I don’t think you have to be religious about mindfulness by any means, but I do think it helps. For those of us who haven’t already crossed over into a timeless state where all of life is deep meditation, I think there is a mood that supports the practice in the sense that it helps to be “in the mood” to do it. Of course, it is critical to strengthen the practice by doing it even when one is not in the mood, but it is also possible to cultivate the mood, and that’s where religiousness can help.
I’m very carefully not saying what kind of religion helps, but obviously it would stand to reason that Buddhism has some things to offer. I use an alchemical combination of Buddhism and my native Judaism, and I think anybody with religious experience can probably find a place for mindfulness in their life. All that matters is that it’s a superstructure of mythic narrative that feels like it applies to you, whether you think of it as religious or not. The mechanism of action here is a story about who and what you are that gets you in the mood to meditate on it.
The story is not the point; the mood is the point. This is the kind of thing that gets me into hot water with more traditionally-minded people, and this is why my wife is going to be the rabbi, and I’m going to be leading the “alternative” meditation group in the little side chapel. But I’ll say it anyway: I think religion might be for regulating mood, and that’s very important! We can use this powerful technology of mythic place-finding for putting ourselves in an expansive, contemplative mood. In that mood, we can open to insight.
I don’t always feel an immediate, tangible benefit after I meditate, but it’s not exceedingly rare, either. Nor is it quite comparable to the euphoric relaxation after a hard workout; it’s harder to detect than that. But there is a sensation I can feel sometimes after I sit — maybe just for an hour after, maybe for the rest of the day.
There’s a shift in my perspective. It feels like I’m wavering on the line between everything being its normal, boring self and being utterly new, different, dazzling and strange.
I realize as I say it that this might sound scary. To me, it’s the opposite — it’s what I live for. The sensation is intimately familiar to me. In fact, this sensation might be what drove me to meditation in the first place. Since I was very young, I got occasional peeks behind the curtain of my habitual states of mind, and I was tantalized by the possibility that I could pull it back further. That’s what meditation seems to do.
In Buddhism, there are different schools of thought about whether enlightenment is gradual or sudden. I can’t tell yet. This sensation and perspective shift I’m describing feels like wavering back and forth between unenlightened and enlightened states. I think they’re getting clearer, more frequent, and more stable over time, but I’m not totally sure. And either way, who’s to say it won’t feel like five gees of acceleration when — okay, if — it really happens? All I can say for now is, I believe the shift is possible, whether it happens all at once or bit by bit.
I frequently hear people — often in the midst of expressing how stressed out they are — utter the phrase, “I should be meditating more.” I’m sure I utter it myself sometimes.
It’s a classic Western-style cause-and-effect thing: “I am stressed out, so if I meditate more, I’ll be more relaxed.” It’s like a diet or an exercise regimen. It treats meditation as a health remedy.
But is that really how meditation works? Does meditating more often reduce one’s stress level? I don’t have clinical evidence, but it’s certainly not that straightforward in my personal experience. If anything, the causal relationship is reversed; being stressed out causes me to meditate less, and when I’m less stressed out, I meditate more.
The amount of meditation I’m doing doesn’t seem to determine in any way when or how often I get stressed out. It’s possible that I respond better to being stressed out when I’ve been meditating frequently — that I notice my stress enough to cool my reactions and be more forgiving of myself and others — but it’s also possible I just believe that because it’s what all my teachers and books tell me is supposed to happen. I can’t actually measure that and know it to be true.
So — it seems fair to ask at this point — what does meditation do, and why does it generate anxiety about not doing it enough?
Meditation reveals the mind’s true nature. I think it’s important to let that be all it does. Loading the practice with relieving all neuroses and anxieties and aspirations fills it with distractions from the task at hand. Don’t overcomplicate it; attending to reality is all there is to do. “Should” is anxiety, and anxiety obscures reality. Insight may indeed reduce anxiety, but “should” will never let you get there.
Meditators are so serious about the word “practice.” All its connotations seem to fit so well with what it is we do on the proverbial cushion. Meditation is a “practice” in the sense that it’s practical — that it’s primarily about doing it rather than believing in it. It’s also a “practice” in the sense of rehearsal, a focused time to hone a skill in preparation for deploying it in the situations of our lives.
