The purpose of meditation is to recognize that the deeper causes and conditions for happiness and well being have far more to do with how your mind is relating to experience, rather than having the right kind of experience. Ultimately, the promise of meditation is to awaken to our true nature and to see clearly what makes us happy and what makes us suffer.
Like most people who immersed themselves in a spiritual practice, I came to the path through suffering. Suffering is how the Sanskrit word dukha is often translated. However, there are various forms of dukha. One common definition is chronic dissatisfaction.
Dukha is not getting what you want; it’s getting what you want but it wasn’t what you expected; it’s getting what you want and enjoying it and then suffering when things change, as they always and inevitably do.
Like many people, I sought happiness in having the right kind of experience. I was very good at pursuing pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, pleasure is great; it’s certainly much better than pain! Through meditation you can begin to see clearly how much of your time is spent in an unconscious state of reactivity, constantly trying to avoid pain and acquire pleasure. Perhaps you will begin to see how much of your efforts are spent orienting your life around trying to always have pleasure and avoid pain (emotionally and physically). Especially in developed countries, we’re very attached to comfort and security.
I also sought happiness through chasing the makers of success that society told me would offer me validation and a sense of self worth. And this was before social media entered the picture. Can you recognize this in your own story at all?
Developed western nations, especially the United States, condition people to believe that their sense of happiness will come from a combination of consumerism and through acquiring outstanding achievements and then having people recognize you as uniquely special for your achievements.
This is part of the package we accept with individualism: when our meaning does not come from being part of a community with an emphasis on relationship and service, it’s all on us to acquire our own sense of self worth. This fuels American innovation and entrepreneurism, which is remarkable and for which I have so much gratitude and respect.
But this is also what fuels this sense of “I’m never enough.”
It’s why so many Americans are obsessed with celebrities and reality TV. It’s why people care so much about where you went to school, where you work, where you live, what car you drive: all of these markers of status are central to the sense of identity that the ego constructs. Of course, when we don’t measure up to society’s standards people resort to all sorts of destructive behaviors, including the serious issue of substance abuse that plagues US society.
In my teens and twenties, I struggled off and on with substance abuse until I moved to Thailand when I was 29 and I started studying Buddhism and practicing yoga and meditation. Psychedelics like LSD also played an important role in helping to end my occasional but very unhealthy use of drugs like cocaine.
These are two really important questions that meditation can help us to answer:
1. What is it that empowers people not merely to survive, but to thrive?
2. How do we actually transform our behaviors and actualize the kind of life that we want to lead?
Meditation invites this change by directing our attention to sensory experience. Through both the practices and the teachings, we begin to understand how much of our life is spent lost in thought and the impact this has on our well being. Perhaps we start to get a small taste that happiness is actually not some elusive place just around the corner, but there’s a different, more reliable sense of contentment that arrives when we subtly believe this moment is enough and we fully embrace whatever is arising here and now.
In Zen, awakening is frequently associated with the word “intimacy,” for to awaken is to become increasingly intimate with the richness of life—with all of its beauty and tragedy.
Meditation makes the mind more open, receptive and flexible. It enables us to become intimate with holding the paradoxes with which life presents us, rather than trying to have everything figured out. The ego rebels against uncertainty and change, against its own vulnerability and inability to control experience, and especially, above all, the truth of its own ultimate demise, and meditation provides a tool by which we can come to accept that.
Awakening as intimacy also invites us to see that both the masculine and feminine ideals of freedom and connection are intrinsic to the nature of mind, when the mind is resting in its own place and not caught in chasing or resisting appearances in the mirror of consciousness, creating the illusion of separation that is at the root of our sense of lack. This misperception is what keeps us spinning around and around in samsara.
Samsara is a mind turned outward; nirvana is a mind resting in its own place.
You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to acknowledge the truth of samsara. Samsara is also the way we keep spinning around in this life, fueled by the same old patterns, attempting to find happiness and love in all of the wrong places. It is a felt sense of endless wandering that leaves us feeling tired and hopeless. It can even descend into nihilism. We suffer further for the ways in which we harm others, out of our own ignorance, desire and pain.
Samsara is a vicious cycle.
For many of us, we need to really bottom out and get tired of our old habits before we’re ready to make a change. Perhaps everything doesn’t happen for a reason, but we can choose to construct meaning from our past in a way that more skillfully facilitates change and enacts a more positive vision for our future.
We come to nirvana by way of samsara.
From this perspective, everything that we receive in this life is an opportunity to awaken. Indeed, it is actually our suffering that serves as the fertile soil for awakening. Without these opportunities, many people remain content to trudge along unfulfilled in life because they did not receive the kind of big shocks that could have spurred them to make meaningful changes they desired deep down.
It doesn’t mean we’re grateful to people who harmed us or for our trauma, but with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps one day you will view much of what you considered to be unwelcome suffering as a form of grace.
Awakening starts to truly unfold when we begin to surrender, when we’ve become exhausted with the search for happiness outside of ourselves. But the paradox is that we need to practice, we have to seek, in order to realize that what we’re truly seeking is the end of seeking.
That’s why there’s a delicate balance between effort and effortlessness that’s very important to how we approach meditation.
Finally, it’s not only about freedom, it’s also about intimacy. We’re social primates. We’re wired for connection. But learning to develop those deeper sources of well being from within through meditation not only brings us to freedom, it’s what also allows us to love ourselves back into wholeness and to love and connect more deeply with others.