When I talk about having a meditation practice, people sometimes ask why I do it, what I get out of it. In a way being goal-oriented about meditation is missing the point, but at the same time, certainly it yields tangible benefits. One of those has been on my mind lately so I thought I'd write a little about it.
Meditation has helped me see the difference between stories and life. Before I meditated, I thought they were the same. Actually, I didn't think about it at all. I took it for granted. Seeing the difference is profound and important.
If you haven't watched the recent clip of Louis C.K. talking about smart phones and profound sadness, you should.
Chilly autumns like the ones we have in Seattle make me wistful and nostalgic and I have lately been really in touch with that basic loneliness he talks about. It comes up as a bare feeling for just an instant before my mind fills it in with story. And my mind is tricky: it tries to make it seem the other way around, like the story came first, and the loneliness resulted.
I'm sitting in my apartment alone and I'm single and that's why... feeling of profound sadness and loneliness.
I've lost touch with this good friend and I remember the times we had together and don't anymore and that's why... feeling of profound sadness and loneliness.
I remember past autumns in different homes all of which is lost to me in the sands of time and that's why... feeling of profound sadness and loneliness.
Before I meditated I didn't see my mind making up these stories. I thought the stories were just true, in a basic way, like it's true that I am in Seattle typing this on a keyboard right now. I thought my life and the stories my mind made up about my life were the same thing.
Buddhism describes the mind as one of the six sense organs. Eyes: visuals, ears: sound, nose: smell, tongue: taste, body: touch, and mind: thoughts. Thoughts are just sensory input like sounds. I like this way of thinking about the mind. We are not our minds and the thoughts we think anymore than we are our eyeballs and the sights we see.
Our minds are sensemaking organs: They look for simple relationships between the events of our lives, and those are the stories the mind spits out. We like things to make sense, and things make sense when we can relate them to other things. That's what a story is: events with relationships. And the events of our lives do have relationships to each other, but the true relationships are indescribably complex. But we don't want that. Our minds like simple relationships. Simple relationships make things memorable. A lot of memorization techniques are about that, taking a set of things and layering simple relationships on them, like imagining them all arranged in your childhood house. Our brains are very good at remembering that.
Even the simplest stories, a chronological series of events, are editorial works: Your mind is choosing which events to use. If you describe your most recent vacation, maybe you just talk about ten events that happened one after the other. But your vacation was countless moments, and your mind chose ten events from that list. It is just one story about your vacation. There are an infinite number more your mind did not choose to tell you.
The mind curates your life into stories, and those are what you remember.
Simple causality, "A caused B", is always an oversimplification when talking about real life events. One of the core tenets of Buddhism is Codependent Arising, the philosophy that all things are causally related. But the point is, that web of causal relationships is dense. Everything depends on everything else. It is unknowably complex.
You can also find this philosophy in the excellent book, Difficult Conversations. They say, when you're having a tough conversation with someone, never focus on blame. Focus on contribution. Blame implies simple causality: This is your fault, not my fault. But the reality is, no situation has a single cause. Everyone contributed to the situation arising. Talk about that, instead.
After you have meditated for some amount of time, you start to see two separate events: the moment you have an experience, and a separate moment, an instant later, that your mind starts telling you a story to explain it. Once you see those as separate things, it is like gaining a superpower. You can listen to your mind's story without believing it.
Until you can see this separation, you get hooked in the story and it's a messy experience. Maybe you start by feeling loneliness but then you're thinking about the story, and your mind keeps spinning. You're alone, it says, because there is nobody out there for you. And so then you feel despair. Or if you have a partner, your mind wonders why you still feel alone. And you feel guilt. Maybe you are a bad partner. Now you feel fear, helpless to stop the rollercoaster your mind is taking you on. And on it goes.
Once you can see this separation, you can just sit there and feel the sensation, uncluttered by narrative. This can still be very intense, but it's much simpler, much more straightforward. You feel lonely. What does loneliness feel like? A weight at the outside of the eyes. A slight tightness of the throat. The eyes are a little moist. There's a sweetness, too. When you think about other people, it's very easy to feel compassion for them, easier than normal. When you look around and see the things you do have, you notice a strong sense of gratitude.
Louis C.K. does such a great job of describing this, how profound it is to just sit there and feel a strong sensation. I have always struggled to explain that to people. "OK, so meditation helps me just feel whatever I'm feeling, but why would I want to feel what I'm feeling if it's bad?" Because it isn't "bad." "Bad" only exists in the story your mind tells you. When you can just stay with the feeling, it is very rich, infinitely richer than any simple story about it can ever express.
Don't believe your stories.
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