Buddhism has a realistic outlook on the human condition. It emphasises the ephemeral nature of our lives. It also cautions us via the First Noble Truth that life unavoidably entails suffering.
If suffering is unavoidable then we must be prepared to deal with it. In this sense we are all victims and it is futile to promote our individual suffering and victimhood to argue that we are somehow a special case. Life for all of us is somewhat turbulent, and such turbulence will present us from time to time with pain and suffering. But understanding this we come to realise that we are not here to calm the waves in the sea of life, but to learn how to surf!
Our suffering is magnified by our desire to be special. This is our ego at work and once we give it reign it seizes on all kinds of attachments – material goods, desire for status and power and so on. Such attachments as we have seen in previous blogs make us vulnerable and more susceptible to suffering and loss.
I have often in my blog essays and elsewhere extolled the virtues of meditation practice. Meditation makes us more resilient and less susceptible to suffering.
At a superficial level, meditation may be thought of as a mechanism of “stilling the mind”. Let us be sure that this in itself is an important function of meditation. The ability to silence our self-talk (a manifestation of the “monkey mind”) is in itself very beneficial.
For example if you are depressed and your depression is exacerbated by continual rumination about your perceived faults and your general unworthiness, meditation provides welcome respite.
But, as useful as this is, meditation has a far more powerful purpose. I might provoke some controversy here – but I believe that meditation helps us to learn how to die.
Why are we afraid of death? It is largely because we believe that this special thing, this separate sense of self that our ego has concocted will no longer exist once our body dies.
Meditation helps us to learn to die to the separate-self sense or ego. Through the process of meditation we develop a sense of meditative awareness that is not impinged upon by the ego. When we put aside our thoughts, our bodily sensations and reside in the pure presence of the Witness we know at this level we are part of something eternal and beyond suffering.
Ken Wilber wrote, “The sages say that if you maintain this choiceless awareness, this bare witnessing, moment to moment, then death is just a simple moment like any other, and you relate to it in a very simple and direct way. You don’t recoil from death or grasp at life, since fundamentally they are both just simple experiences that pass.”
Contrary to the beliefs of modern materialists, the sages believe that the Universe is a manifestation of Spirit. At the level of the individual that is reflected as the Witness. (As we have previously seen the Witness is our “theatre of mind”; it is that which is embedded in all of us that transcends our physical and mental capacities.)
The Buddhist sages in particular believe that reality resides in shunyata sometimes described as “emptiness”or “the void”. But this does not mean nothingness but is more usefully translated as the “spontaneous” or ‘’unimpeded”. Consequently they believe that reality is empty – there is nothing permanent or absolutely enduring that you can hold on to for security or support.
Or as the famous Japanese Zen warrior Miyamoto Musashi wrote in A Book of Five Rings:
“People in this world look at things mistakenly, and think what they do not understand is the void. This is not the true void. It is bewilderment!”
“In the void is virtue and no evil.”
The Diamond Sutra says, “Life is like a bubble, a dream, a reflection, a mirage.”
The ego then is deluded when it seeks to cling to the façade of enduring physical existence. Reality is perceived by letting go. Meditation prepares us for this as we put aside everything to be simply present in the Witness.
The two principal but conflicting drives of humans in the universe are:
- The desire to preserve what I see to be my own uniqueness and specialness, and
- The desire to reunite with the One that is All.
The first is a destructive drive, driven as we have seen by the motive from an artificially created ego to perpetuate the façade of separateness that it needs to assert itself.
The second is an authentic drive to bring us back to our source. It is reflected in such literature as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and in such parables as The Prodigal Son.
The One that is All goes by many names. Earlier I called it Spirit; maybe you might be more comfortable calling it the Godhead or the Ground of All Being or even more simply God.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to embark on this latter journey without abandoning the former enterprise of propping up the ego-self. And of course here is the benefit of meditation which allows us to put aside the temporal self, the physical manifestation of separateness, to bask in the knowledge that we are All as One.
In this meditative state, which is essentially one of pure subjectivity, as you calmly rest in this observing awareness, watching mind and body and nature float by, you experience simply a sense of freedom, a sense of release. The Witness is then dissociated from your physical self, and your psychic self.
Putting aside the physical trials that might accompany it, this mirrors the process of death. It teaches us that there is no fear in dissociating from our physical and psychic self. To be welcomed back into the fold of the One is surely our most fervent desire and the final antidote to suffering.