Tuesday, August 10, 2010


It's always great to find some area of disagreement in the comments on what I write. I love the thought that a blog can be a place for debate, not just a place in which I sound off with my own ideas. And I love to be pushed a bit further with the ones that I put out.

Thus it was yesterday with Jean, who found the thought of "getting results" in meditation to be anathema. Results, she wrote, "is not what meditation is about, is it?" Well, yes, for me it is. The Big Result, as I understand these things--the one that Buddha held out as the ultimate goal--is true happiness. That's the kind of happiness that results from the release from suffering, the promise of the third noble truth which is attainable by following the path he alludes to in the fourth. If we can release ourselves from the obsession with clinging to those things we want and aversion from those we don't, we're on the right path.

But the Big Result involves a whole lot of smaller results along the way. The practice of "breathing fiercely" that I mentioned yesterday resulted, for me, in a more focused, concentrated--and more interesting--meditation. I can't say whether the benefits extended to my suffering friend, which would have been a wonderful result indeed; but I know that the energy I managed to generate was more powerful and more fiercely compassionate than the prior, "feeble" efforts!

I have written elsewhere about how I got started on the Buddhist path years ago. It was at a moment of great difficulty and suffering in my life, and a friend introduced me to the chanting practice of Soka Gakkai Buddhism. By following the practice, he told me, I could focus on specific results and be assured that I would achieve them. I could chant for, I don't know, success as a writer, the cure for an illness--even, say, an Aston Martin or an island in the Caribbean, if I wanted them badly enough. No kidding! I did actually chant, daily, for a year and a half. Among other things, I chanted for the cottage in Laguna Beach which has been our retreat these past fifteen years. No kidding.

I'm grateful to my friend for having introduced me to a practice that really did extend beyond the purely material; I do not want in any way to diminish the value of that experience. But I'm also happy that the path led me eventually to the Theravada tradition that I follow today. The results I look for are different from those I looked for when I started out, and they are the kind of results Than Geoff proposes as being useful ones. They all involve learning greater and more refined skills in releasing myself from old habits that no longer serve me, and in honing those that do.

One such "result" might be the growing ability to sit for at least a little while and keep the mind focused solely on the breath. My mind tends to wander. It has all kinds of problems that it wants to solve, all kinds of projects that it wants to get involved in. I learned a big lesson from Than Geoff on Sunday: I had indeed allowed my daily meditation to become "feeble"--a harmless enough habit that was not getting the results I was looking for in doing it: a clearer focus, say, a greater compassion for my friend's predicament, and greater serenity in the face of life's challenges. The insight that his comment inspired led me to that understanding that "breathing fiercely" could achieve different and better results in this regard than the ones I had been getting.

There are numerous ways in which I can yet learn to be a better, happier human being--more generous, more focused on my sense of mission, more concentrated on what I see to be my work. Having come to appreciate the infinite power of the human mind, including my own, I want to do everything I can to make it more efficient, more skillful in its actions. And speaking of actions, I have to recognize that my own are too often clumsy or unskillful. If I can carefully observe them in meditation, along with the results they bring, I can also learn to avoid those that result in harm to myself and others, and to encourage those that bring benefit. But first I have to recognize them for what they are.

These, I think, are the kind of results that Than Geoff speaks about. It's not just about the result in itself, it's about the path that leads to the result--a path that requires some fearless and persistent self-examination. Meditation, as I see it, offers me a place in which I can conduct that business, observe the mind in action, analyze the causes and effects that influence the direction of my life. It's here that I can usefully look for results.

There was a long article in Sunday's New York Times magazine this past weekend, My Shrunk Life, written by a woman who spent forty years submitting herself to various forms of psychotherapy. Forty years! It was only forty days, wasn't it, and forty nights, that Christ spent in the desert wrestling with his demons? The terrible thing about it was that she appeared to be virtually unchanged by the experience. "Still," she wrote at the end of her story, lamenting "all that money, all that unrequited love," "I recognized that therapy served me well in some ways, providing me with a habit of mind that enabled me to look at myself with a third eye and take some distance on my own repetitive patterns and compulsions... I sharpened perceptions about myself and came to a deeper understanding of the persistent claim of early, unmet desires in all of us." All of which, to my way of seeing things, she could have achieved as the "result" of a meditation practice--and for free!


Jean said...

I don't think you're really describing anything here that I don't experience in and from meditation too, Peter. (and, yes, it has changed me more than psychotherapy ever did) I have certainly experienced and continue to experience results from meditation. I guess I'm just not sure I would have experienced those results if I only meditated for what I could get out of it. But I don't think that's what you're saying - the fierce quality of experience you describe is only to be had by being fully in it, not by focusing on some goal beyond it, surely. It's always difficult for westerners to talk about aspiration, I think, and to differentiate clearly between aspiration and grasping; to talk about results and not evoke aspects of our results-oriented mainstream culture that are miles away from a meditation practice.

PaulG said...

As usual, Peter, I'm impressed with your ability to talk about your process without self-effacement or condescension. But I want to comment on your closing paragraph. I always cringe when I see the juxtaposition of Buddhist practice and psychotherapy, especially with the suggestion that they can achieve similar results.

On the surface it may seem they have a lot in common. But only one of them stresses morality and generosity as fundamental to the process of healing. Mindfulness meditation alone may have certain positive effects on an individual. I have no doubts about that. But a mind afflicted by greed, hatred, and delusion can never be at peace. I have no doubts about that, either.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for the thoughtful responses. It was not, of course, my intention to compare Buddhist practice with psychotherapy, simply to suggest that the poor woman in question might have spared herself a lifetime of misery--and expense--had she found a different path toward a different understanding of what happiness might mean. Is that not a fair "juxtaposition"?

PeterAtLarge said...

Oh, and... I do believe in the healing power of meditation.

mandt said...

ahem: "I recognized that therapy served me well in some ways, providing me with a habit of mind that enabled me to look at myself with a third eye"---exactly the formula for narcissistic failure.

They call him James Ure said...

I agreed with a lot of your post Peter. I personally have found much good from therapy but I realize that's not always so for everyone. As for Buddhism and psychology; they have some things in common but other areas where they are miles apart. Still, I think they can be mutually beneficial at times.