I’m not a spiritual person. Never have been. I’m not calm, I don’t take life in stride. I find it hard to start new things and hard to stop things I’m doing, or to say goodbye. Although I can love specific people fiercely, I can’t truly say my heart is full of loving kindness for all mankind. While I tolerate a lot, when the worm finally turns, it turns. And like an elephant I never forget.
That’s not to say I’m proud of these qualities. I’ve always wished it weren’t so. Unfortunately, that’s the self I’ve got, despite the wishful thinking. (Definitely Type A, and medicated for hypertension since the age of 43.) But I have tried to change. I first signed up for eight sessions of meditation at the local Y at a time when I was much younger, living modestly in Manhattan with two small children in grade school. I thought it might quiet me, make me nicer and better. I even thought I was going great guns in that class. (Probably an inappropriate metaphor for a would-be meditator, but you know what I mean.) Then during comment period afterwards, I put up my hand and asked the leader if it was supposed to feel almost like an orgasm in the head because that’s how I had felt a couple of times — and everyone laughed. There went any sense of progress. (Not to mention those kinds of feelings.)
Subsequently, I occasionally bought a small book on the subject and read it on the toilet (because small books lend themselves to short reading periods), but never found the time or inspiration to pursue the subject more deeply after leaving the bathroom. Until Bill came into my life. Bill had spent several unhappy years between wives seeking peace and wisdom at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, where he had sometimes fallen asleep during exceptionally long meditations but also did enough of the shorter ones to know he wasn’t very good at it although he admired those who were. (He has, like me, a mind like an unruly horse.)
However, after the first flush of geriatric passion had somewhat ebbed for us, we did try meditating side by side in our living room for several weeks, an electric timer letting us know the moment of release. Then we discovered Netflix, a more meretricious method of passing the past-prandial hours, but much easier. Also with Netflix we could hold hands.
Let me cut to the chase. Last spring we joined a neighborhood Community Without Walls, thinking we perhaps needed to connect with some real people other than each other. Half a year later, I was eventually invited to a session of dreaming up group activities that weren’t just eating together, sing-alongs, scrabble and going to movies. Out of the vasty deeps within my aging self a question bubbled up: How about meditation?
And thus it was that I am, at least for now, the facilitator of a group of, so far, four ladies plus a married couple who are willing to meditate together once a week in my living room. (Bill has promised to join us and not fall asleep, but didn’t want to come to the first meeting till he heard who was there. Is that frivolous, or what?). One of the guests has assured us there is more power when people meditate together.
What do I know about meditation that enables me to “facilitate” these sessions? Enough to buy a very good app for my i-Phone of six twenty-minute meditations led by Jack Kornfield, one of the co-founders of the Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge where Bill used to doze between bouts of would-be mindfulness. After preliminary who-are-you-and-what-are-you-hoping-for chat at the initial meeting, I played the first one — a mindfulness meditation for beginners — and it was a success! Everyone wants to do it at least once more next time, before we move on to the second meditation on the app.
But next time, I’m going to begin by reading something aloud before I press “play” on the mindfulness meditation again. It’s an excerpt from one of Kornfield’s books included for reading on the same app, and it’s so good I’m going to copy out most of it it here. It may be my age that makes me at last receptive to these words, because only when you’re getting old do you, perhaps reluctantly, recognize the truth in them. However, everyone in my living room will be as old, or nearly as old as I am, so that won’t be a problem. If you’re a relative youngster, you may want to go away until I post something more amusing. On the other hand, the Kornfield excerpt is a great answer to the question at the top of this post. It also presents a great project to tackle before, ah, time runs out. Are you up for it?
by Jack Kornfield
Here is a story told about the Buddha shortly after he was enlightened. As he was walking down the dusty road he met a traveler who saw him as a handsome yogi exuding a remarkable energy. The traveler asked him, “You seem very special. What are you? Are you some kind of an angel? You seem inhuman.” “No,” he said. “Well, are you some kind of god then?” “No,” he said. “Well, are you some kind of wizard or magician?” “No,” he replied. “Well, are you a man?” “No.” “Then what are you?” At this the Buddha answered, “I am awake.” In those three words — “I am awake” — he gave the whole of Buddhist teachings. The word “buddha” means one who is awake. To be a buddha is to be one who has awakened to the nature of life and death, and who has awakened and freed one’s compassion in the midst of this world.
