Sid the meditator has come a long way in his practice. On a day just like any other, as Sid wakes with the sun, a inkling arises in Sid’s mind that perhaps he could hit the snooze button. Before the slightest bit of actual desire to return to sleep can take hold, Sid has smothered it, for he is aware of desire’s ephemeral nature. He does not identify with any such mental formation, naturally, and throughout his day he hears the Buddha remind him to say to himself, “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this.” He is indifferent to anger or sadness, and while joy and love do arise from time to time, he knows those concepts are just as unreal as the negative ones, and he does not really feel them, either.
Few outside of a monastery would envy Sid his inner life. Fortunately, Sid does not exist. What’s better (for us, not for Sid) is that he cannot exist.
At the very heart of Buddhism is one deceptively simple but ultimately profound idea: you are not your thoughts or feelings. In the past couple thousand years, a whole host of beliefs, customs, and superstitions have sprung up around that idea (as we humans have such a terrible habit of doing). But when we put Buddhism in the thresher, winnowing it down to its essential elements, this “religion” is essentially just a very in-depth exploration of the idea that you can be more at peace if you realize you can separate yourself from your thoughts. Meditation, that misunderstood and often feared thing, is simply the setting aside of time to practice noticing that fact.
Noticing your thoughts in real time is intense work, work that requires that practice. In fact, never succumbing to the siren’s song of a train of thought is simply not possible, no matter how much time you spend practicing. Meditation, then, is not “just sitting quietly,” it is an exercise that is so difficult that many beginners are known to simply throw up their hands, declare it can’t be done, and give up on the whole silly idea.
With continued effort, though, slowly a super power begins to emerge within the meditator, no high-gamma radiation required. The meditator’s spidey-sense is just to be able to notice thoughts and feelings as “not me,” that is, to not automatically identify with thoughts. This occurs not just during meditation, but in everyday life. Once you notice your thoughts, you can then choose whether or not to engage with them. “Enlightenment” is when you can do this 100% of the time. A good meditator might be lucky enough to hit 10%. Being able to notice your feelings of, say, anger, and choose not to engage with them can be life changing even at 5%.
But this isn’t about how to meditate or its benefits. We’re here to talk about Sid. Not identifying with your thoughts sounds great until you consider things like symphonies, love, and chocolate. By pursuing freedom from sadness and rage, wouldn’t we also detach from happiness?
A by-the-book explanation might start with something like, “nonidentification does not prevent mental formations from arising.” But let’s stay far away from the Deepak Chopra-sounding terms and say instead, “Look, you still feel your feelings.” Buddhist-style meditation gets you good at noticing that you are having a thought or feeling, but it doesn’t stop it. In fact, noticing your feelings compels you to feel them fully, which makes them more poignant, not less. The superpower from meditation is not freedom from feelings, it is that once you notice a feeling, you can choose how you respond to it.
A real-life version of Sid does, in fact, feel the pull to hit snooze. But he is able to catch himself. “Oh, yes, my sleepy brain wants to return to dreamland, but it’s just a feeling, it will pass quickly, and I have things to do this morning.”
Two things seem wrong about Sid’s so-called super power. First, when a person feels something, of course they notice. When Brian the regional sales manager finishes a call with his boss and throws a plate against his kitchen wall, he knows he’s angry. Right? Ask our decidedly not-Sid friend Brian why he threw the plate, and he’ll respond, “Because I have to go into work on Saturday! Again!” He would not say, “Because I’m angry!” Brian is not the Hulk. If you asked him if he was mad, he might even say “You’re damn right!” His reflection on his anger would end there, though, and he’d go back to thinking about the unfairness of it all. Brian spirals down into the pit of his emotions, a feeling we all know too well. But if Brian puts down the phone and after a moment is able to say to himself “I am really angry, but I have a choice,” the plate might survive the evening. Brian is so caught up in his thoughts about his situation, he never thinkS about his thoughts. He never thinks, “I don’t have to be angry.”
Which brings us to the broader second objection: is what we’re suggesting here, that we can just remove ourselves from an emotion, even possible? Can you really just stop an emotion?
No, you can’t. That is the misconception about meditation. You can choose how you engage with that feeling, though. You can recognize it, see it for what it is, and decide you are not going to get caught up in that emotion’s frame. What you can’t do is push the emotion away. This simple act, choosing how to engage, sounds preposterous partly because it is so difficult to do in the moment. Gaining the mental strength to say to yourself “I am angry” is one thing. To recognize you are angry, and then to say to yourself “I don’t have to engage with this feeling and let it consume me” and to truly believe it is a monumental task. It is a feat requires as much training as learning to run that six minute mile or bench press one and a half times your body weight. To meet those goals, few would dispute that going to the gym three hours a week or more might be necessary. Likewise with learning to recognize the power your brain has to keep you in a funk, and then to train to pull yourself up out of it: it takes a serious commitment. Not everyone can make it to the gym that often, physically, financially, or otherwise. But everyone can learn to meditate. It’s like they say: you should meditate for twenty minutes a day, unless you are too busy. Then you should meditate forty minute a day.
Let’s get back to Sid and that piece of chocolate. When he notices that feeling, notices what chocolate is presenting to his brain and his senses, not only does mindfulness not detract from it, it moves it up a level in his consciousness. It goes from “Mmm, chocolate good” to “Wow, this chocolate has so many flavors, the texture is amazing, I need to close my eyes and enjoy this.” It also gives Sid the ability to enjoy his two squares of chocolate and say, “That is delicious, but that is enough, thank you.” The same goes for any other feeling. Mindfulness gives you the ability to choose how to interact with feelings, including elevating them to the next level.
This, the positive side of mindfulness, gets less attention because it sounds like spiritual nonsense. However, it can be just as revolutionary, if not more so, than learning to deal with your negative emotions. It does a great disservice to mindfulness to skip it, but for fear of social awkwardness we often do. It is much easier to convince someone to try meditation when you say “oh, stress reduction.” When you pull out something like “you can elevate your love” or “recognizing collective joy for what it is can bring it to another plane of experience,” you sound like a nut. What is not nutty is the neurobiology of what is going on in your brain when you are being mindful.
Pulling the experience of emotion out of your animal brain and into your prefrontal cortex, where all the thinking is going on, makes emotions more rich and more colorful. The thinking part of your brain can weave together connections that your animal brain simply cannot. In this way, mindfulness wrests control of your thoughts and emotions from your “autopilot” brain into the part of your mind where you can experience all the subtle textures of life.
Camp Gemstone, as you may be familiar, dear reader, has as some of its guiding principles the discovery of new and beautiful things that contribute to a rich, full life. A perfect example is the apparent dichotomy between meditation and the wildness of our favorite activity, a weekend at a regional Burning Man event. We would not lean so hard into mindfulness if we did not think it brought more enjoyment into even the crazy, comfort-zone challenging, art-filled madness of a Burn.
Not only does meditation not make life “duller,” as is so often feared, it can make life feel more alive.