Here’s where my faith in that word tends to break down, though: When you practice with your band, you play the songs the way they’re really played. You pretend with the full force of your imagination that you’re playing the real show right now, and you’re playing the music the exact same way. Later, when you’re up on stage, the performance feels familiar — because you’ve practiced it — so your body and mind know just what to do.
Isn’t that the opposite of meditation practice?
How often do you find yourself in a situation — hours or even minutes after a lovely, quiet, mindful period of meditation — where you realize that all that lovely, quiet mindfulness has gone completely out the window? It happens to me daily. Some mundane situation — even a completely minor one — gets me so spun up that I react in exactly the opposite way I’d want to if I were fully present. Well, that situation is usually the polar opposite of sitting cross-legged in a quiet room with my eyes closed. So where’s the practice in this?
Maybe meditation is really more like exercise than practice, at least in this sense. You work on fundamental skills, leading to incremental improvements and — crucially — to faster recovery. Meditation is not for rehearsing life; it’s for building strength.
On Sundays, I wake up at the exact same time and do the exact same meditation practice that I do on Mondays. Younger versions of me would be horrified at this, but it’s true.
I do this for two reasons. The first is to maintain routine, which inculcates the practice — and it’s just how I like my life to be anyway — but it also makes the launch into the work week much less jarring if Monday starts off just like the Sunday before it.
The second reason is scientific. I impose some rigor on my daily practice in order to control for variables, so I can more clearly see results in the ongoing experiment that is my daily meditation practice. If I meditate in exactly the same way on Sunday as I do on a weekday, any differences in the experience will reveal something significant about my mind and my meditation on the weekend versus the workday.
And it is quite different. In my Sunday morning sits, there is far less projection about what’s going to happen today. The near future feels quiet and spacious, whereas on a weekday it often feels cramped and loud and intense. But even though I’m less concerned with particulars of what’s going to happen today, there’s an underlying general anxiety about whether I’m going to spend my time well today that feels exactly the same.
There’s so much to learn here! The experiment helps me separate out which feelings arise from fleeting concerns and which ones arise from more ongoing, deeper mysteries in my life.
This is just one example from one Sunday morning, but it speaks to a general lesson about the practice: To really see the contours of our mental landscape, it’s best to look from multiple angles.
It’s been months since my last retreat, and the memories of what it was like have faded. I remember some events, some visions, some teachings, the food. I certainly remember sitting in meditation a lot, but the vividness and intensity of what really happened in those sits is long gone.
But I remember it well enough to know that this meditation at home feels different. On retreat, I was sitting with my own stuff — deeply engrained tendencies and thought patterns, lifelong themes — and I was untangling them, loosening them. Don’t get me wrong; it was painful and frustrating, but it felt like progress.
At home, though — especially by the time Friday rolls around — my mind is so much more boring than that. All the energy in there is consumed by the stuff I’m already spending time on — whatever domestic, social, financial, or professional micro-dramas happen to be swirling around. I mean, I count my blessings. I could be preoccupied with past trauma or present danger, but I am privileged to spend my endless mental rehearsals mostly on very dull things.
I’m not alone here. I frequently hear about this kind of boring, neurotic, repetitive thought pattern as people’s primary obstacle in meditation — even the reason they stop doing it. Clearly, this is our work, but what is there to work with here?
I don’t want to lob this one in with some “come back to your breath” shtick, because this bugs me a lot personally. How do we turn this endless repetition into forward progress?
Maybe the mind is rehashing these mundane thoughts because it’s looking for something — it missed something. Maybe when we’re only half present in a moment of our lives, the other half of it comes back to haunt us. Then the cure is not to let go of it on the cushion, but to pay more attention in the real situation.
Here’s a paradox in meditation that bugs me sometimes:
On one hand, human beings are basically slight permutations of the same exact thing. We’re made of the same materials from the same instructions with only slight alterations. Certainly, we have different life experiences, but we’re all working with pretty much the same stuff. It stands to reason that, over countless generations, we would have figured out some ways of using these tools we all have that more or less work. That’s what the teachings about meditation are, it would seem — tried and true methods for wrangling this steed that is the human body-mind complex and riding it through life.
