Monday November 24, 2008
I was awake just after five this morning, whilst oustide it was still dark; and because I didn’t feel like sleeping any more, and had an early train to catch, I got up and went into the next door room where I sat down to meditate. It was probably the my most substantial period of meditation for weeks: given that I live in one town and work in another, I spend a lot of my time on the move, and this nomadism is not particularly suited to consistency when it comes to meditation practice. Anyway, I have long got used to the idea that, when it comes to meditation, I cut a fairly shambolic figure. No doubt I could be more self-disciplined, no doubt I could put in more hours on the cushions, no doubt I could make more effort when I do sit down to meditate: but, at the moment at least, I’m just lurching along in a half-baked fashion, and I’m pretty happy with this state of affairs.
When I first learned to meditate, over a decade and a half ago now, I sometimes fantasised that I might become some kind of meditative virtuoso, a Yehudi Menuhin of the meditation cushions. But even if, at various times, I have put a fair amount of time into my practice of meditation – on retreat, or during those periods in which I have developed and sustained a particular taste for meditation – I have not reached anything like virtuosity, nor (I suspect) will I ever do so.
I do think, incidentally, that there is such a thing as meditative virtuousity. If you put in the hours, and you put in the hours in the right way, then there are no doubt results. But the idea of becoming a virtuoso meditator is one that very quickly lost its lustre for me. Not because of the hours and hours of practice involved, but more because I became increasingly uncertain what this kind of virtuosity was for. There are plenty of Buddhist stories about meditative virtuosi who simply miss the point. I’ve written before, I think, about the charming tale of the sage Saraha who asked his wife for milk and radishes, and then went to meditate. Months or years later, he got up from his cushions and saw a plateful of wizened, rotten radishes and coagulated, dried-up milk. ‘What kind of a wife are you,’ he demanded of his long-suffering spouse (remember, folks, never marry a sage or a saint – it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth), ‘that you should serve me with rotten radishes and dried-up milk?’ His wife’s retort was to the point: ‘What kind of a sage are you that, after all that meditation, all you can think about is milk and radishes?’ And if there are lots of stories about Buddhist sages who, despite years of meditation, miss the point, there are also plenty of Buddhist stories about those without any virtuosity in meditation who get the point.
When I now think back to my early days as a meditator, it seems to me that, for a brief period at least, I had things back to front. Life, I used to think (and this is a confession, alas, so I feel a tinge of shame-facedness), was for meditation. But it seems to me now that exactly the opposite is true: meditation is for life. If sitting on your arse for years turns you into a humourless and tedious fuss-pot who frets over milk and radishes, it’s really not worth it. You’d be better off doing something else. Despite the current rush to find scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation, there is no reason to assume that meditation is always and unquestionably of benefit. It may well be that there are also potential harms – possible candidates for inclusion in the list might be: self-absorption; a growing inability to interact socially; the amplification of bizarre personal quirks and tics; over-sensitivity; preciousness; belief in one’s own inherent superiority; an increasingly disdainful attitude towards what some meditators like to call ‘everday life’…
At the very least, there is plenty of evidence that there is no necessary correlation between meditative virtuosity and virtuosity in living. There have been many skilled meditators who, when it comes to living, have again and again made a hash of things. The reason for this is perhaps relatively simple: if there are virtuosi in playing the violin and in the literary arts, if there are virtuosi of scientific understanding and of mathematics, if there are virtuosi in meditation and in philosophical subtlety, it may be that there simply are no virtuosi in the business of living, and there never have been. The task of living is too vast, our capacities are too limited, we are too much in the thrall of chance and uncertainty. We do as best we can.
So I’m not too repentent about my shambling meditative practice. It serves its purpose well enough for the time being. And if pressed to answer the question of what purpose it is that meditation actually does serve, I would have to say this: that in its attention to the strange and erratic functioning of the mind, it is one way of bringing home to me the fact that the dream of virtuosity in the business of living is just that: a dream.
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