By Martin Horan
Many long-term meditators have had the experience. We put time and effort into meditation sometimes over many years – and the question comes up: Is it really making a difference? We often find our way into Dharma practice because there are things we’d like to change about our lives. And the more teachings we receive and Dharma texts we read, there’s one message that’s hard to miss. It’s all about mind – specifically our own mind.
It’s all about mind
The things that aren’t working out so well in our personal relationships, work, and the way we feel about ourselves: if we look beyond the surface, it’s ultimately our own mind that’s the main issue. This shouldn’t be understood in a simplistic way. And it absolutely shouldn’t be taken as blaming ourselves or others for whatever difficulties we or they may be going through.
But ultimately the way we see and respond to things, the things we regard as important, the things we chase and those we avoid: all of this comes from our own mind. Where else could it come from?
The teachings on karma add another layer– drawing to our attention the way that habit is such a powerful force in our lives. In any and every moment we’re living out scenarios that are driven and shaped by what we have previously done, said and thought. And Buddhism teaches that these chains of cause and effect extend over multiple lifetimes.
If we just leave it there, we can easily feel stuck. The deepest causes of everything we struggle with lie within our own mind. These causes unfold in patterns of behaviour and mental habits so ingrained, it’s difficult for us to see that they’re happening, let alone to change them. And while meditation can give us wonderful moments of peace and clarity, it can be difficult to sustain our mindfulness when the meditation session is over and we’re plunged back into the world of family, work, relationships etc.
Meditation shows us through direct experience how we can shift our mind to more positive states, sometimes quite quickly. But it can also make us more aware of how strong and persistent our mental and emotional habits are. Changing the pattern and direction of our lives in a fundamental way – really becoming kinder, wiser, more courageous, more resilient – can seem as elusive as ever.
Little wins along the way
While attaining fundamental and lasting changes (i.e. ‘realisations’ – more about them below!), might initially feel elusive, we can definitely make important wins along the way. Indeed, a good way to test our progress after starting a regular meditation practice, is to watch how our reactions change to our common stressors. For example, many of us struggle with heavy traffic and aggressive drivers. After we begin meditation practice, we might notice that dealing with traffic and challenging drivers is easier and not as stressful. We gradually became calmer, more patient, more skilful in our approach. Or perhaps we are dealing with a personal or family situation. In the past we might have worried, become anxious and lost sleep, and as a result of discursive thought have had no idea what to do. With a calmer mind, based on regular meditation practice, we will more easily and calmly work out if there is anything we can do to practically help or if not, at the very least empathise and provide personal support, rather than worrying too much.
According to Buddhist teachings, these progressive changes can become fundamental and lasting when through our meditation practice, nourished by the energy of positive activities, we achieve realisations. While “realisation” is an English translated term from traditional Buddhist texts (the Tibetan term is rtogs-pa), it’s still meaningful to unpack the term.
For example, before we have the realisation of compassion, it’s not that we never have the experience of compassion. But we don’t feel compassionate all the time. We might like to feel that way. We might aspire to feel that way. We might accept the teachings of all the great religions, including Buddhism, about the beauty and power of compassion.
However, whether we actually feel compassionate, who we feel compassion for, and how strongly we feel it, isn’t fully within our control. It comes and goes. It depends on the situation, who we’re with and what else is happening in our lives at the time. We have momentary compassion but compared to the stable compassion of the bodhisattva that we might aspire to, it isn’t fully “real”.
It’s the “realisation” of compassion that makes it really real! Compassion is no longer a state of mind we merely aspire to – something we wish we could bring to all the events of our life and to the other living beings we encounter. It’s the way we see and respond to every living being – from our heart, effortlessly and naturally in every situation. It becomes our default way of viewing the world – in the same way that worry, or self-interest, or irritation might be our default ways of functioning at the moment.
Dr Alexander Berzin, the founder of the Study Buddhism website defines “Realisation” (rtogs-pa) as follows
A stable, correct understanding of some point in the Dharma, such as voidness (emptiness), which brings about a lasting attainment and positive change in the person who has it.
The key point is that when we have a realisation of something our understanding is stable. It is fully integrated within our mind. And so, it can bring lasting positive change.
The way we achieve realisations is through deep meditation – specifically through the combination of calm abiding and special insight. For example, imagine we are able to generate strong compassion through meditation, stabilise our mind on that vivid experience with no agitation or dullness for as long as we wish, and that our meditation is accompanied by a pervasive bliss of body and mind. Further, we can enter such deep meditation at any time without effort. It isn’t difficult to imagine that if we could fully, perfectly and blissfully stabilise our mind on compassion for hours on end, that this is something that would transform us. This is the basis of realisation.
So where does that leave my “meh-ditation”?
But it would be a mistake to conclude that our own ordinary meditation practice – even if it feels patchy, inconsistent and rarely, if ever, blissful – isn’t useful or a powerful force in our lives. It might not be sufficiently deep to produce actual realisations right now, as its immediate effect. But it is still the basis of realisation. And because our mind is so strongly influenced by habit, the more we cultivate the habit of meditation, the more powerful and effective that tendency becomes over time.
From this perspective, whether we have a great meditation session or a “meh” meditation session at any one time isn’t so significant. If we continuously try, at the same time improving our practice, by becoming familiar with the instructions on concentration and calm abiding, and learning from our own experience, we come closer every day to realisations.
We can only develop actual calm abiding and special insight by training in single pointed meditation and analytical meditation in our day-to-day practice. For example, the “actual” way to travel to India is to board a flight bound for India. But actually, travelling to India would be impossible unless we drive to the airport first.
Though it might not always feel that way, from this perspective our ordinary stumbling efforts at meditation are an extraordinary powerful influence on who we will be in the future.