Looking for Meaning

A reader from Woodstock, New York, writes: “Is it possible to have a meaningful meditation practice in the absence of a living teacher?”

Steve Hagen

On the Cushion logoSure. Why not? We can find meaning in anything. But no matter what meaning we look for or find, it’s delusion—and the surest way to implant feelings of meaninglessness deep within our minds. As long as we insist that meditation must be meaningful, we fail to understand it. We meditate with the idea that we’re going to get something from it—that it will lower our blood pressure, calm us down, or enhance our concentration. And, sure. Why not? We can find meaning in anything. But no matter what meaning we look for or find, it’s delusion—and the surest way to implant feelings of meaninglessness deep within our minds.

As long as we insist that meditation must be meaningful, we fail to understand it. We meditate with the idea that we’re going to get something from it—that it will lower our blood pressure, calm us down, or enhance our concentration. And, we believe, if we meditate long enough, and in just the right way, it might even bring us to enlightenment.

All of this is delusion.

As my teacher (and many teachers before him) used to say, zazen is useless. By the same token, it’s also meaningless.

I sit in meditation every day. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. I have no reason to do it, and I feel no need to justify or explain to anyone why I do it, because I know that whatever I would say would be false.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. I had plenty of reasons to meditate when I began this practice back in the mid-sixties. But then I met a good teacher, and with his help I was able to learn the more subtle and profound aspects of this practice. Until I met Katagiri Roshi in 1975, it never occurred to me to look at the mind with which I approached meditation practice. I didn’t notice how greedy it was, or that it was the antithesis of the mind I thought I was seeking. Nor did it occur to me that such a mind was already the very source of the dissatisfaction and confusion I sought to free myself from through meditation.

So why meditate? If it’s not to get some benefit, what’s the point?

We have to look at the mind we bring to this practice. Though we go through the motions of sitting in meditation, generally it’s not the mind of meditation at all. It’s the mind of getting somewhere—which is obviously not the mind of enlightenment. It’s the mind of ego, the mind that seeks gain and keeps coming up short.

This is why zazen is useless and without meaning: meditation is, finally, just to be here. Not over there. Not longing for something else. Not trying to be, or to acquire something new or different.

If you’re sitting in meditation to get something—whether it’s peace, tranquility, low blood pressure, concentration, psychic powers, meaningfulness, or even enlightenment—you’re not here. You’re off in a world of your own mental fabrication, a world of distraction, daydreaming, confusion, and preoccupation. It’s anything but meditation.

It’s probably true, for the most part, that certain health benefits can be found through meditation. But if you’re doing this for that—for some reason, purpose, end, or goal—then you are not actually doing this. You’re distracted and divided.

Meditation is just to be here. This can mean doing the dishes, writing a letter, driving a car, or having a conversation—if we’re fully engaged in this activity of the moment, there is no plotting or scheming or ulterior purpose. This full engagement is meditation. It doesn’t mean anything but itself.

To look for meaning is to look for a model, a representation, an explanation, a justification for something other than this, what’s immediately at hand. Meditation is releasing whatever reasons and justifications we might have, and taking up this moment with no thought that this can or should be something other than just this.

It’s only because we look for meaning—for what we think we can hold in our hands, or in our minds—that we feel dissatisfaction and meaninglessness.

So, is it possible to have a meaningful meditation practice in the absence of a living teacher?

A teacher who truly understands meditation would make every effort to disabuse us of all such gaining ideas.

Steve Hagen is head teacher at Dharma Field Meditation and Learning Center (www.dharmafield.org) in Minneapolis. His new book, Buddhism Is Not What You Think, will be published in September.

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