We all have preconceptions, we all have points of view. Not only do we have ideas, but we have opinions and countless judgments, especially about other people. We may hope to free ourselves from such a tangle, but usually what we find is that we just exchange one set of preconceptions for another.
The practice of mindfulness-awareness meditation does not take place in a vacuum. It happens within a certain context and point of view. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is often presented in the context of view, meditation, and action. Each of these three is essential, as a system of checks and balances.
If we do not understand the view, the practice of meditation can be more of a trap than means of freeing ourselves from deception. Without an understanding of nontheism and the motivation to benefit others, meditation practice can degenerate into self-absorption and escapism. Rather than loosening our ego-clinging, it could further perpetuate our ignorance and grasping. Rather than connecting us to our world, it could draw us away from it. Meditation practice could even be a tool of aggression, a way of clearing the mind before going out to commit our next murder. Meditation in and of itself is no magical cure-all. Proper understanding and proper motivation are important. The view informs the practice.
Likewise, meditation balances view. Meditation practice is a way of loosening our solidity. Without practice, even the most inspired view can become rigid ideology. The practice of meditation brings out the futility and limitations of holding any rigid view. We see the nature of our attachment to particular viewpoints, and the simplicity of letting such views dissolve. The irony is that the proper motivation and view are essential, and at the same time, it is also essential not to grasp any view.
Action, the third component, is a balance to both view and meditation. Meditation does not matter that much if it has no effect on the rest of our life. Likewise, we could be filled with empty words that do not lead to any change whatsoever in our life or our relationship with others. We need to act on our understanding and our awareness.
Action, like view and meditation, does not stand alone. Action without clarity of view is blundering and apt to cause more harm than good. And action without meditation tends to be speedy and complex, rather than spaciousness and simple. But if these three factors are in balance, clarity of view and meditative awareness permeate all our activities.
In the Buddhist path we are bringing together our actions, our view, and our practice. It is a balance of awareness, insight, and action, working harmoniously together. In that way our energy is no longer divided or scattered, but we are fully present in whatever we do. That is what it means to be a genuine human being.
In Buddhism, the point is not simply to be accomplished meditators but to change our whole approach to life. Meditation is not merely a useful technique or mental gymnastic, but part of a balanced system designed to change the way we go about things at the most fundamental level. In this context, it is a way of exposing and uprooting the core problems of grasping and ego-clinging that separate us from one another and cause endless pain.
There are many varieties of meditation and many different contexts in which it occurs. Even within the Buddhist tradition, there are many varieties of meditation and many differences of opinion as to what meditation is all about. Yet, wherever it turns up, it is colored by one set of preconceptions or another. Nowadays, people pluck techniques such as meditation from their traditional contexts, mix and match practices from very different traditions, and apply them in new settings. Meditation practice is increasingly presented in a secular way, free of religious trappings. In the United States, this tends to place it in the general category of self-help techniques. As a result, meditation has been de-mystified for many people, who see it as one aspect of a healthy lifestyle, like working out or eating healthy food.
Meditation is used as therapy, to calm people down, as healing (to lower blood pressure, for instance, or deal with pain), and even as a way to get ahead in business, or win at sports. It is gradually becoming part of the mainstream. This is not unlike what has happened to the practice of yoga, once viewed as a sophisticated system of spiritual training, and now offered regularly. The technique may be there, but there is no heart. There is a danger that the practice of meditation could be similarly reduced. The very technique designed to undermine the power of ego-fixation could become another feather in our ego-cap.
Judy Lief is a senior student of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, who authorized her as a teacher in the Buddhist and Shambhala traditions. She is the series editor of the Dharma Ocean Series of Shambhala Publications, and the Executive Editor of Vajradhatu Publications in Halifax.
[Image: Robert Beer from Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Madness by David and Janice Jackson, courtesy of Snow Lion Publications]