On the other hand, each of us is the foremost expert on our own minds that has ever existed and will ever exist for the rest of history. The exterior life of every human being can be summed up pretty simply, but the inner life is outrageously complex in radically different ways. The phantasmagoria of mental forms that fills a single moment can feel more vast than an entire day of external experience. Sure, we share many common forms of experience — we share common forms of eyeballs, too — but we can describe our eyeballs down to the molecular level of detail, yet we can try for hours to describe the quality of our experience and still have no idea whether someone has any clue what it’s like to be us. Even our own minds will seem wildly different tomorrow. So how can anyone else know what it takes to be present with my mind?
We can’t be sure. “Just come back to your breath,” the teachers say, “and the insight will work itself out,” and all we can do is trust them.
Hey, wait. What if trusting is actually the part that works?
I don’t think it’s a good idea to make any spiritual practice into a really big deal. The tendency is understandable — spirituality deals with the pain and difficulty of life. But it seems to me that treating pain and difficulty as a really big deal gives them more power and makes them hurt more. The practice is to bring lightness to our experience — to be gentle with it — so it will be gentle with us.
There are levels to this. Judaism does tend to make things into a big deal — mostly the big, public rituals. The rabbis might throw in an adorable note at some point like, “Remember: you are commanded… to have fun!”, but, you know, that doesn’t make it sound super fun. These are rituals for a culture with a penchant for the dramatic, and really the drama is a kind of fun. But that’s the exterior level; the interior of Jewish practice is serious, to be sure, but the real wisdom of the tradition is found in teachers who hold that seriousness with lightness and joy. Think of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof — you know, if that’s your best reference for Jewish culture — or the ecstatic smiles of Ḥasidic masters. It’s a core teaching to walk lightly in this life.
Buddhism obviously teaches this as well. The Dalai Lama and Thích Nhất Hạnh — who both smile through practically every sentence of every teaching — are the best known living examples, but the classic Zen stories read just like funny Ḥasidic tales, and even the Buddha himself is recorded as having a tendency to goof around. In Buddhist terms, considering something a big deal is an expression of grasping and attachment. Everything is impermanent, so nothing is that big a deal.
The morning is a tragically underutilized resource. People seem to want to see as little of it as possible. Some people use this funny colloquialism that they’re “not a morning person” to absolve themselves from participation in the morning — whether they sleep through it or just sleepwalk through it — and everybody just nods and goes, “Oh, sure, I understand. Me either.”
Surely, sleep is a major factor here. We work hard — or at least we work a lot — so work gets up as early as it can. To compensate, we play hard, which keeps us up late, too. We use caffeine to get up, and alcohol to go down — plus whatever else — so we’re locked in a cycle. Like everything else in our society, sleep is a fungible commodity, so that’s what we cash in for all this waking-life stuff, and consequently, we hate the morning.
Well, I recuse myself from that “we.” I’m not going to say “I’m a morning person!”, because in our vernacular that translates to, “I wake up early to do 70 emails on my phone while running on a treadmill drinking coffee with the news on TV in the background.” I am an evangelist for the long morning.
I’m ashamed to talk about how long my morning is, because I work at home and have all kinds of other privileges. I’m only advocating the difference between waking up startled, immediately getting dressed, and maybe eating while on the way to work; and waking up calmly in the dark, moving the body a little, meditating, and then going about one’s business. The non-obvious thing about it is, it reliably mellows the mood. It lowers the temperature on the whole day, which improves sleep, which improves the morning. Suddenly, you’re a morning person!
Even in a nice, long sit that feels really good, there’s still a lot going on. For me, it’s a layered experience. The metaphor that immediately comes to mind is an active volcano. There’s billowing steam and smoke at the top, swirling and mixing and following chaotic courses — maybe exploding forcefully once in a while. There’s searing fire and magma in the middle, coursing forth, destroying old formations and making new ones, throwing off smoke and steam as it hisses and seethes. And there’s ancient, solid, unmoving bedrock at the bottom, formed by processes far more dramatic than all this. It abides for eons.
What I want to say about that state of meditation — from this place of analytical writing-mind — is that it’s like having multiple experiences at once. That’s not skillful language, though; if meditation reveals those layers to experience, they’re probably present in all experiences, aren’t they? So it’s more skillful to say that there are multiple layers of awareness available throughout our human experience, and the active, survival-oriented lens of our attention sweeps through them constantly, but it takes effort and concentration to see them simultaneously. Usually, we’re too freaked out for that. This is why meditation can provide us with insight.
