An article in the Fall 2003 issue of the Buddhist periodical Tricycle, “Looking For Meaning”, by Steve Hagen, the head teacher at Learning Center in Minneapolis tries to address the issue of the meaning of meditation, and concludes that there is none, and that we should stop looking for or expecting to find any, but simply accept meditation as it is. Which would be fine, if one were to truly do that. But Hagen seems to think that this means something very mundane and ordinary, which it does not. His viewpoint is fairly common in the modern Zen tradition, not just in America, but in Japan. His ideas reflect a down-home, well-meaning, non-metaphysical, humble and common-sensical approach to Buddhism that is quite attractive to many people. Unfortunately, it's not Buddhism, because it leaves out the “buddh”, the enlightened nature of mind.
Maybe I shouldn't be getting on the case of people who are certified and trained Buddhist teachers with decades of meditation practice behind them. They probably know a lot more about meditation than I do. I just can't help wondering how this sort of thinking gets applauded and rewarded, rather than receiving a good slap on the face.
First, Hagen criticizes the search for meaning itself:
“As long as we insist that meditation must be meaningful, we fail to understand it. We meditate with the idea that we’re going to get something from it—that it will lower our blood pressure, calm us down, or enhance our concentration. And, sure. Why not? We can find meaning in anything. But no matter what meaning we look for or find, it’s delusion—and the surest way to implant feelings of meaninglessness deep within our minds.”
In the first place, he confuses the issue of meaning with the issue of getting positive results/ Yet even on that score, meditation clearly does produce positive results that can be observed and repeated, just like anything else. People do tend to meditate because it produces positive results, which is why they keep coming back to it. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as one is actually intelligent about the results and the methods used to obtain them. People clearly meditate with differing intentions, and for different purposes, in order to obtain different results, and this accounts for the wide variety of meditation practices and approaches. One must simply chose the meditation practice and approach that suites one's intentions. This is fairly matter of fact, and it's why we often need some kind of instruction or assistance. We can mistakenly choose a meditation path that doesn't suite our intentions or needs or goals, thinking that it's better for us by some kind of abstract standard rather than according to our own disposition and purpose. The primary problem that people encounter in meditation comes from this kind of confusion, which is the result of our meditation practice being at cross-purposes with our intention and needs.
Hagen, however, finds something wrong with the whole idea that we might want to get results from our meditation practice:
“As long as we insist that meditation must be meaningful, we fail to understand it. We meditate with the idea that we’re going to get something from it—that it will lower our blood pressure, calm us down, or enhance our concentration. And, we believe, if we meditate long enough, and in just the right way, it might even bring us to enlightenment.”
I understand what Hagen is trying to get at, but he's confusing meditation with enlightenment itself. Enlightened people don't meditate. The only people who meditate are those who are not enlightened, and they meditate in order to hasten enlightenment. Whatever the person defines enlightenment as, there is a form of meditation that can help achieve it. If low blood pressure and a calm disposition is “enlightenment” to you, there are forms of meditation that can help you achieve that. The whole conflict Hagen is creating around the issue of “meaning” is recursive, because by definition all meanings are created by us and attached to whatever we experience. Meditation means what we want it to mean, but like a dictionary, the intended meaning and the words and actions we engage to achieve that meaning must match one another, or we lose any sense in our practice. If by “enlightenment” we mean what the Buddha meant, there are forms of meditation which can help us achieve that too, but they may not be the same ones which achieve low blood pressure and a calm disposition. On the other hand, they might do that also, even if that is not their primary intention.
In point of fact, if we meditate correctly, that practice will indeed bring us to enlightenment. That's why the Buddha taught meditation – to bring people to enlightenment. It worked for him, and he assumed it could work for others too. The history of Buddhism seems to suggest he was right. Of course, the kind of meditation that will produce enlightenment is not something we will be able to engage if that is not our true intention, even if we think it should be. So the primary mistake people make in paths of spiritual meditation is to engage in a practice that is intended for those who wish to achieve enlightenment, but in fact do not. Often, what people really want is just a simpler and saner human life that is not so distracted by the tortured desires and fantasies of the mind. Which is a laudable goal, to be sure, but it's not really the same as desiring enlightenment as Buddha taught it. It's pretty much on the level of desiring the enlightenment of low blood pressure and a calm disposition.
And it appears that this is what Hagen desires – a simple and sane human life free of the neuroses common to spiritual seekers who fantasize about enlightenment, but in fact want something of a much lesser order. So Hagen is trying to address this sort of mistake, but in doing so, he's also trying to elevate his ordinary desiring into something transcendental, which it is not. What he's saying is certainly sensible for himself and people like him, which I assume is his audience. But I'm not sure what it has to do with Buddhism.
