These days in Basel streetcars you can see an ad that says something like: “Get closer to your enlightenment this coming weekend! Participate in our Yoga and meditation sessions, and come to enjoy peace, tranquility, and happiness.” What does everybody want when the idea of meditation comes up in one’s mind? Peace, tranquility, and happiness! And so, like flies swarming around a bright light, people flock to meditation venues, not realizing that they swarm around an idea, the idea of promised peace, tranquility, and happiness, hoping one day to fall into the honeypot of the promised Land of Cockaigne. Masses of people are deluded that way as they get involved in meditation with the meager promise of McMindfulness.
Granted, one has to start somewhere, and if an ad can get you in the door of the mindfulness journey, why not? And if in addition you can enjoy a weekend of bliss, all the power to you – except that it has nothing to do with mindfulness, let alone enlightenment. The problem is not so much how you get in the door, but how stubborn misunderstandings and distortions shape your journey once your interest is piqued. The way this particular ad is formulated lays the fertile ground for the activation of unconscious expectations that are bound to derail the mindfulness journey.
The foolish proposition encapsulated in this ad creates a striving and expectant state of mind that is sure to set one up for failure. Like Godot, the promised land is a mirage that endlessly retreats ahead of our advances, and is sure to never materialize wherever we are. I encounter such counterproductive psychological constellations in the mental microcosm of each student of mine, who complains of not being able to meditate or keep up a fruitful practice. There is no such thing as not being able to meditate, I like to say; there is only the lack of interest and unwillingness to meditate or the fact that one does something wrong in one’s attempt at meditating. There can be many things one does wrong during meditation practice, one of them being the unconscious pursuit of Godot inhabiting the Land of Cockaigne.
Imagine now taking up meditation without a shred of expectations, especially expectations of peace, tranquility, and happiness. Why would one want to do that? What would then be the point of meditating? This question is similar to why one would want to have children. Any answer you come up with falls short of the question’s essence. The best I can come up with is the word ‘rich’ – not as an answer, but as a suggestion illuminating the question. Children enrich our lives, a notion that includes pain and pleasure, delight and worry, feast and famine, tears and laughter, reward and sacrifice, and love and loss. So does meditation, and when it does, it is because we have learned the art of non-meditation, characterized by a process of consistently stripping experience of its associated notions that are over-saturated with connotations of perfection. We get, then, a conception of meditation as a purely procedural clothing worn over the indecent nakedness of something quite unsettling called reality, so as to allow it to appear in our consciousness with greater clarity. It is this retreating nude with its perplexing, dark qualities of truth that non-meditation or true meditation is trying to study and illuminate with relentless fervor and commitment. The glory of non-meditation lies in its simplicity, expressed in Zen by the idea of enlightenment as being able to be fully present and equanimous ‘chopping wood and carrying water’ – exalting the extraordinariness of the ordinary.
Take your daily life. It just unfolds – things you like and don’t like to do, tasks you must and choose to do, events you seek and endure, moments of peace and upheaval – in short, the full catastrophe. There is no escaping the full catastrophe – there is only the opportunity to embrace it with as much elegance, skill, and equanimity as possible. Chaos and rigidity are life-long companions we can never shake, but instead learn to meet with greater flexibility and humor, dynamically riding through those energy waves rather than getting stuck in them.
The promised land then is the experience of steadily improving skills in facing the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, without having to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them’, for such resistance is ultimately foolish and counterproductive. By chasing peace, tranquility, and happiness, we burn to death like the moth in a flame, because none of those mental states ever endure. We can only find wholeness by bringing the darkness into consciousness, not by chasing metaphors of light or perfection. ‘Wholeness’ is to my mind this bittersweet verb hiding behind a fictitious noun that can never become real as an accomplished goal. Wholeness is the process of forever and delightfully noticing improvement without ever worrying about a non-existent goal. That’s what wholeness is all about – forever and delightfully noticing improvement, knowing that that is the goal. Then, we have woken up to the world of non-meditation: Expertly guiding our minds to uncover the unsettling truth of reality for the purpose of clarity. Surprisingly, that clarity that illuminates everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly, comes with a sense of peace, serenity, and equanimity independent of circumstance – and even that ebbs and flows according to the law of impermanence.
To develop the art of non-meditation we begin by illuminating the unconscious misconceptions and false expectations attached to the wish to meditate and the notion of meditation. To this end, we learn the simple techniques that our mind has to offer for the development of clarity about itself and reality. Then, with proper guidance, the rest takes care of itself, as we improve our skills in seeing the unfathomable complexity of mind and reality, including the limitless human capacity for self-deception. As we thus fall into non-meditation as true meditation, we are engaged in the most radical act of love, which provides space for even this to be uncertain.
Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.