Naturally, it’s tiring to sustain that expansive attention! The posture is very important to enduring this experience, which is why I recommend a knees-down, three-pointed sitting posture if physically possible. That stable, triangular seat embodies volcano consciousness. The legs and core are the mountain. The heart is the magma flow. The head is the billowing cloud. Embodying this whole volcanic system shows how each layer interacts and affects the others, driving planetary changes.
When you get up from your seat, don’t forget: You aren’t some floating, disembodied mind — you’re a volcano that moves!
When I started this site this summer, I wasn’t thinking about the High Holidays. I knew better than to commit to a “daily” blog, but I wanted this to be as regular as my meditation practice itself. I wouldn’t be writing on Shabbat, so there would be six posts a week at most, but I didn’t think that would trouble anybody. “Daily-ish” seemed like a good enough description, since it also allowed for the occasional off day.
But then Rosh Hashanah took its two days, and then it was Shabbat again. Yom Kippur took its day, and then it was Shabbat again, and then it was Ḥag Sukkot. I had missed a lot of Grind Well days by that point! I sat my usual morning sit on the first morning of Sukkot, and then I considered writing a post anyway… but my heart wouldn’t let me! I’ve made observing Jewish sacred time — during which there’s a practice of not writing — part of the practice of Grind Well.
I’m not super strict about my religious observances, but blogging on holy days of rest just feels like something I should not do. It has been interesting to watch myself grow into adult Jewish life and learn that I don’t just get to pick and choose the parts that matter to me. They present themselves.
How does this fit into Grind Well? This site is intended for anyone who meditates, Jewish or not. But I think these religious instincts I’m playing with are key to my practice. They form the vessel that contains and defines it. Jewish community plays the role of sangha for me; it’s my spiritual family. Its customs are all mindfulness practices, and sharing them grounds us all in the presence of those around us.
Every time I meditate, I feel grateful to have this spiritual practice — and hobby, for that matter — that requires no money, no tools, no books, no drugs, no travel or meetings, nothing but my time. I’m wary of dependencies, and I already have so many dependencies in my life that it’s reassuring to have meditation as this one strong thread of independence.
It’s not complete, radical independence, which may not even exist. Indeed, I’m dependent on all kinds of people and things in my life just to have the one ingredient of meditation: time. And I’m not even talking about all the other people, systems, and forces that provide me with food, clothing, and shelter to survive. If it’s even possible to have independence from that in the world anymore, I don’t think that independence is worth having.
The independence of meditation practice is a simple freedom of choice: Am I going to pay attention to this moment or not?
I’m grateful to have that choice because not very many choices about consequential things are that simple. Life is mostly made of fraught, exhausting choices. Even basic survival choices — Am I going to eat this bread? Am I going to eat this meat? — are totally loaded. But there’s no risk — no downside at all — to choosing to take one mindful breath. We only resist because it seems harder than succumbing to some baser impulse… but it isn’t. There’s nothing easier.
When you start to think of it in big blocks of time, like the ones you make on your calendar, then the choice starts to seem hard. But that isn’t the real choice. The choice is: This breath — yes or no? Next breath — yes or no? You can say yes to as many breaths as you want.
There is one benefit to a break from regular practice. It may not outweigh the drawbacks — or the benefits of consistency — but it’s something. Coming back to the practice after a gap, there is a palpable sense of return. If cultivated sincerely and in balance with all aspects of the practice, that sense of return can be of serious spiritual benefit.
I realized this on Yom Kippur, the spiritual peak of the monthlong Jewish High Holiday season that’s now almost done altering my routine. Yom Kippur is an intense 25-hour period of purification, fasting, prayer, and teshuvah — usually translated in the West as “repentance,” though many Jews have come to prefer a more literal, less loaded translation of teshuvah: return.
Teshuvah is a return to what you are: a creation of the Divine. Mistakes and missteps accumulate along the way, and they form obstacles and distractions on the path. Western culture has coined the loaded word “sin” for those actions that knock us from the path. The Hebrew word for what we’re really repenting for, though — ḥet — doesn’t connote the eternal damnation that “sin” does. It means “missing the mark.” As in, “Pick up your bow, and try again. You’ll get it next time.”