Here he at least tries to make a connection to Buddhism:
“We have to look at the mind we bring to this practice. Though we go through the motions of sitting in meditation, generally it’s not the mind of meditation at all. It’s the mind of getting somewhere - which is obviously not the mind of enlightenment. It’s the mind of ego, the mind that seeks gain and keeps coming up short.”
Examining the mind is indeed the core of Buddhist practice, so he's right to emphasize this. It's also important to examine the mind that we bring to meditation – even though that's a little redundant, in that genuine Buddhist meditation is by definition an examination of the mind. If one were not doing that to begin with, one wouldn't be doing Buddhist meditation at all. Which, perhaps, is fairly common among Buddhists, so perhaps it's worth mentioning. But to expect that a person bring to medition a mind that is free of seeking and craving is simply absurd, since the core teaching of Buddhism is that our minds are entirely driven by craving and desiring. Hence, we can't bring any other kind of mind to meditation. The difference, if there is one, is that we are to examine this craving mind in our meditation, and not be surprised if that is what we find. To the contrary, we are to expect to find that kind of mind every time we meditate. We are even to expect to find a mind which desires to be free of desire, which craves the cessation of craving. This too is the nature of mind.
What Hagen seems to desire is to sit down and meditate without finding oneself craving or desiring, which is simply impossible until one is actually fully and truly enlightened. Until that point, we should expect nothing less than craving, desiring, and every kind of illusion. To meditate does not mean to be free of these things, it means to observe them and examine them as they are, as the very nature of our own minds. Hagen, it appears, is looking for some way around this, some way of not being a craven seeker while meditating. Unfortunately, this is exactly what he is doing. And fortunately, if he meditates properly, he will observe this and smile. One simply cannot escape craving and desiring, even by trying not to do these things. Instead, one will simply crave within the context of the mind itself without realizing it. And yet, realizing that this is what we do brings spontaneous freedom. That is the Zen of Zen meditation.
The mind is always wanting to get somewhere, and until we accept this about the mind, we can't ever be at peace with ourselves. There is no mind that is at peace. The only peace comes when we have no mind at all, when the mind is transcended. And yes, there is a meditation that accomplishes this, but it is useful only to those who truly intend this. For anyone else, it would be detrimental to their life and practice. So in that sense I can agree with Hagen that people should simply be more ordinary in their approach to meditation, since must people have very ordinary goals to begin with, if we strip away their aspirational delusions.
But anyone who has a genuine interest in Buddhism or meditation or enlightenment ought to at least be pointed towards a meditation practice that can open them to a higher possibility than the mind's recursive cravings. And I'm not sure that Hagen is doing that. His description of meditation lacks an understanding of the real nature of our problem with the mind:
“Meditation is just to be here. This can mean doing the dishes, writing a letter, driving a car, or having a conversation - if we’re fully engaged in this activity of the moment, there is no plotting or scheming or ulterior purpose. This full engagement is meditation. It doesn’t mean anything but itself.”
The problem with this concept of meditation is that “being here” has noting to do with doing the dishes, writing letters, or having conversations, and it is not achieved by fully engaging these activities without any ulterior purpose. In fact, it would be absurd to engage these activities without any ulterior purpose or goal One drives a car to get somewhere, one writes a letter with a purpose in mind, and one converses with others for reasons. One's attention is always going to be on some goal, mundane or not, otherwise one would not engage these activities at all.
Even more importantly, it's very important to realize that we are not “here” at all, if we define here as “doing the dishes, writing letters, or having conversations”. To be in the here and now has nothing to do with having one's attention on either the objects of this world, or one's apparent activities in them. In point of fact, as I've said in earlier posts, we are not really here at all, in this world, doing the things we appear to be doing. This is true on many levels, including the spiritual level of reincarnation, but also on even deeper levels, including the ultimate level of Buddh itself. There is no sense in which we, as conscious beings, are “here” in this world. In fact, telling people to fully engage in their activities in this world is a recipe for complete dissatisfaction and disappointment, because we will never be able to achieve it. Why? Because we are not here, and we never will be, hard as we might try. To simply do our ordinary activities, with our attention focused upon them, is to reinforce the primary delusions of our own minds, which are constantly looking for external referents to make us feel real.
The meditation of “doing the dishes”, or “chop wood carry water” as it is commonly expressed, is not what enlightenment is about. It's what the illusion of “being here” is about. If there's a deeper message in that kind of teaching, it's that we should merely engage these activities without ever believing in them for a second. Instead, we should “be here” in the true sense, which has nothing to do with these activities or this world. As Ramana taught, we need to learn to “Be as you are”,. But to that, we need to find out who we are. So meditation, whether sitting in silence or in the midst of action, is concerned with our real being, not our apparent activities, whether they are inside as thoughts or outside as actions.
