Meditation is About Our Whole Life, not Just the Inner Workings of the Mind

Steven Goodheart Essays

Steven Goodheart Essays

In this essay, I want to look into how we can broaden and deepen our understanding of meditation, so that it encompasses more of our life and isn’t just something we do “on the cushion.”  I’ve found the meditation instruction of J. Krishnamurti especially helpful in gaining this broader view, and so I share some of his insights below.

First, let me say that “formal” sitting or walking mediation is good!  Not just “good,” but, I would argue, essential.  If a Pablo Casals at 93 years of age could get up every morning to practice, “to get better,” as he said, then it’s hard to see how gaining depth and skill in meditation could be much different.  It’s recorded that even the awakened Buddha spent hours in meditation, for the sheer pleasure of it.

Self-examination at the deepest level of meditative concentration and insight can reveal the transient nature of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and emotions. It can help us see the basic interdependence of the “dhammas,” (mental/physical elements), that create a aggregate, fabricated “self.” Looking deeply into the mind to see the non-self nature of the dhammas and seeing how they create a “self” are skills essential to liberation.  Deep meditative insight helps deconstruct the illusion of the solidity and permanence of thought and ego structures that we identify with and believe to be so essential to being.

But I would argue that it is equally important to gain deep insight into how this constructed, fabricated “self” works at “upper” levels—at the so-called psychological and personal level. Without this “upper level” insight, it’s like understanding the code of a computer program with no idea of the code’s function or purpose. The code or programming may execute without error, we may understand its internal logic, but the result may be totally wrong and the code’s application inappropriate or even harmful to solving the problem at hand.  This is where the Buddha’s emphasis on looking at actions and their consequences is so very skillful and important.   What am I doing as a human being?  How do I act and interact with other people? What role do I have in society and how do my actions affect society and the world?  Insight into this is no less important than insight into the inner workings of the mind or how psycho-physical energies arise and pass away.

Even more importantly, it is my experience that there are problems at the “upper level” that can’t, in principle, be solved at the level of sheer meditative concentration and insight.  The two domains are interrelated, of course but what is emergent from the brain and mind is profoundly different in its nature from the how the underlying “machinery” works, so to speak.  Put simply: the qualia of human consciousness—love, truth, beauty, art, mathematics, to name a few positive emergent elements—are no more reducible to the Buddhist khandas than they are to the neural nets of the brain.  A “nothing but skandhas” reductionist view of what it means to be a human being is as bogus in Buddhism as a “nothing but neural nets” view of human consciousness is bogus (and unscientific) in neuroscience.

The Buddhist path must be integral, not just focusing on the inner workings of the mind, but on all our actions as a human being in relationship with other human beings, a society, and a physical environment.  To fully awaken, we need this full view—one that looks at what kind of person we are in the world and how we act.  Without an integral Buddhism, we can become a kind of  meditative “idiot savant” who is great “on the cushion” but who is a moral idiot in life itself.  Put more bluntly: one may be become very good an entering deep states of concentration and bliss, one may be able to gain some insight into the inner workings of the mind and still, on the whole, be someone whose unexamined and hidden shadow elements do great harm to oneself and others.

To some, this assertion may seem surprising. Many seem to think that meditation, by itself, is some kind of magic wand or pill that miraculously frees our minds without any need for real, honest self-examination on our part.  But in the Buddhist path, there’s so much more to awakening than having the ability to enter deep states of concentration or to be able to passively and non-reactively watch mental stuff arise and fall away.  The way of awakening involves a kind of self-immolation fueled by an earnest desire to uncover and let go of whatever causes suffering—our own or others.  We have to die to the old to give birth to the new, and at times, the giving up of false self-identifications can indeed feel like a kind of death.  But it also brings to light an indestructible happiness that’s not dependent on anything.

Of course, we need to learn how to quiet the wild, drunken “monkey mind,” or in the Zen ox-herder metaphor, how to tame the “wandering-ox” mind. Techniques like working with the breath and seeing how to let go of thoughts and to come back to presence, developing concentration, cultivating insight, working with koans, and loving-kindness meditation—all of these are highly important skills that require practice and what the Buddha called vigorous “right effort.” But developing these skills is but the a step along the way to having the kind of mind and heart that can get quiet enough to look into the nature of everything that arises, at every level, not just in the mind, but in our actions and in how we live in the world.

I love J. Krishnamurti’s description of a broader, deeper, and more inclusive sense of meditation than one often hears about:

“[People] sit in a corner, close their eyes and concentrate, like school boys trying to concentrate on a book. That is not meditation. Meditation is something extraordinary, if you know how to do it. I am going to talk a little about it.