That, I hope, reminds you of meditation practice. What is the spiritual practice of returning, whether in prayer or meditation? Picking up the bow and trying again. We know this feeling, even if we haven’t consciously felt it for months. We can always return.
And not just in prayer or meditation, but in all our conduct. Even during lapses in spiritual practice, we’re still taking aim — sometimes missing, sometimes hitting the bullseye — all day long. The confidence of taking aim is the practice. The joy of hitting the mark balances the despair of missing it. This is the essence of what we are!
As ugly and crazy as it can get, the beautiful thing about the human mind is that it can always come back to what it is: a vast, expansive awareness.
There are lots of reasons to do daily meditation practice in the morning. It starts the day off right, it separates between private and public time, it cuts off that morning cortisol spike. But for me, the big one is that it’s quiet in the morning.
Our society has not optimized for quiet. We’ve built these monstrous, concrete urban environments and adorned them with car horns and leaf blowers and jackhammers, and it’s giving the birds PTSD and the humans heart problems. Noise is the new secondhand smoke, and I have to meditate before 8 AM if I want to avoid suffocating on it.
Sometimes it occurs to me that this might not be the most skillful way to practice. The world does have noise — it’s probably best to learn to be mindful in a noisy environment. I’m going to great lengths to avoid the noise of my street, sometimes even sacrificing needed sleep in order to sit before the city wakes up. This feels like aversion, which is a fundamental Buddhist no-no. I know my teachers on retreat would say to sit with the noise, to let it be a reminder to come back to center, to be grateful for that. Wouldn’t that be nice.
I think this needs to be a both/and situation. It is important to practice mindfulness in noisy environments, because that’s the real world. But it might also be the case that the level of public mindfulness is so low that people don’t even realize how absurdly noisy the environment is — or what it’s doing to their physical and mental health. This could be a political issue for meditators. Protect our ears, hearts and minds! Stop polluting our world with distractions!
Imagine what might happen if everybody could finally hear themselves think.
Okay, I’ll admit it: I have a tendency toward emotional crash landings after prolonged stressful experiences. I can hold it together for 97% of the ordeal, but once we start getting close to home, I let go of my resolve a little early. I turn selfish, less willing to help or support others. I might lash out irritably if asked to do so. All I want is to curl up in a ball and not be bothered until I recover.
If I could make it to 100% — like, into bed with the lights off after the whole thing is over — I would get away with it; I might still feel this way, but no one would notice. I don’t think the meltdown is the problem, it’s the inability to hang on for that final three percent of the journey.
It seems like mindfulness practice ought to help with this. But there’s a catch-22: Prolonged stressful experiences often blow away the practice right when it’s most needed.
I’m talking about long travel days, big clean-up projects, insane work sprints, things that must get done above all else. I bet everybody has emotional triggers in that kind of situation. Isn’t that exactly when mindfulness training should kick in? It’s just like a distracting thought during meditation, right? You’ve cultivated the detachment necessary to see it, pause, and release it, instead of being swept away.
I still got swept away yesterday, though, and I don’t know whether I would have done better if I had meditated for 30 minutes beforehand. I certainly don’t think that single session would have undone my reactive tendencies. But maybe the state of mindfulness and receptivity would have been more available in memory. Maybe creating one good memory each day is what adds up to lifelong transformations.
Meditation practice is typically taught as a stable routine — something to do every single day in more or less the same way. This makes sense. We are creatures of habit, as the cliché puts it; we tend to do what we are used to doing. That’s why we spend so much time in states of distraction and anxiety — because we get used to it — and breaking up that time with a repeated, deliberate mindfulness habit is a way of getting used to something else.
For me, this rationale breaks down in certain times of year, during stretches of special time in which nothing can be routine day in and day out. September is always like that in my world; it’s festival time.
My understanding of the word “festival” comes from the Jewish tradition, where it refers to designated times of year for ritual celebration — part of a stable annual routine, if you will, but specifically intended to break up the daily routine. There’s basically three solid weeks of this every September.
