One of the purposes of meditation is to understand the mechanics of the mind and how it is conditioned to create suffering. By the act of sitting still and becoming an observer of ourselves, we can create wisdom. We see that we have little control over our thoughts. We can see how our egos create stories to justify our experiences. We can see the difference between pain and displeasure, happiness and sensual enjoyment.
Just like a man who has sat on the bank to dry himself in the sun and then jumps back into the river, when our meditations are done we are re-immersed into the world of samsara. We are pulled and pushed by the currents and eddies. We feel the nip of crawfish at our toes and fish slip by our belly. We feel the fresh coolness of the water feel cold as we eventually fight exhaustion against the flow to find dry land again.
For many, meditation is a place to rest up before swimming again. But it can also be a time to develop wisdom and understanding. With wisdom, we can develop new ways to swim more successfully and fruitfully through the water without worry of what lies beneath the water and with less energy and effort, thereby creating a more enjoyable experience.
Sitting on a bank to rest before running back into the river is unproductive if it just continually leads to fear, exhaustion, and unsatisfactoriness. The same is true for meditation. Crossing legs as we sit on a cushion for 30, 45, 60 minutes may offer us some rest, but unless we can use that time productively, we are doomed to rush back into the river of life and exhaust ourselves again.
So what it is we can learn from meditation?
First we can identify that our thoughts are not our own. If they were, we could have control of them. We could choose when they start and stop. We could choose when we are happy or sad. We could be masters of the world around us.
Out of ignorance, we believe that since the thoughts are inside our head where decisions are made, that they are part of who we are.
In Buddhism, we acknowledge that the mind is a sensory organ like our ears, skin, nose, eyes and tongue. They work continually. When we meditate, we still feel the breeze against our skin. We still hear the rustle of leaves outside. Our minds are still working with the input of data and experience.
One fact is that the more we still ourselves the more observant we become to the more subtle details around us.
Sit in a garden for a minute and you will see flowers in a tranquil quiet place. Sit in that garden for ten minutes and you will see a very busy place of bees and other insects. Sit there for an hour and you will see the shift of the sun and how that effects the movements of all life that is within your experience.
Why should we expect anything else within our mind? Our stillness calms the water until it is still and clear and we can see the subtle impurity that is our conditioned life. Our minds are not MORE still, but more sensitive when we are in meditation.
This sensitivity allows us to be more aware of how our mind works. This ability to analyze our mind is useful, but not practical if we cannot also take this time to be critical in our understanding and practical in our use of this time.
Sitting still on the bank may allow us to see how the river flows and how we always seem to be either being dragged away by it or fighting against it. This knowledge is impractical unless we decide what that means to us.
When we cling to things, we fight against the current. We hold on to a stuck branch and hope that somehow this temporary safety of what is now will remain forever. But nothing remains forever.
Understanding the intellectual reality of impermanence does not stop us from avoiding the truth of impermanence. We still try to pretend we are young for as long as possible. We still refuse to believe that our loved ones (and ourselves) will die. We lament when our favorite shoes see their souls separate from the leather.
We fight and fight against the truth that all things are only temporarily here. We can use our time in meditation to develop a new way of looking. We can use that time to liberate ourselves from the clinging to a static world view where we live life like a photograph that never changes and when it does—it is a bad thing.
Change is the law of life. Not one thing in life remains the same. Not even us.
This is the poison of clinging (greed).
When we cannot hold on and try to stay where we are we then try to brings as much with us as possible. We fill up our pockets and packs with everything we can. We weight ourselves with memories, regrets, and stuff that have no real value, hoping that if we can stay still we can at least bring it with us.
Again, we become exhausted and dragged down by all that junk hoping that it will provide some sense of security and longevity.
But like a camper, we must look carefully at what we carry with us. How much of that stuff in our bags is surplus and how much is really needed? This is also a great value of meditation—see the true value of what we covet.
If fighting the stream is exhausting and fruitless, then perhaps we should avoid the banks and islands and just let go. Avoid all entanglements. Let the currents take us where they will. The question is, if we just let life take us where it wants, do we end up where we desire to be?
Our lives end up being reactions to where the winds and currents take us, expending only enough energy to avoid engaging with the universe around us. This is fear and it is the lifeblood of mara.
How many of our choices are made out of fear: fear of being alone, being in danger, being unhappy, being happy, and even being alive. I have heard people tell me that it is better to be with a man they didn’t love than to be alone. That, to me, is like hearing someone say they would rather eat poison cookies than give up sweets.
Some times we cling to things out of fear, but more often we avoid what needs to be faced.
We need to face unpleasantness and see that unpleasant isn’t pain. Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Being with someone isn’t the same as being happy with someone. Getting older is not the same as becoming irrelevant.
Just as clinging often comes from willful ignorance of what we wish wasn’t, aversion and fear often comes from ignorance of what is. We fear a bully, but we only see that side of the bully that is lashing out in pain. We do not see the full person. We fear the dark because we do not know what is there and so avoid it for safer passage.
There is nothing wrong with that logic, as long as we are aware of why we are making our navigation choices. But our minds abhor a void. We fill darkness with thoughts of creatures and dangers.
There are nights when I am home alone that I find myself in parts of my house I have been in thousands of times before. But the darkness of the room, a pristine smiling dolls face on the shelf and a creaking floorboard will create the worst terror story every devised in my mind. The same room that earlier that afternoon was the most enjoyable room in the universe to me became my own private house of horrors.
That is the mind working. In our youth, we avoided darkness for rational danger. As we justify our rational fear of danger, we create irrational fears. The logic is replaced with habit. Eventually, the habit is treated as reality.
How many fears do we have based solely on our mind’s conditioned habits to be afraid?
Just as we would let the stream drive us to where it wishes, letting our minds habits make us continually react to what may or may not be real is unwholesome. It robs us from our ability to be fully engaged in the world. It makes us live in a world were we are always uncertain and always reacting. It is stressful and unhealthy.
Without some willful effort, we eventually find ourselves in the rapids constantly being hit by rocks with no ability to control what happens next.
Meditation allows us an opportunity to see past the illusions of irrational fear and a gives us a choice to make better decisions and create new habits of engagement with the world about us.
So, if fighting the current and riding the current are not the choice for happiness then is just staying on the bank the right choice?
For some it is. The monks and nuns of Buddhism certainly have renounced many of the aspects of living in the river, but even they have to get their feet wet. They still have to deal with people, sickness, aging, death—just like everyone else.
But having a renounciant life is different than having a relational one. Lay people do not bind themselves to the same rules and therefore take on different challenges. They must earn a living. If they choose to have a family, they take on the aggregates of that family and those responsibilities. They wade deeper and deeper into the river with less and less time to spend on the banks to see the nature of the world as an observer—therefore Buddhist laity must work harder to be better swimmers.
It takes practice and patience. It takes time on the banks to understand the nature of the stream we swim and skill to stay above water. It is possible to find happiness: Don’t fight the currents too hard, do not carry too much, do not avoid what lies in front of us, develop good swimming habits to keep you afloat and make the most of the time on the bank to learn where the balance of all of this advice sits within you.