How are you spending your time in this, your 'wild and precious life'? Are you rushing about trying to catch up with your tasks and meet your responsibilities? Or wandering aimlessly along, just coping as best you can with whatever life throws up at you, not knowing why you're here or where you're going?
Every so often milestones crop up as we hurry or wander along – birthdays, funerals, occasional brushes with mortality. By inviting us to pause and consider what we're doing with our lives, such events can provide opportunities to think about our motivation, our values, our purpose and direction.
Buddhist teachers recommend us to introduce such reflections into our daily lives without waiting for circumstantial milestones to turn up. Such advice is not only useful to Buddhist practitioners, it can apply to anyone who doesn't want to find themselves saying at the end of their lives: 'I wish I'd done things differently.'
So how this might apply to the practice of meditation?
What is meditation?
People often have limited concepts of what meditation actually is, or can be. They may believe it involves stopping all thoughts and mental activity; perhaps resting in blissful states; or creative day-dreaming, or even a kind of hypnotic trance. Again, the Buddhist take on meditation is more ambitious: while there are many different instructions available to suit the varying dispositions of different people, they are all ways to calm, clarify, and sharpen the mind so that insight can arise, thus clearing away the confusion which, in the Buddhist analysis, is the root cause of our problems. And while time must be set aside for regular periods of sitting meditation, practice is not limited to these specific sessions but continues as mindfulness is maintained throughout the day – and even on into sleep and dreams.
The problem is, as anyone who has tried will have discovered, that it can be very difficult to find time for regular meditation sessions. There are so many other demands on our attention. If we don't establish a strong sense of purpose that will give us the impetus to persevere, we'll be likely to succumb to those competing demands, and another day / week / month / year / decade will have gone by in a blur of distraction and relatively insignificant pastimes. And it's not enough just to sit down: the body may be relatively still while the mind continues to jump about. In fact the tendency to distraction becomes even more noticeable during meditation practice. I used to live in a Zen Centre in America, where such time-wasting was confronted head-on by the frequent exhortation to wake up to the fact that 'life passes swiftly by and opportunity is lost!' – this cheery reminder being shouted at random moments throughout the meditation practice sessions, breaking abruptly into one's pleasant little dozes or day-dreams!
Along with limited concepts as to what meditation is, people often have rather modest ideas as to its purpose. Many people think that meditation might be good for them: it might help them to calm down, lower their stress levels and their blood pressure; maybe help them to sleep better; perhaps even find some fleeting peace of mind. But while these might be worthwhile aims in themselves, from a Buddhist point of view they're very small beer! The Buddha's aim was as big as can be imagined – no less than the ending of suffering, not just for oneself but for all beings.
Let's examine this rather ambitious idea.
If we look at how we are motivated towards and away from certain things, we notice that the process can be analysed very simply in terms of attraction and aversion: we tend to be attracted by what we think will bring happiness and repelled by what we think will bring suffering. And it's not unreasonable to suspect that the process might be similar for others – not just humans, but animals too; or, in Buddhist terminology, other 'sentient beings'.
This simple observation can lead to an equally simple hypothesis: all beings are similar in wanting happiness; although they differ greatly in what they think will make them happy and how they go about trying to get it.
From a Buddhist perspective, for happiness to be a worthwhile goal, it should be a lasting sense of fulfilment, not a temporary pleasure. This rules out gratification at others' expense, because harming others tends to lead to trouble for the perpetrator in the long run. It also rules out happiness contingent upon certain conditions, because such happiness will end when the conditions change. In fact, the sort of happiness that is based on attachment and aversion can never be completely fulfilling, because as soon as we get what we want we become anxious about losing it – so we're still not happy!
Meditation allows us to discover a radically different way of being that transcends this vacillation between two poles. This is not conjecture: you can try it out for yourself. Firstly the practice allows us to spot the attachment-aversion process and identify it as problematic; then it allows us to explore alternatives. Furthermore, skilfully assimilated into our lives, for example as part of the three-part approach identified in Buddhist terms as proper action, meditation, and understanding, the practice allows us to find the inner freedom and stability that empowers us to reach out with compassion and wisdom to help others.
The wish to help others can be a strong motivator for many people. Frustration and helplessness in the face of someone else's pain can drive one to seek ways to become more effective. And while material aid is of course absolutely essential (if beings don't eat, they won't stay alive long enough for anything else!), there remains the deeper issue of the continuous vulnerability to suffering that has its roots in attachment and aversion, and the confusion underpinning these two polarities. In the Buddhist perspective, that vulnerability will remain for each one of us until we find out how to transcend the confusion of experiencing existence in dualistic terms of 'me' (which also includes 'mine') and 'other'. Meditation practice enables us to glimpse the possibility of finding that transcendence; such a glimpse can spur us on not only for own sake, but for the sake of helping others to do likewise. As we all know, you can't force peace of mind on anyone else ('You must relax!'); you can only encourage them to find it for themselves. And this has wider implications: as the Dalai Lama says, 'Only by developing inner peace is there any hope of outer peace.'
All of this is all very well as an intellectual attempt to answer the question 'Why meditate?', but how do we go about actually developing the force of motivation so we can meditate? We need to apply a combination of, firstly, reflection, thinking about these issues; and, secondly, observation, being attentive to our own experience. We also need to cultivate an attitude of enquiry and experiment, and an unwillingness to settle for ideas. It's helpful to develop the habit of a few minutes reflection at the beginning and end of each day. Whenever we do make the time to sit down for a meditation session, it's important to start by reflecting on why we want to do it; this will give us the impetus to stick to the practice. And we should keep the sessions short: five minutes meditation now is more useful than an hour postponed to tomorrow!
Buddhist teachers also emphasise the importance of acknowledging progress, however small the steps may be. So if you notice that you're a little more patient, or alert, or maybe kinder than you used to be, be glad about it! That's the way to encourage yourself to continue with the practice, so it starts to develop its own momentum and becomes an ongoing source of delight and support rather than just another chore in competition with everything else in your busy life.
And now I leave you with a challenge. I dare you to wonder how would it be if, instead of leaving time to slip swiftly by, and opportunity be lost, you really began to make the most of this, your 'wild and precious life'!
Copyright Caitlin Collins, August 2006. This article was published in the magazine New Vision, September / October 2006, The Hamblin Trust www.thehamblintrust.org.uk