Friends: I am currently working on a new book, so my posting schedule this summer will be a little erratic. I hope to generate something new for the blog at least once every three weeks, but we will see where the journey takes me. I’m excited to explore and share what I’ll find!
When you sit down to meditate, the first thing you generally notice is just how busy the mind is.
It’s a stream of neverending chatter, garbage, and random thoughts; try as you might to focus your attention on the breath, it seems like the mind won’t ever calm down. After a few hours or days of focus, many people despair that the mind is something that could never be tamed. At this point many people think they’re not making any “progress”, so they give up, thinking they’ll never be any “good” at meditation.
In longer periods of meditation, however, where the mind is still very active, what’s happening is that you’re becoming aware of the deeper, more subtle layers of the mind. You’re touching the thoughts behind the thoughts. You begin to realize that thoughts on the conscious level are actually being driven by deeper, unseen forces, what Buddhists call “storehouse consciousness” (alaya). The conscious thoughts you have are like foam on the sea’s surface.
Some of that is coming from your own personal background, and whatever traumas you may have individually experienced. You may become more aware of what’s driving negative or obsessive patterns of behavior, like the need to seek out approval, or a protecting yourself because you fear vulnerability.
To free yourself from the (often negative) influence of these subtle patterns of thought, the first step is to recognize them, which is not an easy task. This is why mental activity in meditation shouldn’t lead us to despair. On the contrary, we should celebrate, because the more you tune into these deep, driving voices, the more you see that they are the underlying factors informing your thoughts, which in turn pushes the way you act.
It’s important to own up to your own junk and correct unwholesome patterns, which is often the first thing we encounter in meditation. But the deeper you go, the more you realize just how much is there that you or your messed up family isn’t responsible for generating. In fact, when you tune closely in these deeply guiding currents that end up structuring your thoughts, you realize they are part of the reason why you are so messed up in the first place.
This is the domain of culture, history, and what Jung called the “collective unconscious.” It’s a bit scary to recognize that it is impossible to extricate yourself from what every human who has come before you. Everything that everyone before us has thought, felt, and believed leaves a lingering trace.
We are inexorable immersed in a vast web of Mind, and everything we say, think, or do has an impact on everything else.
One instance of this that I have had to confront in myself (and my students) is the tendency to view the world through binary categories of right and wrong. There’s a very deep underlying feeling that no matter what we’re doing, we’re doing it wrong (even meditation!). I have seen the power of my own self-critical and judgmental voices (and how these direct so much of my behavior), but I know this cannot possibly come solely from my personal family history, because I see it at work in so many others.
I certainly wouldn’t be the first to propose that a good deal of these feelings have their roots in Judeo-Christian thinking, which proposes that we are fallen, sinful creatures who cannot help themselves from messing up. Even if you think you are not influenced by this way of thinking, I hate to break it to you, but you are. Charles Taylor, Frederic Lenoir, and others have catalogued the examples of this influence in everything from universal human rights to secularism to attitudes toward the environment.
For better or worse, we have all been impacted by seeing God through the metaphor of a parent figure, looking “up” to “someone” to approve of who we are.
What I’ve discovered, though, is that after sorting through all the unhealthy ways that this way of thinking leads to (“descending into the hell realms”), there is an even deeper voice that says: you can do it! You are enough just as you are. You don’t need anyone else to tell you what to do or how to think because you have an unlimited source of light and wisdom within you that cannot be extinguished no matter how badly you mess up. Listen to this! Use it!
Perhaps this is the voice that the Buddha found and learned to let guide his life. Perhaps this inner nature is what Jesus discovered and described using the metaphors available to him at the time.
To find that light, though, you’ve got to dig deep, through your own personal story, and through everything your culture has taught you to think. When you sit for meditation and have those crazy thoughts, don’t despair: this is the process of clearing the dust off the lamp to let the light shine through, something that takes place spontaneously and automatically if you get out of the way and let it.