Tag Archives: Meditation

Desire isn’t a bad thing – it’s just a thing

7 Mar


An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly – and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock-still, as if frozen. The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, explaining  “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl- “like a withering tree on a rock in winter” – the point of spiritual practice?  Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness  instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

Excerpt from Tara Branch’s book Radical Acceptance (page 143-144).

More Microscopes!

28 Feb


In 1665, the English physicist Robert Hooke looked at a piece of cork through a microscope lens. He noticed some strange shapes which looked like little “prison cells.” Robert Hooke believed that these cells served as containers for the “noble juices” or “fibrous threads” of the once-living cork tree. He published his discovery in a book Micrographia, the first book describing observations made through a microscope. However, for the next 174 years naturalists debated the existence of cells until Theodor Schwann and Matthias Jakob Schleiden collected all of the observations and unified the field in the conclusion that “cells” did indeed exist.

It is not surprising that Hooke’s discovery of cells sparked such a violent reaction from the scientific community. After all, without the use of a microscope, which had just been invented, other people had no way of verifying Hooke’s observations. They called him “crazy” and a “liar” and given that they had no direct experience of looking through a lens and seeing little structures, we can understand their skepticism. And yet, you could give a microscope and a slide to an amateur and he could see right away that there was something there.

As important an invention as the microscope was, the true break through came thousands of years earlier with the invention of the scientific method itself. It is through this simple process that we determine truth. It goes something like this:

1) Ask a question

2) Formulate a hypothesis

3) Conduct an experiment (using the proper tools)

4) Come to a conclusion

5) Verify that conclusion with a community of other scientists

The process is supremely logical, eliminating as much of our bias as possible to get at the truth. I’d like to suggest that the same process can be applied (at least metaphorically) to meditative or contemplative traditions. It is a bold claim, but one that can be easily falsified. My argument goes like this; For thousands of years the great contemplative traditions have echoed the same basic message. “The world that we see is one of suffering. If we quiet ourselves and listen to the present moment, we realize that the world we see is not the only world. Behind everything that exists, there is a fundamental essence and we can experience this essence directly. When we experience this way of being we no longer experience suffering.”

Of course, this is a horrible generalization and it certainly does not include the more conservative interpretations (particularly in the West), but mystics from all traditions seem to echo a similar message (albeit with their own regional flavor). And just as the scientific community doubted the existence of the cell, collectively we have been debating that there is a reality beneath the world of thought/mind. I’d like to suggest that the argument hinges upon nothing more than a lack of microscopes.

The practice of meditation or yoga or any other variation of mindfulness practice which focuses one upon the present moment is a tool through which you must have to verify the claims. Unfortunately, it seems that for most people we must practice for years and years before we ever get a glimpse of what the mystics and monks have been writing about. Without that commitment, one will likely never have that direct experience, and without the direct experience, one will likely never believe that it exists.

So, the world will continue to be skeptical and assume that phrases like “formlessness,” “presence,” “awareness,” “awakening,” “enlightenment,” “essence,” “god,” “being,” etc. are all just lies made up by people who are trying to sell you something. However, the community of practitioners, which stretches across oceans of time and space, seem to have some agreement. In fact many schools of Buddhism focuses on the training and development of students by having masters validate the insights of their students (like a chemistry teacher grading a student’s science project).

So, if you really want to test the hypothesis that there is something deeper than ego/mind at work, then you need the right equipment to make your own observations. Don’t take anything I say at face value. Challenge it. Be skeptical. But if you are not willing to look through the microscope at the little things moving around inside yourself, then are you really in a position to say they don’t exist?