What is the real point of a meditation practice? What is the purpose of any kind of activity intended to develop insight, liberation, enlightenment or just deeper understanding of life?
There are probably as many answers to those questions as there are “spiritual paths” or practice methodologies. But I’m trying to push through to some essentials, some underlying basics, some answer that is pragmatic and practical and doesn’t depend on path or method. My recent experience with things falling apart in my life–and how I dealt with that–have me thinking that a very basic thing that my efforts have done for me is to help me be prepared when things come crashing down.
After some years of varied meditation practice and other efforts at grappling with big questions, including working with a teacher on a regular basis, I have realized that there’s not some kind of ultimate goal, some kind of flashing magic experience that will open doors of understanding so deep that nothing disturbs me. It’s just a matter of relying on the experiences and teachings that have accumulated over these years to help me know how to deal with what comes up, whatever that is.
What this most recent crash, this falling apart, has shown me is that acceptance is the key element.
About a week into the crash, which left me alone with my thoughts, memories, tears and depression every day, I tried to sort out why, exactly, I felt so crazy. What I came up with more or less guided me through the next weeks of that ordeal, and though it wasn’t a whole lot of help in making it less painful, it did help me navigate it, survive it, and be open to resolving the issues that led to the crash when that became a possibility.
I learned a lot through it all, and I hope I can share some of that in this venue. The key realization of the breakthrough that helped me find a way forward–which in the beginning seemed like an impossibility–were understanding why I felt so crazy. I realized that most of my agony was because I was resisting and angry about the whole situation.
I was resisting what was happening because I didn’t want it to be happening, and I didn’t want to feel any of the feelings I was going through. And I was angry that it was happening and out of my control. Nothing I could do could make me feel any better about the situation.
It seemed as if I was just going to be sad and hopeless and pathetic for the rest of my life because I had become dependent on others for my emotional stability.
On that breakthrough evening, I realized that the only way to move on was to stop resisting. As much as I hated the thought of “giving up” on things getting better, I realized that I needed to move to–at least begin the movement toward–accepting that this was my life and that I was responsible for my own mental/emotional health and sanity. I had already moved past being angry at anyone else, but as I wrote in my journal that night, I needed to “truly get over being angry” and stop thinking that someone was gonna fix it.
What my Zen practice and other meditation gave me at this point was the understanding that I could embrace this sadness and pain and nauseating depression as just another emotional state no better nor worse than any other. Suddenly all those years of sitting on the cushion, walking and chanting and reading about how it’s all the same snapped into clear relief. Could I really accept that notion?
Well, I didn’t really want to. I wanted to think that if my suffering was big enough, I would be pitied, and it would stop. But I realized that I just needed to be the Zen I had tried to be all these years, to be in it fully and accept that maybe it just takes this much pain to push me through to that state of enlightened mind that could accept what is, “the present moment,” as the teachers say.
Not that suddenly it was all better. Far from it. I spent quite a few weeks more of up and down and “railing against God,” as the Christians say. My depression was still strong most of the time, and I was lost in hog wallows of self-pity a lot of the time. But things never got so bad I couldn’t function, and eventually I began to find a tolerable level of emotional calm.
In addition, I began to have some realizations that advanced my practice itself, as I bit by bit began to understand how to apply that notion of acceptance to what was going on in my life. I began to see that what had happened could be understood as a really big lesson in impermanence, that idea of anicca /emptiness/ shunyatta that I had studied and professed to be pursuing understanding of for all these years. A really big lesson. And the pain as energy for penetrating to the insight of what it means to say that it’s all impermanent.
I had to plow through a whole lot of guilt, self-blame, self-loathing and the deep sense that I just deserved the pain I was getting. Instant karma.
I began to really relate to the old Elmore James song that I had long loved, “Musta Done Somebody Wrong.” I’ve always loved the blues, and now they began to take on new meaning for me. Robert Johnson’s line about “like consumption, killing me by degrees,” was a favorite when I played guitar out on the front porch. But I was slowly working my way through it. As I look at my journal entries, I see gradual progress in understanding.
My actual sitting practice had somewhat declined in intensity over the past few years (that’s another story), but I began to sit daily and seriously again during this incident. In the beginning, I was using sitting as an escape from depression and loneliness. At some point, I had a breakthrough about that as well.
A few weeks into the period of despair, I began re-reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, which I had read many years ago and appreciated. Her analysis and advice was very helpful, and as I began to seriously meditate again, I realized that my approach to meditation was flawed.
I realized that, rather than using meditation as a distraction from the depression and pain, I needed to embrace the pain as a positive thing because it’s pushing me to get serious on the cushion. And to just sit and seriously be with the sitting as what this is all about. In my journal, I articulated it this way:
“…Approach the meditation as what I need to be doing, not as a distraction or escape from the pain and discomfort of the situation, and seeing that why all the other things—TV, music, even reading—just kinda make me feel sick and I don’t want to do them, is because I need to do the sitting and they are just a distraction from that.”(Journal, June 7, 2021)
This realization opened me up to vast possibilities of increased understanding, compassion and tenderness.
“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”