That comes immediately after Burning Man — which lasts two weeks if you’re me. We say Burning Man is not a festival but rather a kind of temporary zone of alternative civics, but this is just to contrast it with the consumeristic, passive events to which the word “festival” has become attached by the entertainment industry. By the Jewish definition, Burning Man most certainly is a festival.
So that’s over a month straight of disrupted routine for me each year. How can I maintain my meditation practice through that? I could try my damndest to preserve 30 minutes of “normal” time in every 24 hours of festival time, but that feels too much like resistance. What I’m trying this year is to treat all festival time as practice time. I’m letting the awareness of special time become a kind of posture, so that every moment becomes enlivened with the deeper intentionality of festival consciousness. Meanwhile, I’m working my sitting practice in wherever I can, so it’ll be primed and ready when routine time returns.
We’ve reached an interesting juncture here at Grind Well. After a solid first month of posts, that big looming thing I wrote about a couple weeks ago has now arrived. At 6 AM tomorrow morning, I’m leaving for Burning Man.
Now, I have no intention of letting that disrupt my sitting practice, but I expect it will cause a slowdown in blogging. I’m not saying I’m not going to post from Burning Man — it’s actually my job to be one of the few people out there still on the internet. I don’t want to get into the weeds about whether or not it’s in accordance with the 10 Principles to blog from the playa; let’s just say for now that I’m going to be pretty absorbed in the offline world around me out there.
I’m always writing at Burning Man, though, so don’t be surprised if I do pop up, and if I don’t, I’ll have good material for when I get back.
Also, while I’m out there, my mom is going on her first multi-day meditation retreat! Isn’t that awesome? Maybe we’ll do some kind of micro-interview about it here.
This first month of Grind Well has been really fun and rewarding. Part of me expected I would still be scarred from the dark times of having to blog every day, but I’ve stumbled into a magical formula for this site. I’m actually a little sad my daily-ish blogging routine is getting disrupted at this early point. But it’s been enough time to establish the practice. Grind Well will be one of the things I’m excited to come back to at the end of what is always a rewarding but exhausting adventure.
Thank you so much for following along this far. It’s been amazing to hear from a few of you, especially to hear this is inspiring your own practice. Please do keep reaching out. Like I said in the first post building an online mindfulness community is one of my reasons for doing this.
And hey, if you’ll be at Burning Man, let me know. We should sit together! It’ll keep our brains on the rails.
Talk to you when the next opportunity arises,
Last night, I ate my dinner too hungrily, and I burned the roof of my mouth. Now it’s eight in the morning, and it hurts to drink my tea. This is what I get for succumbing to my cravings. It’s nice to get feedback this instantaneous and clear! It’s not always so easy to see the harm in succumbing to animal desires.
That’s because the harm isn’t always so personal. It doesn’t always come right back to us. It flows downstream.
When you cut someone off in traffic, you get a little jolt of feeling, and then you refocus on what’s in front of you: your destination. The person you cut off, though, is staring at the back of your head as it recedes into the distance and wishing they could shoot lasers out of their eyes.
When you make a joke at someone’s expense, some people laugh with you. You all feel the pleasures and joys of scintillating conversation, and you move onto the next topic. But the person who was the butt of the joke might remember that shame for the rest of his or her life.
When you live an affluent Western lifestyle, you experience delights and comforts through goods made by the hard labor of others; you spend leisure time in fantasy realms while others mine the metals needed to make the devices that take you there; you choose what you want to eat from all the world’s delicacies, and they fly in a refrigerated airplane to you, while the atmosphere warms, the ice melts, the seas rise towards the homes of unknown, distant others.
A hundred years from now, what will people think of our generation if we just keep obeying our appetites?
Meditation seems to lead me towards an ever more universal perspective on human life. The more I sit with myself, the more I encounter a radical individuality that actually undermines my sense of distinctiveness.
When I remove the distractions of the details of my life, it reveals this crazy panoply of things that are always going on underneath — way more than what’s happening on the surface. And it frequently occurs to me that everybody has this. This is just what having a human brain is like. What’s going on for us all, at the root of everything, is mostly the same. All that varies is levels of awareness, plus some minor details.
This is what’s frustrating about this era’s political, religious, and otherwise tribal upheavals. There is some threshold of scale at which human beings — from their default perspectives enmeshed in worldly concerns — will consider a problem important enough to fight about, and that scale is not nearly big enough.
