The Point of Meditation16 May 2011
“At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.” Basho
You would think that the study of religion was largely about how humanity has, over time and across cultures, turned its gaze towards the almighty mystery of existence. However, one of the most interesting discoveries I made from my time as a Religious Studies undergraduate was how often religions function more as an anaesthetic than spiritual stimulant. Think of the endless sectarian debates over the minutia of specific doctrine, or the evasion of the rawness of impermanence into the consolation of rebirth and heaven. Rather than deal with the sheer immensity of this living, breathing human that must function in full knowledge of its impending demise we get lost in dramas and fantasies both personally and institutionally.
But surely religion with its millennia of well-formed beliefs and practices has something to offer us against the seemingly unbearable weight of life’s slings and arrows? Perhaps. As I meditator I take comfort in the fact that I’m not the first nor only person to be attempting such a capricious endeavour. Just like the fact that I feel no great need to personally inspect the mechanical safety of a new car based on the reputation of the manufacture, I tend to assume that there must be a measure of bonafide spiritual value to the religious technologies I consume. ‘Spiritual value’? What’s that? A car gets me and my girlfriend to a nice little holiday cottage on the Cornish coast, but where does spiritual practice get me? Why do I meditate?
In reality there is a gaping and, I suspect ultimately unbridgeable, gap between technique and the ‘point’ of mediation. For me meditation is the raw and brute intimacy with the uncensored immediacy of experience, without adding anything to it or taking anything away. What could be expressed more simply!? Ha, but what could possibly be harder to actually achieve!? At the end of the day, there is nothing to protect us from the awesome audacity of the universe’s relentless torrent. It is very tempting to think that such a task is difficult to achieve because we lack proficiency and experience in a certain technique. You would think that simply attending to the undemanding, ordinary and ever-present sensation of breathing was child’s play and if I can’t play a child’s game then there must be a bloody straightforward reason for it. Instead, counting the breath becomes a radical act of the most subversive order; we gesture our mind and everything that it holds dear onto the execution block.
To meditate, to fully encounter the truth of ourselves, is not something for which we can prepare for. Each and every time we return to the crest of this breaking wave that we call the present we are opening ourselves to the possibility of the utterly unprecedented. And then I fart :)