with reality than chasing fleeting pleasures.

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We seem to have forgotten that over the eras, and as a result, religion has been cast aside (meditation typically included) as an artifact of older, more superstitious days. I would argue that such tenets do have a place in modern life, however, regardless of your belief in the afterlife or deities.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all make heavy use of prayer, which is one of the more explicit meditative traditions still out there. Many Christian mystics (and gnostics) relied on prayer that is eerily similar to Buddhist and Hindu meditation practices, with the intention of dissolving the personal identity and communing with God. I’ll come back to this in part III, but keep it in your mind for now—it’s essential to understanding why meditation is so transcendental at times.

In Buddhism and Hinduism, of course, there’s a great debate over the existence of souls, universal consciousness, and other ideas. But both traditions have a long and rich history of using meditation to reach deeper and clearer states of consciousness. They both assert that at the core of every sentient being, there is bliss that extends beyond the crudeness of violence or greed.

Likewise, many shamanic traditions and pagan practices aimed to foster a sense of “ecstasy” (that is to say, stepping outside the body) through the use of entheogens (hallucinogens), rituals, and chanting. The latter two practices aimed to reduce the mind’s mental chatter, while the former was aimed at radically altering consciousness for a new (and subjectively mystical) experience.

But what are they all digging at?

“The Moon”

There’s a curious expression that is often cited as being spoken by the Buddha, but which I suspect has far more modern origins (a bit of casual Googling links it to a 2002 book). It goes something like “Do not look at the finger pointing at the moon; look at the moon itself.” There are several Buddhist suttas with close enough messages, however, so I think we can work with it as an anachronistic example.

In essence, the idea is that the methods, words, experiences, and various traditions surrounding the “truth” at the core of meditation are all fingers pointing to something beyond your wildest dreams. This essential truth is the moon itself, but nobody can take you to it—they can only show you it. That’s why the Buddha was so cautious about asserting dogma to his followers. He basically asked them to follow his instructions and see if they worked. Gautama Buddha’s “crowdsourced” enlightenment model was a smashing success, judging by the way it has endured through modern times.

Instead of taking my word for why meditation is life-changing, try it yourself.

Dissolving Yourself

Here’s a secret that poses a threat to the majority of the world’s systems: You do not exist. Not as you might conceive yourself to exist, anyway. Much like the Oracle showing Neo the “nonexistent spoon,” a human being (as we know them) is not a thing at all, but something we have mentally assembled into a contiguous person. Think about it logically. Our ideas, habits, preferences, and thoughts change all the time. Our very cells are replaced on a daily basis. When we’re excited we’re one way, and when we’re calm, quite another.

So while we may look in the mirror and see ourselves, what we’re seeing is a process of change that has come together to form the image of “you.” There’s an incredible quote from the Qur’an that has been translated in various ways, but boils down to this:

“You are like a mirage in the desert, which the thirsty man thinks is water; but when he comes up to it he finds it is nothing. And where he thought it was, there he finds God.”

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Meditation is a process of stripping away the illusions and habits that tether us to believing that we are our personality, our beliefs, or even our ideas. I’m not claiming that humans are not a real thing—in fact, I think the inner core of a sentient being is more real and alive than we understand. What I do claim is that our sense of self, or ego, is a clever trick that we rarely see beyond. The question that arises, then, is what remains when we strip away that illusory self.

Is it God? Is it an alien? Is it consciousness itself?

It’s part III.

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