First of all, sit very quietly; do not force yourself to sit quietly, but sit or lie down quietly without force of any kind. Do you understand? Then watch your thinking. Watch what you are thinking about. You find you are thinking about your shoes, your saris, what you are going to say, the bird outside to which you listen; follow such thoughts and inquire why each thought arises.

Do not try to change your thinking. See why certain thoughts arise in your mind so that you begin to understand the meaning of every thought and feeling without any enforcement. And when a thought arises, do not condemn it, do not say it is right, it is wrong, it is good, it is bad. Just watch it, so that you begin to have a perception, a consciousness which is active in seeing every kind of thought, every kind of feeling.

You will know every hidden secret thought, every hidden motive, every feeling, without distortion, without saying it is right, wrong, good or bad. When you look, when you go into thought very very deeply, your mind becomes extraordinarily subtle, alive. No part of the mind is asleep. The mind is completely awake.

That is merely the foundation. Then your mind is very quiet. Your whole being becomes very still. Then go through that stillness, deeper, further – that whole process is meditation. Meditation is not to sit in a corner repeating a lot of words; or to think of a picture and go into some wild, ecstatic imaginings.

To understand the whole process of your thinking and feeling is to be free from all thought, to be free from all feeling so that your mind, your whole being becomes very quiet. And that is also part of life and with that quietness, you can look at the tree, you can look at people, you can look at the sky and the stars. That is the beauty of life.”

Although insight into the what the Buddha called the “three characteristics” of existence (dukkha, suffering—anicca, impermanence—and anatta, not self) is always liberating, the changes we may most need to make may be at the level of psychological insight into the constructed self—the human personality, our belief systems, and how we act and interact with others.  If you think Buddhism is principally about getting rid of, or suppressing, or negating the ego, then this wonderful essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu titled “The Problem of Egolessnes” offers a more skillful perspective:

See: The Problem of Egolessness

The Buddha’s dharma is about life. Indeed, the most fundamental meaning of dharma is just how things work. Meditation must therefore embrace the whole human being, and all of life, including our belief systems as well as our relationships with others and the world. We are all living out internal “programs” and mental self-constructions that we give our identities to, or identify with. Mostly, we do this unconsciously.  An aspect of awakening is to be able to see these thought/self patterns playing themselves out and not identify with them.  This is something we can really zero in on by developing skills in concentration and insight in our “formal” mediation practice.

As we develop the skill in seeing how our minds work, then its just natural that the larger patterns and ways of being “me” need to be looked into and honestly examined.  We need the courage to not only develop the deepest levels of meditative insight, where mental skandhas are seen to be ephemeral and flicker in and out of existence.  We also need to examine our hearts—examine our total humanhood, our morals, and the standards we live by.  The skill comes in doing this self-examination non-violently, without self-condemnation and self-hatred.  And happily, that equanimity and dispassion towards what the Buddha called “toxins” are exactly what the “un-selfing” of deep, “formal” meditation prepares us to do.  We have seen for ourselves see that the “toxins” are not-self, impermanent, and cause suffering.

In Buddhism, this awakening and developing of moral virtue is called sila and is considered the foundation and sine qua non of meditation:

See: Buddhist Morality—It’s All About Karma and Skillful Means

I don’t want to overdo the programming metaphor—the brain is not some sort of  meat computer!—but the programming metaphor can be a helpful analogy.  Like skillful, trouble-shooting software programmers, we not only have to know how the lower-level “code” of the mind works; we have to look at the the operation and nature of the entire program and its “output”— the way we look at ourselves, others, and the world. This “output” is our individual karma, the results of the way we think and act as a person. It’s one of the few things actually have some real control over!  The Buddha said our actions and their results are the only things we truly own. Sure, we may we sometimes mistake the nature of cause and effect in our individual karma, but in one sense, our self-produced karma never lies to us.  By seeing what thoughts and actions produce suffering, testing new ways of thinking and acting, and then looking at those results, we can become as scientific in our progress as an researcher in physics.

So, it’s up to us to look deeply into the big picture of our lives, as well as the deep inner workings of the mind, and then make the skillful changes that liberate our hearts and minds and bring lasting happiness.  Doing so is an art, as well as a science, poetry as well as technique.  It’s specific and integral. It’s also the very happiest and most skillful way to live.

Steven Goodheart


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

One Response to “Meditation is About Our Whole Life, not Just the Inner Workings of the Mind”

  1. Judy Worth Friedsam Reply 2011/02/02 at 1:48 PM

    “If you sit long enough, your cushion will become an island amid a sea of dust. Thistles will overtake the yard. Things will begin to fall apart. At some point, you’ve got to clean house”….. The Dust Beyond the Cushion by Gary Thorp (Tricycle)

    When we meditate on the cushion, we are mindful…. When we are off the cushion we are mindful. Life is both on and off the cushion.

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