The Meditation Paradox
Meditation (or “mindfulness,” which though interchanged indiscriminately, is not the same thing) is one of those ‘chic’ topics of current fashion; everyone is talking or writing about it. If you look up ‘meditation’ on Google’s search engine, it brings forth 155 million results! In France alone, where Buddhism is the fourth largest religion (after Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), there are over 200 Buddhist meditation centres. In addition, there are a huge number of mindfulness teachers connected to yoga centres and health spas, as well as an endless stream of Buddhism related books published from the more traditional monastic and academic arenas.
The mindfulness mantra of the modern world is very seductive. Like many non-pharmaceutical based ‘alternative therapies,’ it promises a path to happiness, a “fix” for all the problems and pains we’ve suffered for years. It gives us hope for a better life!
The benefits of meditation has been known to yogis, mystics and teachers for thousands of years. Translated into today’s world, some of these benefits include relaxation, reduced stress, improved focus and concentration, self-awareness, appreciation for life, a healthier body, connection to our environment, better sleep, and so on. Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, has even proved that 8 weeks of meditating for an average 30 minutes a day actually changes the structure of our brain.
Yet in spite of all the knowledge and wisdom that’s available on how and why meditation works, somehow, in our gadget oriented, complex technology era, the idea of sitting and concentrating on the breath for half an hour a day, seems too simple, just too good to be true. As we do with everything else in our capitalist society, we want to make meditating a commodity, a process we can consume so that we can achieve ‘success.’
Being a practitioner of meditation, however, cannot be approached in the same way we currently approach our education. The Masters Certificate we receive at university or engineering school is seen as a magic ticket to being an expert for life, with the expectation of a great job, career success, and constant promotion until retirement.
When we sit and meditate, there are no achievements or accolades to strive for. What we must do instead, is to sit and be with ourselves. Simple as it sounds, to really be with our-self (without a funky executive label, CEO title, doctorate, character endorsements…and whatever else stokes your ego) involves effort. When we become aware of our breathing and posture, our emotions and thoughts, our motivations and fears, we realise that there is nowhere to run to and nowhere to run from. What we have is our experience of this life, here and now, and the work is to return back to our centre, to the ground of our basic goodness. In this moment, we have to choose who we want to be, and like building any skill, the real work is in the repetition of effort. We have to sit on the cushion every day and do the effort.
Having meditated for over twenty years, what I know of my own experience is how much easier it is to feel compassion for another person when I accept my own uncertainties about life? I can observe in others the nervousness and constant watching out for threats, just the way birds do when they land in the garden to pick at the food on the ground. I can relate to the uncertainty. And as I keep listening, I can begin to hear how much softer my own voice sounds when I am having a conversation with someone, because I can feel the gentleness of my intention.
Denis Wallez, a Buddhist teacher and philosopher, who gave the talk at WPNG on 10th November, used the brilliant example of a bottle of water. The label can tell you everything you want to know about the water – where it comes from, its nutritional composition, mineral constituents, standards and quality of purity, etc. – and, at the end of the day, only by “drinking” it can you experience its effect in your body.
In the same way, no matter how technically adept and enthusiastically a master meditation teacher is able to communicate his knowledge about how to meditate (so that you can accept and release the past, be a more tolerant and compassionate person, improve the quality of your relationship with everyone in your life beyond your imagination), he cannot make you drink the nectar. That act of will and consistency and discipline is enacted by you alone…because only you have the power to decide who you are, who you want to be and what you want to do with your life.
Further Information: Denis Wallez runs meditation retreats in English and French at Dharma House, near Lyon.