Over the years I’ve come to see living as ongoing character work, shaping mine so that my automatic response in any given situation is a righteous and loving one. As Jacques Ellul wrote, “God may act, or He may not act, and when God wishes to act He ought to find instruments which are supple and obedient, ready for his use.” We aren’t born that way, there’s more than a lifetime’s work needed to reach that state, and I don’t know of a more satisfying way to spend my time.
At this late stage I thought my time would be devoted to refinement, steadily applying what wisdom I had already gained. Wisdom is hard to come by and harder to digest, and I figured my time would be better spent living out what I knew rather than looking for more. But I’m pleasantly surprised to have stumbled across one more critical tool, courtesy of Eastern philosophers: knowing one’s own mind.
By knowing one’s own mind I mean recognizing that one’s self is not identical with one’s thoughts, and then going on to observe exactly how one’s thoughts arise and pass away. It’s a practice that all the Eastern meditation traditions emphasize, but it doesn’t seem to yield easily to rational (as opposed to common sense) explanation. I think there’s no substitute for sitting and watching the activity of one’s mind as a means of grasping this truth—or at least for me the practice has led to a gut understanding of it, while rational explanations did not. For me the most helpful approach has been to watch for times where I am getting caught up in a story, then taking a close look at how much the story diverges from the bare facts. It always does, in a way that flatters me or irritates me or worries me. And I’ve gotten better at not getting caught up—at recognizing an oncoming story as it first arises, detatching and watching, letting it fade away as I choose not to feed it.
Before meditating I had learned to confront difficult situations with a large degree of detachment and objectivity, through a combination of practice and teeth-gritting. Early results encouraged me to work at the skills I needed, and the approach became ingrained habit. But it was all purely instinctual—I had little understanding of the forces at work.
My experience with meditation hasn’t really changed the overall approach, but I’ve become much more effective at responding automatically with love, kindness, and clear-headedness, I think because I no longer identify thoughts with the thinker, either my own or those of others, which makes it way easier not to ascribe motives or to spin stories in my head about people that go beyond the bare facts.
The past couple of weeks have been objectively stressful, but I haven’t experienced much stress. I was often short on sleep, forced to negotiate tricky circumstances on behalf of others, dealing with difficult people, confronting an unending series of events that I could easily have found irritating and often infuriating. Before meditating I would have probably done a decent job of navigating those rough waters, but I also would have bottled up a lot of irritation and a bit of fury, which would have slowly ebbed away but still left a cynical residue. This time around I was able to let the irritation and fury go as it arose, watching it arise in me and then pass away with interest, even absorb and defuse some on behalf of others.
It sounds magical and mystical, but is actually mundane. The best concrete example I can give came one morning a few days in, when I needed to be downtown and had arranged to leave early enough so I would miss the worst of the traffic. But one small thing after another came up to delay me. I dealt with each one fairly calmly, and didn’t feel any growing pressure. As I finally managed to step out the front door I was suddenly overwhelmed with feelings—mainly anxiety, some self-pity, some exasperation. But I had enough presence of mind to recognize that those feelings were totally out of proportion to the situation. And so I went back in, sat on a couch, closed my eyes, and let the feelings wash over me without getting caught up in them. They paraded themselves before me, but I just watched, and eventually (five minutes later?) they faded. There was no residue beyond relief that they had left. And reviewing them as I drove downtown, I confirmed that they were baseless—the traffic was hardly worse than it would have been, heavy traffic doesn’t bother me anyway, I didn’t really have a deadline for arriving, everything was proceeding nicely without me. I still don’t know where those feelings came from, but I knew that they weren’t me, that they were a mental and physical response to a long, grueling stretch, and that as long as I didn’t get caught up in them they would pass on.
If these are successes, they are small ones (though I’m still very grateful for them). I still get caught up in stories, and the most I can say so far is that I recognize when it is happening, and can detach myself enough to let them slowly lose their grip on me—very, very slowly. The very next morning I spent the same drive downtown engaged in a long one-sided conversation with someone who had said something to me in passing, cycling between pointing out to myself that this was just the chattering monkey-mind at work, and drifting back into the conversation to score another devastating point against my opponent.
I knew it would pass away, and after thirty minutes it did. But I’m going for five!