My very search through those threads would suggest that I suffer from concentration issues. I do, but only as an effect of the much larger problem of living locked in a struggle with my own mind. Intellectually, I believe that my mind = my brain = my personality = me, but in day-to-day reality, I feel forced to constantly suppress something internal that generates wave after wave of impulses to hide, turn solipsistic, and generally puss out, translating everything into its own conceptual language of fear, despair, and laziness. It makes its presence known at all times, whatever it is, but it never feels like me.
Recent months have seen my desperation to silence this... this thing rise to terrible heights, so I’ve cast around for solutions in places I wouldn’t normally. Living in and — let’s face it, being of — California, the epicenter of North American flakiness, I hesitate to approach anything with “mindfulness” in its title or meditation in its subject, but the passages I’d read quoted made too much sense to write off. For example:
We usually do not look into what is really there in front of us. We see life through a screen of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those mental objects for the reality.
[ … ]
Early on in our practice of meditation, we need to rethink our underlying assumptions regarding conceptualization. For most of us, we have earned high marks in school and in life for our ability to manipulate mental phenomena — concepts — logically. Our careers, much of our success in everyday life, our happy relationships, we view as largely the result of our successful manipulation of concepts. In developing mindfulness, however, we temporarily suspend the conceptualization process and focus on the pure nature of mental phenomena. During meditation we are seeking to experience the mind at the pre-concept level.
Actually, now that I pull this stuff out of context, it sounds a little more granola than I’d like. The clunky prose may have something to do with it; clunk tends to bring with it a certain veneer of over-earnestness. But clearly I walk a dangerous line here. I do find that my dependence on throwing around words and concepts messes me up, but when I acknowledge that, how safe a distance can I possibly keep from the whole “everything is everything” and “the limits of language mean nothing is true or false” trips so beloved of sky-high undergrads? I consider it one thing to acknowledge communicative limitations; I consider it quite another to use them to absolve yourself of all intellectual responsibility.
Gunaratana doesn’t help his credibility when he makes claims that the sufficiently advanced meditator “achieves perfect mental health, a pure love for all that lives and complete cessation of suffering,” or when he makes groan-inducing reference “Western science and physics.” I highlight these particularly sketchy bits not to make the book as a whole seem sketchy, but to crank up my nonsense threat alert level. So much in this book strikes me as correct that I feel a heavier burden of responsibility to give the stink eye to the parts that don’t.
I mean, jeez, I don’t want to belabor this, but the word “mindfulness” alone — it just calls up so many horrific images of 36-year-old women driving hybrid vehicles brimming with extra pairs of yoga pants. But Gunaratana comes at a working definition of the term from a few different angles, none of which have to do with wind chimes. He calls it “non-judgmental observation,” “that ability of the mind to observe without criticism,” to see things “without condemnation or judgment” but only “a balanced interest in things exactly as they are in their natural states.” This includes yourself: “You see your own selfish behavior. You see your own suffering. And you see how you create that suffering. You see how you hurt others. You pierce right through the layer of lies that you normally tell yourself and you see what is really there.”
Again, grand. Probably too grand. But I’ve arrived independently at similar conclusions, or at least suspicions, in recent years. I certainly have the experience of neurotically building and protecting a fragile structure of self-mythologizing B.S. around myself. I’ve experienced the useless divisiveness of opinions, especially in settings where, as Tao Lin once blogged, “it distracts from existential despair and loneliness when people type a lot of abstractions to try to defeat someone else's likes and dislikes.” Speaking of abstractions, I’ve slowly leaned away from them and toward — how to put it? — concretions, an idea that sort of provides the core for this whole book, visible when Gunaratana writes something like, “Your body is a tool for creating desired mental states.” And you know I’ve tried to grasp all this with a mind he describes as “a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless.” But apparently everyone’s does that.