Meditation, Inner Dialogue, and Ambition
I’ve finished listening to Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are, which, title notwithstanding, is not a book for beginners to Tibetan Buddhism or meditation. It assumes you’ve already set off on this path of self-compassion and mindfulness and its lessons are there to supplement what you learn at your meditation centre or from your teacher. In meditation, evidently (for I am neither expert nor practitioner), you start with what you’ve got, where you are, and work with that stuff (suffering, pain, embarrassment, discomfort, pride, joy, whatever) as the raw material for “waking up” to your own life.
The system Chödrön describes is a complex one: there are slogans and principles and teachings and vows. Sometimes one teaching or one principle is broken down into a short list of its constituent parts, and these presented in abstracted language–or language that has become abstracted in the translator’s attempt to keep it accurate and true to the original meaning. While there are people out there, like Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMAss Med Center’s Center for Mindfulness, who incorporate Buddhist teachings and principles into stress-reduction techniques, Buddhism is a religion and has an inherent system to which one must, ideally, be faithful in the whole and not just in the parts you find attractive for your current purposes.
Like most Westerners, though, I’m reading about Buddhism because it seems to hold the promise of experiencing less pain, or dealing better with pain, or not freaking out because things feel difficult or uncertain. So, if I follow the letter, if not the spirit of Pema Chödrön’s title and start with me right here and now, I’ve learned a thing or two:
- even serious meditators don’t actually blank out while meditating. Your thoughts are always going to come and engage your brain in its endless internal conversation loop.
- what is important is what you do with those thoughts. Do you use them to construct the narrative that is/becomes your self or ego? Or do you acknowledge that you’re sitting there, making a huge deal out of yourself and your internal life and you should just Let. It. Go.?
Buddhism and meditation have some good vocabulary to get at the root of the adage to know thyself and love yourself for who you are. The goal of meditation and mindfulness is not to zone out of your life in order to smooth over the rough spots. (Though let’s confess that this option sounds pretty attractive at times.) Instead, the goal is to really know what you fear, what prompts your anger or indignation, what makes you uneasy–and make friends with that emotion in yourself. See it, know it, feel compassion toward it. Lather, rinse, repeat. Then, share that compassion outward, recognizing that all the nastiness and fear in you is in others, as well. Send compassion outward, but start with yourself.
My inner dialogue often involves if . . . . then . . . . /or when . . . . then . . . . scenarios that I construct for myself. These scenarios help me come to terms with what I think my true values are, what is totally essential in my life, and where I want to wind up. A Buddhist teacher would likely tell me, or let me find out for myself, that I am not going to wind up anywhere–I am somewhere and will be somewhere tomorrow and somewhere the day after that. NOW is not a moment to flee or plan my way out of. Now is it and will be it and always has been it.
I know this. We all do. Pop psychology and self-help books are full of this advice and I’ve read it before. But living in the now–and really appreciating it and having compassion for it, warts and all–doesn’t fit well with that part of me that wants to have a plan for my family’s financial and material and educational future. I don’t think Buddhism would reject the notion of saving for the kids’ education, but I do think it rejects my own internal dialogue about what life has to look like in order for me to finally heave that heavy sigh of relief and say, “whew, we made it.” In part because I assume that I will have to overcome parts of myself in order to get to wherever “there” is. Those parts aren’t there to be overcome. They are there because they are there and instead of pitching some sort of adversarial war against them, I need to get to know them, feel love and compassion for them, and then choose to not do them if that is what I need to be happy.
So, it’s not quite “I’m smart enough, I’m good enough, and doggone it, people like me.” It’s more like, “yep, I am annoying and neurotic, just like everyone else. I’m going to make friends with my annoying behaviours and neurosis. You wanna do the same? Then maybe we’ll stop inflicting them on others, mmmkay?”