Wednesday April 1, 2009
When I started meditating some fifteen or so years ago, I used to think (as I have mentioned before on this blog) of the mind as a territory to be mapped. I fancied myself as a kind of heroic explorer of inner space, setting out to discover new worlds. In this curious (and, no doubt, self-aggrandising) fantasy, the supposedly mystical East and the supposedly mystic inner realm were almost mapped onto each other, so that, on the one hand, I planned for my future by imagining myself trekking up mountain paths in Tibet to meet with wizened individuals of incomparable wisdom whilst, on the other hand, I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, and dreamed of similar territories within:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there…
Such a perspective lent my idea of meditation a kind of pioneering bravado, what with all of that clinging to frightful, no-man-fathomed cliffs: the meditator as Tintin, fearless boy-reporter setting out to search for truth in foreign lands, facing untold dangers along the way. The only problem was that, when I started to take a closer look at what was going on in my experience, when I sat on the cushions for any amount of time, hoping to find Gerard’s cliffs to which I could excitingly cling, hoping to find a clear and unambiguous drama, the territory I had set out to explore seemed to be rather more shadowy, ambiguous and mist-shrouded than I had hoped. Things seemed to slip through my fingers leaving only ambiguities upon ambiguities, shadows upon shadows. I wanted revelations and breakthroughs and profound bursts of wisdom to interrupt the everyday, and what I got was a sense that the mind is a slippery thing, hard to pin down, impossible to grasp, sometimes (it seemed, it still seems) hardly there at all, sometimes chuntering on in its own sweet way without any obvious sense or purpose, and without telling me what it was up to, always subverting my attempts to get to grips with it, to map it. And if I couldn’t even get clear on the territory, if I couldn’t even track down some cliffs on which I could bravely hang, then things began to look pretty bleak for an aspiring boy-reporter of the inner life.
I don’t know for certain when things changed. It took several years. But little by little, as I became more frustrated at the seeming absence of any clear plot or drama or even any clear territory on which such an adventure might be played out, I started to notice instead those things that I had hitherto dismissed as distractions form the story I was telling myself: the equivocations and the uncertainties and the slips; the way that the mind goes its own sweet way, often as obscure in its inner workings as is the pancreas; the flickering of awareness that came and went, never quite resolving into a plot or a story. And the more I noticed these things, the more the business of sitting on my backside on a cushion for stretches of time, doing nothing much, began to make sense to me. Of course, it wasn’t any longer Tintin in Tibet: there were few cliff-hangers, there was nothing much in the way of an adventure (and Snowy and Captain Haddock were nowhere to be seen). No longer a heroic quest; more a matter of a kind of closeness to the business of living. To the ordinary, everyday business of living.
But then, I’m from Norfolk. What do I know about mountains…?
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Buddhists in Bars with Balloons: Monday December 31, 2007
Who’s that over there making balloon sculptures? It must be a Buddhist monk.
Buddhism and Philosophy Part III - Practices of Wisdom and Love: Friday December 16, 2005
Philosophy: the love of wisdom… or the wisdom of love???
On (Not) Debating the Existence of God: Sunday October 18, 2009
God, godlessness and the good life.
What is This Thing?: Thursday September 21, 2006
The myth of authenticity.
Turnips: Wednesday February 8, 2006
Meditate like a turnip…
Liking Your Neighbours: Monday April 2, 2007
Must we like people to love them? Can we dislike them also?
A World Made of Stories?: Wednesday February 16, 2011
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms”: discuss…
Throwing Away the Ladder: Saturday April 3, 2010
The New Scientist and the ladder of consciousness.
Slip Slidin' Away: Thursday March 19, 2009
Thoughts on experience
Numskulls, Dumskulls and the Evolution of the Mind: Thursday September 27, 2007
Out of the dumb came forth… the slightly less dumb.
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.