The meditative mind is simply and truly attentive to who or what we are now, what we are actually being, not what we think we are as defined by our activities or appearance. We are not doing dishes when we do the dishes, and we are not driving the car when we are driving the car. None of this is true, none of this is genuinely “here”. The practice of meditation helps us break the spell our constant thinking and action has over us, showing us the cracks in the facade until they open up and show us what is actually going on, what is really and truly here. That is, of course, if we meditate in a fashion that intends to break this spell, rather than in one that wishes merely to calm us down and be at ease with the dream-life. And that of course is precisely what many people want, and they should meditate accordingly. But this is not what the Buddha taught, and it doesn't make sense to pretend otherwise.
The Buddha taught that the entire world, and every action within it, was merely a concept in the mind. The approach to meditation that Buddha recommended was purposed towards seeing this, with greater and greater clarity, until the whole picture was visible in one simple vision. This is what he called “right view”. When right view was achieved, all of Buddhist practice fell into place. He did not recommend some lesser practice of “fully engaging the activity of the moment:. That is the very kind of idealism that Buddha criticized and considered deluding. There is no activity other than the mind creating concepts, such as the concept of “doing dishes” or “driving the car”. So Buddhist meditation while doing the dishes is to see that this is merely a concept, an illusion, by observing the mind that creates these conceptual delusions. Strangely enough, this brings us great peace, and allows us to do the dishes without any fuss. The dishes have no meaning to us, because they aren't here at all. In the here and now, there are no dishes, and no washing of them. This makes it possible to wash dishes without any mind at all, without us doing anything.
“To look for meaning is to look for a model, a representation, an explanation, a justification for something other than this, what’s immediately at hand. Meditation is releasing whatever reasons and justifications we might have, and taking up this moment with no thought that this can or should be something other than just this.”
Hagen's problem is that he assumes that meanings are something “out there” that we look for, rather than something we attach to what we do. Certainly some people do approach the matter of meaning this way, looking for meaning rather than creating meanings as we go. The problem Hagen points to is not resolved by abandoning meaning, but by understanding where meaning comes from, that it originates in us, and we need to treat it accordingly. The meaning of meditation, therefore, is found in our own intentions when we meditate. If we meditate, we do indeed have a purpose, a meaning, we have given it. Part of what must occur in the process, therefore, is to be attentive to our own purpose, the meaning we are giving to our meditation, and thus to know our own mind. Hagen, unfortunately, suggests that he meditates without any meaning at all, that he just does it, without expecting any results. This is simply not plausible. I don't mean that Hagen is lying, but I do mean that he is simply unaware of his own reasons for meditating, or has become so convinced that the best meditation is not to have any purpose in meditating, that he's spend his years meditating erasing his own footprints. But this doesn't fool anyone except oneself. It's certainly not a path to recommend to others, unless that happens to be their goal.
“Just this” is a wonderful goal, but it's not what Hagen thinks it is. “Just this” is not the world of appearances that the mind is embracing, and it will never achieve “just this” by the methods of meditation Hagen advocates, which is a kind of purposeless relaxation. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if one wants to know “just this”, it requires a profound impulse, an overwhelming deisre to be free of all illusion, both mundane and supernatural. As Nisargadatta once said when someone asked him how to overcome desire, the problem is that our desires are too small. We only want a little bit here and there, when we should really desire hugely. Likewise, Shirdi Sai Baba, when asked how he realized, replied, “Sheer desire”.
The desire to be free of desire can mistakenly manifest as an intentional abandonment of desire itself, producing a kind of quietude and stillness that is certainly enjoyable and sane. But this is not the path of enlightenment. The true path of enlightenment is one that observes how profoundly desiring we are, at every level, and that we cannot escape this, even when we try and appear to succeed at some level. We have to understand that while we cannot ever fully embrace the world, or fully “do the dishes”, or “drive the car”, because we are not of this world, we can indeed embrace the mind of desire fully, because that is what we are. To meditate, to observe the mind, to know the nature of the mind, is to see that desire and craving is all the ego is, and to embrace meditation means to become overwhelmed with desire, even the desire to be free of desire, the impulse to know who we are, what we are, where we are, why we are here, what our real purpose and meaning is.
We have to become so consumed by this desire that it burns up every other kind of craving, every object of desire, and every form of meditation. True meditation is to be burned up in desire, not to calmly do the dishes. One does the dishes knowing that doing dishes is never going to fulfill our desires one way or the other, and so one achieves a kind of relaxation and acceptance in relation to all the things of this world. This is what renunciation means. One is not embracing doing dishes, one is renouncing them, and the whole world, because one sees that they cannot possibly fulfill our true desire. By becoming concentrated in desire itself, we become dispassionate. The mind becomes a single force, without an object. And in that concentration, we are able to observe the mind as it is, as a concept without any foundation in reality. We, ourselves, are seen as without any foundation. That is the meditation that produces enlightenment.
Of course, it's only for those who really want it. Knowing what we want is often harder than gettng what we want.