As I said in part 1 of this exploration of why I meditate, there are a lot of different reasons I sit in meditation. The first reason I meditate is because I want to rewire, or hack, my brain in order to produce some real and valuable changes. Secondly, I meditate because I gain mental clarity and peace from it (most of the time, but I think that will be saved for part 3 of this series). And now, I’m going to explore another reason why I meditate. This will borrow from a few different sources that I have been reading lately. Primarily, Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner and Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagan. Both of these books are great to read and will go much more in depth into some of the things I’ve been writing about.
As I said in the first part of this series, I do not believe that the mind and the brain are one and the same things. This is a perspective that scientific findings and my own experiences have reinforced. If the idea that the mind and the brain are different things is difficult for you to accept or understand, the next thing that I’m about to talk about will really mess with your head.
Think about your mind for a few moments. What does it sound like? How does it operate? Does it have a common theme that it likes to keep bringing up day in and day out? How do you feel about your mind?
I try to write a lot here about how I feel about my mind and the common themes that I struggle with on a daily basis. There are a lot of posts here that show this is a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. Now, for one more question. Are you your mind? To phrase it differently, is your mind your self?
One of the reasons I meditate is that it helps me to remember that the mind is in fact not the self. We spend so much time with our mind that we can’t help but think that it is our true self. Our mind constantly tells us this too. Since our mind is our closest confidant and we are aware of it when we are awake or asleep it’s easy to see why we can think that we are our mind. When we hear our mind speak to us, we think “I am speaking to myself”. Buddhism tells us that this is in fact a misconception and that our true self and our mind are in fact separate.
I think that this notion was one of the hardest things for me to understand when I first encountered it. Seriously, when you are someone like myself who spends vast amounts of time wrapped up in thought and who derives a living from their ability to think deeply in unique and novel ways, it is quite a shock to the system to think that your mind isn’t you. But it is true. I am not my mind. You are not your mind. We are so attached to our minds that we think we are our minds but that is just one of the many delusions that we live with every day.
This brings me back to the meditation cushion. Why do I meditate? Meditation helps me to quiet my mind and to experience my true self in a way that no other activity can. The fact is that in meditation, I am able to quiet my mind and, on rare occasions, get it to shut up completely. However, I’m still there. I’m still me. If my mind really is quiet and still, if I were my mind, wouldn’t I too be quiet and still? So, as I sit in meditation, I get a firsthand experience of just how different I really am from my mind. A Buddhist phrase for this is “cutting through delusions”. When you first experience this separation of self from mind it really can feel like you are being cut apart from something. It is a profound realization to have. When I get up from the cushion after having had this realization (and it is definitely something that I don’t have every time I meditate), I see the world a bit differently. My understanding of how I relate to my self, my family, my friends and the world around me is a bit different for a while. It’s a more grounded understanding of reality and seeing things the way that they really are. This is why I meditate.
Please remember that I do not sit down in meditation with a goal of having this realization or experience or whatever you want to call it. If I approach meditation with a goal in mind, I will most likely not have a positive experience for the time that I’m sitting. The goal of meditation is to just sit. If I gain mental clarity, if I somehow change my brain for the better, if I see how my mind and my self are not the same, those are just extraneous benefits from the meditation session. Zen meditation, if done correctly, can be some of the most boring stuff you will ever do in your life.
That brings me to the fourth reason that I meditate. I sit because that’s what I do. I’m trying not to sound all super-spiritual or ethereal or whatever when I say that and I hope that I have succeeded. When it is time for me to sit my not-quite-as-big-as-it-used-to-be butt on a cushion, I try to approach it with a clear mind free of expectations. My goal is to sit and to calm my mind and to be present in each moment as it happens. Without anything to keep your attention or to focus on or guide you through the session, you can be bored out of your mind (no pun intended—OK, maybe it was intended). That’s the reality of meditation. You sit and you do nothing and you try to think nothing and maybe you’ll get something out of it, but if you don’t there’s no need to be upset or to consider the session “bad” or “wasted” since you go into it with no expectation to begin with.
Brad Warner has a great section in Sit Down and Shut Up where he talks about Zen meditation as stress relief and he makes a very good point. In the short term, Zen meditation is horrible for stress management. It won’t help a thing in the moment of stress. However, in the long term, it will be one of the most beneficial things you can ever hope to do in regard to handling stress. This is because as you sit in meditation with no expectation other than maybe boredom for a long enough time, you gain insights into your self that help you realize that the stress is a part of your mind and that it your mind that is stressed, not you. It helps greatly (so he says) to have this kind of perspective. I don’t know if it’s true or not since I’m definitely not there by any means but maybe I’ll get to that place one day.
Once again, I’ve gone on for too long so I think that I will have to have a part three to this post. Please let me know your thoughts about this in the comments section. I’d love to hear from others how they experience their mind and what they think about it. How does the statement that your mind is not your self strike you?