In a given day, one could make a long list of contentious issues that have erupted into conflict, halting progress towards solutions while people fight about them. On one end of this list, some issues threaten the entire world. But because of this infernal threshold in the default human mind, people spend whole careers on inconsequential problems at the other end of the list and think they’re doing good.
Human civilization could be wiped out while people — operating at the individual or small group end of the scale — squabble about things that only threaten those small-scale identities. But my point isn’t even that extreme. There’s so much work to do on alleviating underlying suffering and alienation that would benefit individuals and groups vastly more than fighting little territorial battles with one another. It shouldn’t require universal love and understanding to see that. If we could just take better care of ourselves as we really are, that love would arise on its own.
Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, cannabis. Anti-depressants. Painkillers. You can learn a great deal about a society from looking at which drugs it proscribes, which it prescribes, and which it sells at every grocery store and gas station.
I’m obsessed with this amateur sociological analysis of mine. My favorite history book of the past few years was Blitzed by Norman Ohler, which is an assessment of Nazi Germany through this lens — and man, were the Nazis on drugs! Reading this book as an early-21st-century American, I recognized it as different in emphasis… but not that different in degree.
My society discusses drug use as an “epidemic.” It also wages “war” on it, so it’s a mixed metaphor. The point is, our language treats drugs as really bad, but we use them a lot. Doesn’t seem like a hopeful situation.
There’s a philosophical question that motivates my inquiry: What is the nature of the suffering we’re treating with all these drugs? Taken individually, it seems easy to trace: Caffeine? Exhaustion. Nicotine? Too much caffeine. Alcohol? Too much nicotine and caffeine, plus a bit of sadness about what we spent the energy of those drugs on today.
Well, that one is tougher than it seems, isn’t it? Is everyone suffering in the opioid epidemic in pain? Maybe not the way doctors mean, but… arguably!
So what kind of pain is everybody in? When you add up all this drug use, the diagnosis looks much more complex. But some things can still be plainly said about it. On a mass scale, people are in unsatisfactory mental states. The easiest ways out make them dependent on drug pushers.
What if there’s another way out, and it’s always available and never runs out?
I never get up from a meditation session and think to myself, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” Even when I’ve spent the entire sit in a distracted fog of neutral-to-unpleasant thoughts, I still have a sense that I’m better off than if I hadn’t sat at all.
What is the redeeming value of an unpleasant sit? Actually, I think sitting practice retains most of its important qualities even when you’re not into it. It still reinforces the discipline and intentionality it takes to sit down in the first place, instead of weakening it by skipping. It still reminds the body of the posture and its timing in the rhythm of the day.
Personally, I find great mindfulness and clarity in the first few minutes of whatever I do after I meditate, no matter how well the sitting went. Even if I didn’t do much meditating on the cushion, I do some while making tea or writing Grind Well posts.
The quality of the meditation itself is almost beside the point. Deep concentration can convey everything it has to offer in one moment — it doesn’t have to be today. On any given day, the most important element of the practice is keeping it going, reinforcing meditation in the pattern of one’s life.
After all, if meditation were only something we did while nothing was going on in our minds, we wouldn’t be practicing for anything! The skill we’re developing in this practice is to come back to mindfulness in any situation.
Here’s an exercise: When practice is unpleasant, imagine that the mind is trying to help you prepare for life’s realities. Anything can be turned into fuel for the practice.
After working on it for a month and a half, I finally finished writing the full story of my meditation retreat this summer. Writing the story is an important part of my process of integrating an experience like that. It accomplishes three things: it records the memories in a form that will always vividly evoke them for me, it ties this chapter into my ongoing life story, and it helps me identify what I learned.
The learning is the most interesting part to me. I tend to come out of a long adventure like a meditation retreat with some key points. The way I write the story of what happened — and you’ll see, it’s a long story — is by outlining it in terms of those key points and what brought me to them. I don’t write about everything that happened, just the moments, events and experiences that brought me to those discrete realizations, and I state what they are in the story. It’s really the story of what I learned, not the story of what happened.
