Kind of like being stuck on some horrible carnival ride...
Sometimes what we discover when being still and silent for a few moments is actually discouraging. The impulse to move seems unrelenting. The flood of mental activity deafening. It is for this reason that the attitude with which we practice is so important. If we expect, by practicing stillness, to suddenly find relief from some discomfort or fulfillment of some desire we are sure to be disappointed. This misconception is one of my biggest frustrations in the way meditation is often represented in modern culture.
Neurologically, the experience of having a desire fulfilled, or a discomfort removed, is pretty remote from the experience of peace pointed to by the Buddha. Fulfilling desires and avoiding displeasures are primitive biological reflexes. At this level we are almost indistinguishable from other animals. We may succeed for a time, we will certainly fail at times, but in any event this ride never stops. There is no end. There is no lasting peace. Try it yourself and let me know if you find otherwise.
Where we have an advantage, where our unique nervous systems offer us an alternative, is that we have the capacity to relate to those instincts rather than to be consumed by them. We can observe them, reflect on them, evaluate them, and to some extent choose when to be guided by them. This is not a capacity known to exist like this in other animals.
By being still and observing the nature of our experience - by just noticing it with gentle curiosity and a bit of kindness - we can find a freedom that is unique in the animal kingdom. We can find a way of being that is both more plain and more profound than satisfying a craving or avoiding something unpleasant. When, by practicing this sort of observation, we re-locate the center of our identity outside the absurd carnival of our thoughts, we find that we are no longer so inclined to believe those thoughts, or to respond to them with angst, anxiety, or addiction.
We find peace.
To practice this way of being requires first of all a willingness to witness the parade of often incoherent, self-critical, and fundamentally imbalanced mental activity that we generally accept as a given and tune out. This may not be pleasant. In the words of the great teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”
Upon witnessing the details of our mental activity honestly, we may feel concern. What does it mean that our minds produce so much noise, and what does it mean that so much of the noise is fearful, unkind, and confused? It means very little, actually. Brains are mental noise-making machines, and by default they will churn out any sort of rubbish just to keep the wheels turning.
It is natural, upon discovering rubbish, to look for a way to throw it out. In the case of our mental activity, however, there is no convenient trashcan. If we struggle against, argue with, or resist our thoughts, we find they become even more powerful. Wisdom is discovering that this is a losing battle.
Meditation on the breath is a gentle but unstoppable purification. We observe the experience of our breath, and we find that we are interrupted by a thought. We notice the thought, but do not engage it. We return to the breath. Every interruption and return is an exercise in letting go. 10 times in a minute. 100 times in 10 minutes. Letting go of the thought. Letting go of the impulse. Returning to the breath. Letting go is not pushing away. It is not struggling or resisting. It is not violent. When we return to the breath, we do so with no aggression towards the thought.
This simple practice is an embodiment of compassion and wisdom, in action, for the benefit of all beings.
As we return to the breath 10 times, 100 times, and 10,000 times, the power of our thoughts is gradually, inevitably weakened. Neurologically, we re-route the resources that would feed the mental noise to a more beneficial activity - observing, with kindness, in the present moment. With a deep bow to those old habits, we can with practice stop watering the weeds and instead water the fruit tree. We can use our thoughts when they’re useful, delight in their creative power, and be completely free of them when they do not actually serve us.
And here’s the icing on this delicious cake: This way of relating to our experience is not only useful, it is by far more deeply pleasurable than fulfilling a passing desire or avoiding some perceived threat. The joy that comes from living in this way has exhausted the vocabulary of poets and teachers far more articulate than I.
You’ll just have to taste it yourself.