Sometimes I have difficulty with the more woo woo aspects of mindfulness practice. I tend to think about my meditation, for example, in pretty straight forward terms. I sit. I close my eyes. I breathe. I pay attention to the breath. If my mind wanders, I notice that, and then I try to bring my attention back to the breath. Sometimes, I notice the mind wandering and then I allow it to continue wandering. Sometimes, rather than focusing on the breath, I might instead meditate on a subject, a theme, a wish for the world or the day, a mantra, if you will. Generally, I find meditation restful, rejuvenating, leveling, grounding, motivating, a place for deep reflection, and I think for these reasons that it’s good for me. Certain philosophical or spiritual aspects of the work come to me with more difficulty. For example, this idea of consciousness somehow being not a part of or beyond my physical self. I kind of get the notion that we are not our thoughts, that thinking is a brain function that fluctuates from moment to moment, sometimes (often) without our control. While we may, from time to time, have an evil or a perverse thought, this does not make us evil or perverse. A healthy approach to the mind might be like a healthy approach to one’s art: that poem is NOT me; it is a moment moving through me. I am not attached to it. Similarly with the body. This meat and water sack I walk around in is NOT me; it’s only a vehicle, a vehicle on loan, one that is destined to break down. We try to take care of the vehicle and try not to wrap our identity too tightly around it. A difficult job, no doubt. But the body and the brain seem to me to be the responsible parties for all the stuff we feel and think, are inextricably connected to each other; when the mind is sick so will be the body. I guess, what I’m trying to put into words is the problem I have accepting mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, enlightenment as NOT the result of stuff that my body and brain are doing, as not a part of my biology. If I am not my body and I am not my mind, who am I? If I am not the one who thinks but the one that is aware of the thinking, who’s that guy? Is he really everywhere? Is he traveling in outer space? Is he connected to people all over the world, past, future and present, as part of something like Emerson’s Oversoul? Can he affect change by thinking thoughts and sending those thoughts out as waves across the planet? Is the top of my head really a glowing purple orb?
I don’t know about these things.
What I do know is that if I love myself I can love others. If I am happy or joyful I can spread happiness and joy. I think these things are part of the practice, but still, they are material, they have to do with the way my thinking effects my behavior and the way my behavior affects the people I encounter and the systems within which I operate. This stuff can spread, right, because if I make someone feel joy they might spread it around ad infinitum. I believe this, and I tell my students this stuff all of the time, that the way we think and what we believe determines the way we live our lives. What we put in, we get out. What we give, we get back. And I acknowledge that this is not a simple matter. Patterns form, some nearly impossible to break. Some of these patterns are not ours. And then there are chemicals and shit inside there that sometimes betray us. I don’t know that it would be helpful to tell a David Foster Wallace, a Phillip Seymore Hoffman, a Virginia Woolf to simply sit on a cushion for 20 minutes a day. I don’t believe that depression is a choice. I’ve had moments recently when I’ve experienced melancholy for no apparent reason, almost debilitatingly so, but it passes, and I am lucky. I have had the good fortune to be able to locate it, look at it, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh would advise, hold it, love it a little, whereby it might transform into something more life-giving and useful. So when we say, this body is not me, or these thoughts are not me, I get that. We are more than our component parts and thoughts and emotions. We are not that guy cursing because he has to clean up after the puppy, AGAIN. And we share atoms with everybody and everything. I am the puppy. You are my other me. I get that, too. Mostly, though, what I get is presence. How am I present in the world? And it still seems to me that that presence comes out of some combination of body and brain, for better or worse.