The practice of meditation does not ask us to become a Buddhist or a meditator or a spiritual person. It invites us to fulfill the capacity we each have as humans to awaken. The skill of becoming more mindful, and more present, and more compassionate, and more awake is something we may learn sitting on a meditation cushion, but this capacity for awareness helps in computer programming, playing tennis, lovemaking, or walking by the ocean and listening to life around you. In fact, to awaken, to be really present, is the central art in all other arts.
What is that which we can awaken to? We awaken to what Buddhists call the dharma. Dharma is the Sanskrit and Pali word that refers to the universal truths: to the laws of the universe and the teachings that describe it. In this sense, finding the dharma is quite immediate. It is the wisdom that is always present to be discovered.
It is different than waiting for God to come down to us in a cloud of glory, or a big spiritual enlightenment, or a wonderful, otherworldly experience. The dharma of wisdom, what we can awaken to, is the truth that is right where we are when we let go of fantasies and memories and come into the reality of the present. When we do that and pay careful attention, we start to see the characteristics of the dharma in the very life in which we live.
One of the first characteristics of the dharma that shows itself in meditation is impermanence and uncertainty. “Thus shall you think of this fleeting world,” it says in one Buddhist sutra. “A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, an echo, a rainbow, a phantom, and a dream.” The more quietly you sit, the more closely you observe, the more you realize that everything you can see is in a state of change. Ordinarily, everything we experience seems solid, including our personality, the world around us, our emotions, and the thoughts in our mind. It is like watching a movie; we can get so caught up in the story until it seems real, even though it is actually made of light flickering on a screen. And yet if you focus very carefully on what you are seeing, it is possible to see that the film is actually a series of still pictures, one frame after another. One appears, and then there is a slight gap, and then the next one appears.
The same thing is happening in our lives. Because that is so: nothing in our lives lasts or stays the same for very long. You do not have to be a very adept meditator to see that everything is changing all the time. Have you been able to get any mental states of any kind to last very long? Is there anything in your life that stays the same?
This brings us to dharma’s second law. If we want things that are always changing to stay the same to get attached to them, we get disappointed, we suffer. Not because we should suffer — this is not something created to punish us. It is the very way things are, as basic as gravity. If we get attached to something staying the way it is, it does not stop changing. Trying to hold onto “how it was” will only create suffering and disappointment, because life is a river and everything changes.
So when we start to see the laws of nature — that things are impermanent, that attachment causes pain — we can also sense that there must be some other way. And there is. It is the way that can be called “the wisdom of insecurity.” This is the ability to flow with the changes, to see everything as a process of change, to relax with uncertainty. Meditation teaches us how to let go, how to stay centered in the midst of change. Once we see that everything is impermanent and ungraspable and that we create a huge amount of suffering if we are attached to things staying the same, we realize that relaxing and letting go is a wiser way to live. We realize that gain and loss, praise and blame, pain and pleasure are part of the dance of life, given to each of us, born into our human body. Letting go does not mean not caring about things. It means caring for them in a flexible and wise way. In meditation, we pay attention to our body with care and respect.
When we ask, “What is the nature of the body?” we can see that it grows up, it grows old, it gets sick sometimes, and it eventually dies. When we sit to meditate, we can directly feel the state of our body, the tensions we carry, the level of tiredness or energy. Sometimes being in our body feels good, and sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it is quiet, and sometimes it is restless. In meditation we sense that we do not actually own our bodies but rather we just inhabit them for a short time, and during that time they will change by themselves, regardless of what we want to happen. The same is true for our mind and heart, with its hopes and fears, the grief and joy. As we continue to meditate, we learn to relate more wisely to what Zorba the Greek called “the whole catastrophe.” Instead of fearing painful experiences and running away from them, or grasping after pleasant experiences hoping that somehow by holding onto them they will last, we come to realize our heart has the capacity to be present for it all, to live more fully and freely where we are. When we realize that everything passes away, not only the good things but the painful things as well, we find a composure in their midst.
….You can learn that you do not have to fear that which is painful and you do not have to grasp for that which is pleasant. We have often been conditioned to believe this way, but as we meditate, it quickly becomes apparent that grasping for what is pleasant or fearing things that cause us pain does not lead to peace, and it does not lead to happiness. The truth is that things change whether we want them to or not. Becoming attached to things as they are or pushing things away that we do not like does not stop them from changing. It only leads to further suffering.
Instead, in meditation we discover a natural, open-hearted, and non-judgmental awareness of our bodies and our feelings. We can gradually bring this kind and open awareness to witness all that’s in our minds. We learn to see and trust the law of impermanence — this means we begin to see the world as it is really is. In the midst of it all, we begin to see how we can relate to all of it with compassion, kindness, and wisdom.