In my previous two posts I gave a very brief orientation to meditation through the lens of my experience and an overview of one branch of meditation practices, which emphasize stabilizing concentration for gaining insight into how our minds operate. In this post I’ll describe another branch of meditation practice that aims to cultivate wisdom.
As discussed in Part 1, the spiritual goal of Buddhism is to eliminate the three poisons of ignorance, craving, and hatred. The practice of stabilizing and concentration meditation builds the capacity to stay focused, through both awareness of what your attention is directed towards (what story you are telling or video you are watching in your mind) as well as to allow emotions to rise and fall without getting trapped in them or detracted by them. There is more to it than just that, but this gives you a sense of why you might want to engage in these practices.
The cultivation of wisdom is considered the direct antidote to the three poisons, it is this broad ranging aspect of mental activity that ultimately puts an end to craving and hatred that are the primary causes of human suffering. The words craving and hatred might feel extreme and you may be wondering if they really apply to your life. These mental states are also often translated as attachment and aversion, and usually when presented this way, almost everyone can immediately relate to feeling attachment and aversion – the flip side though is that we have resistance to giving up attachment and aversion, whereas most of us won’t even claim that we have carving and hatred.
Here is how I understand these two poisons. The mental state of attachment is one in which I am thinking, “if I have that (person, place, thing, experience) I will be happy”; whereas the state of aversion is, “if I have that (person, place, thing, experience) I will suffer”. Note, I will use the term things to refer to anything that one might be attached or averse to. The key is to understand that the issue is our belief that the cause of our happiness or suffering resides within the external thing and is not the product of our own minds. This misunderstanding that the source of satisfaction resides outside of our minds is the fundamental ignorancethat causes the poisons of craving and hatred. Wisdom then, is the understanding, actually the lived moment to moment experience of awareness that satisfaction (peace, happiness, contentment, etc.) is a product of my mind and occurs when I stop projecting those qualities as inherent characteristics of external things.
I have well over 100 books on Buddhism, and every one of them addresses this topic to one degree or another, certainly half are entirely devoted to exploring the implications, nuances, and validity of what I presented in the preceding paragraph. It is absolutely the crux of Buddhist philosophy and psychology. There are literally thousands of writings in dozens of languages covering twenty-five hundred years of exploration and very lively debate about how the simple proclamation that ignorance, craving, and hatred are the root of all suffering.
The great news is that you don’t have to read all of those tomes, and you don’t have to go into a monastery to study and meditate the rest of your life to benefit from the work that has been done by folks who have dedicated their lives to exploring these ideas and developing practices to help gain insight.
The branch of wisdom meditations is a primary tool for exploring whether or not the three poisons really are the cause of problems and to what extent you want to eliminate them from your mind. In short, these meditations are mostly thought exercises, some of which are referred to as mind training, and involve literally mentally walking through life scenarios and analyzing them from the lens of wisdom.
I’ll give one short example. We generally perceive things that we are attracted to as permanent sources of happiness. When I look at my new car, I don’t spend much, if any, time thinking about how within a year it will have transformed and how in 5 years it won’t be nearly as bright and shiny and I won’t have the same attraction to it as I do now. Yet, the car’s impermanence is built into its very nature. The dissatisfaction I will certainly feel someday is put into play the moment I look at the car as if this wasn’t inevitable. If I was fully cognizant of this fact when I looked at my car, I would not have any irritation over noticing the scratches near the handle, or the small dent on the rear panel. I would just take these things in as perfectly expected, but that is not really how I experience the deterioration of my bright and shiny things. I am irritated, disappointed, and resentful in proportion to how much happiness I’ve projected onto that particular thing.
Thus, one genre of mind training meditations focuses us on recognizing the inherent impermanence in all things. There are many ways to do this, some quite short and simple, “bring to mind an object in your home, any object, and consider its impermanence”; others are longer and more complicated.
Once you begin to build up a state of mind that perceives the world as it actually exists, and not just as we want it to exist, you then join this with the stabilizing and concentration practices to condition your mind to hold this awareness through more and more of your lived experience.
Note, I never said the goal wasn’t to enjoy things (a common misunderstanding of the idea of detachment). I am proposing we can enjoy things and simultaneously be aware that the enjoyment is momentary and will end – if we can let that happen without anger (hatred) we are in a state of equanimity that affords the greatest level of presence of mind.
Whew! It’s risky to try to distill down such an immense topic into a very brief introduction. I can tell you, the thing that really got me interested and willing to try on Buddhism was the notion that there was no expectation that I believed everything I heard, or that I tried every practice that was offered – the teacher(s) were in fact quite willing to encourage my questioning, analyzing mind! The motto I’ve heard over and over again is, “if something you’ve heard sounds right to you and will be helpful, then great, by all means use it in your life; if other things seem strange or even false, then leave them to others – you are welcome to come and practice putting what works for you into action”. The Dalai Lama is often quoted, and I’ve heard him say this myself, “the world doesn’t need more Buddhist, it needs more compassion”. In this same spirit I offer some brief ideas that have been immensely helpful to me and to many others I have witnessed.