That has interesting implications for the memories I’m recording and the “life story” I’m stitching together. Memory is weird; it’s not like I can control which experiences I’m going to remember, so surely I’ll remember things that didn’t make it into the story. But I’m still framing my memory of the retreat in terms of learnings that mattered to me at the time. Will those still be the important takeaways in 20 years? And as for the story of my life, that’s clearly something I’m constructing as well. These long essays I write are trying to make me into someone who did this and learned that. Will these still be the stories I tell when I’m looking back?
This weekend in traditional Judaism, there was a lot of talk about animal sacrifices. We read the regular daily offerings, the additional offerings for Shabbat, a Torah portion that gets into the topic, and the services for a new lunar month — it involved a lot of slaughtering. In the lunch line, two vegetarian boys in the Bat Mitzvah’s class raised strenuous objections to the prevalence of animal sacrifice in our tradition. “It’s God,” one of them said. “If He wants animals so bad, why can’t He just kill them Himself?”
There are not enough words ever spoken by humankind for me to express how much I loved this question. What surprised me is that I have an answer now: The core of that practice was not about the killing or the animals — both of which would have been easier to handle in their cultural context than they are for us. What was hard for ancient Israelites about sacrifice was offering up the choicest parts of their livelihoods in service of the Divine.
In our era — even for farmers, I would suggest — there’s something much harder for us to sacrifice now: time. That’s why the rabbis were able to successfully convert the ancient sacrifices into the lengthy prayer services we now do instead. Our spiritual practice asks us to give up a daily portion of our most precious resource in service of things beyond ourselves.
Daily meditation is a time offering. That’s one of the hard parts. But I think that’s also what accounts for the qualitative difference between sitting for 20 minutes and sitting for 30. That extra push beyond what might feel comfortable helps us get used to going beyond the bounds of our own desires. That’s great practice for living life in service to the world.
For mindfulness to have any ethical weight, it must involve looking out at the world. It’s not enough to just sit there and be concerned with oneself. Some teach that the practice won’t even work if that’s all you do. It’s a beautiful teaching: Yes, you can liberate yourself, but the catch is, there is no liberation of self without the liberation of all beings. Justice is a precondition of enlightenment.
But, to my Western-conditioned mind, it’s harder to deal with the outside than the inside. I may struggle mightily with my habits and tendencies, but at least I can generate an illusion of comprehending them. Even if I’m only fooling myself into thinking I can grasp my own problems, that gives me confidence to keep facing them, and that’s all it takes to make a breakthrough.
But the world’s problems? It’s hard to even try to understand those. Right now, California is on fire, my friends’ houses are burning down, and apparently police think one of these fires was deliberately set by a crazy person. How can we sympathize with that?
I guess the point is not to comprehend the actions or motivations, but to identify with the suffering. The desire to “burn it all down” could describe precisely this frustration with the inability to comprehend the world. The thing is, as the Buddha said, everything is already ablaze. Striving to set it on fire is useless. All we can do is avoid getting burned, so we can do the work to put it out.
When practicing mindfulness, enjoyable mental states can be just as challenging as unpleasant ones.
On the basic level, there’s grasping and attachment. Something feels good, and you don’t want it to end — pretty understandable. But this is a practice of deeply understanding and accepting that everything ends. The way to practice that is to let it happen, even if it hurts. After all, in your life off the cushion, it’s going to happen whether you let it or not, so exploring that feeling in meditation is practice in the truest sense.
Sometimes mental states aren’t just pleasurable, they’re productive, and this brings the challenge a level deeper. Letting go of a nice feeling hurts, but another one will come along soon enough. Letting go of a state in which you feel like you’re accomplishing something or getting somewhere can feel downright destructive.
When I get into a creative state of mind, it’s like a magician pulling multicolored handkerchiefs out of his sleeve; each idea pulls out another idea, and another, and another. Sometimes it gets ridiculous. There’s often one or two good ones in there, though. It takes every fiber of my being to let them flutter away while I’m meditating. I live on having good ideas. Letting them go feels like dying!
Occasionally, I simply must write down an idea during meditation, so I can calm down and sit again. I forgive myself for that. But the trouble with ideas is, not all ideas come to life, and being creative requires accepting that. This practice has got to involve letting some creative darlings die. When a good feeling goes away, it takes faith to believe another one will come along. Creativity requires that same faith in good ideas. Practice ideas during productive time. Practice faith during contemplative time.
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