IS MINDFULNESS MEDITATION A CAPITALIST TOOL OR A PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT?

IS MINDFULNESS MEDITATION A CAPITALIST TOOL OR A PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT? YES

by Robert Wright | illustrations by Valero Doval

08.12.17

Mindfulness

IT’S HARD TO put your finger on the point when the Western stereotype of Buddhist meditation flipped. It was sometime between the 1950s, when Zen Buddhism seeped into the beat generation, and the early 21st century, when mindfulness meditation seeped into Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

One minute founding beatnik Jack Kerouac was spouting arcane Buddhist truths that meditation is said to reveal. “There is no me and no you,” Kerouac wrote. And “space is like a rock because it is empty.” Fast forward half a century, and hedge fund manager David Ford, in an interview with Bloomberg News, was summarizing the benefits of meditation this way: “I react to volatile markets much more calmly now.” Buddhist practice, once seen as subversive and countercultural, now looked like a capitalist tool. It had gone from deepening your insight to sharpening your edge.

Mindfulness

 

ROBERT WRIGHT

Robert Wright (@robertwrighter) is the author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and The Evolution of God (a Pulitzer Prize finalist). This article is adapted from his new book Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Wright has taught in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania and the religion department at Princeton and is currently visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He also runs mindfulresistance.net.

 

Of course, a stereotype is just a stereotype. Most of today’s meditators aren’t following the guidance of the Bloomberg News headline that accompanied Ford’s quote: “To Make a Killing on Wall Street, Start Meditating.” Still, the past decade’s wave of interest in mindfulness meditation has had a utilitarian air. When companies like Goldman Sachs start offering free meditation training to employees, and salesforce.com puts a meditation room on each floor of a San Francisco office building, it’s a safe bet that heightened appreciation of Buddhist metaphysics isn’t the goal. In fact, mindfulness meditation is often packaged in frankly therapeutic terms: “mindfulness-based stress reduction.”

 

This drift from the philosophical to the practical has inspired two kinds of blowback. First, because goals like stress reduction are so clear, attainable, and gratifying, many people now sing the praises of meditation—which deeply annoys some people who don’t. The author and business guru Adam Grant has complained of being “stalked by meditation evangelists.” Which bothers him all the more because the feats they harp on are so pedestrian. “Every benefit of the practice can be gained through other activities,” Grant says. For example, exercise takes the edge off stress.

 

The second kind of blowback comes not from Buddhism skeptics but from Buddhism aficionados, who lament that meditation has—in some circles, at least—become so mundane as to invite ridicule from the Adam Grants of the world. These Buddhism purists aren’t against reducing stress. After all, the Buddha preached liberation from suffering. But liberation was supposed to be a spiritual endeavor.

 

The idea was to penetrate the delusion that pervades ordinary consciousness, to see the world with a clarity that is radical in its implications, a clarity that doesn’t just liberate you from suffering but transforms your view of, and relationship to, reality itself, including your fellow beings. Gaining a deep, experiential understanding of the truths Kerouac had pointed to—obscure but fundamental Buddhist ideas like “not-self” and “emptiness”—was supposed to be central to the contemplative project. The ultimate goal, however hard to reach, and however few people ultimately reached it, was nothing less than “awakening”: enlightenment, liberation, nirvana.

 

All of which raises a question: Is mindfulness meditation, as it’s practiced by millions of Westerners, bullshit? Not bullshit in the sense of being worthless. Even Adam Grant admits that meditation has benefits and that, for some people, it’s the best way to get them. But has meditation practice strayed so far from its Buddhist roots that we might as well just call it a therapy or a hobby? Should people who trek to weekend meditation retreats at lovely rural locales quit bowing to the statue of the Buddha as they enter the meditation hall? Should all the strivers in Silicon Valley and New York who put in 20 or 30 minutes on the cushion each day switch to SSRIs or beta blockers and use the time saved for valuable networking? Is there any good reason—in ancient Buddhist philosophy or for that matter in modern science—to consider mainstream mindfulness practice truly spiritual?

 

For years I’ve been on what amounts to an exploration of these questions. I went on my first silent meditation retreat more than a decade ago—mainly out of spiritual curiosity, but happy to accept any therapeutic benefits, which, God knows, I could use. As this quest turned into a book project, the inquiry got more systematic. Now, with the project complete, I’ve talked to lots of meditation teachers, Buddhist monks, and scholars of Buddhism. I’ve read the ancient texts that describe mindfulness meditation and its underlying philosophy. And I’ve gone on more silent retreats—a total of two months’ worth, ranging in length from one to two weeks.

 

And here, as far as I can tell, is the deal: It’s true, on the one hand, that many devotees of meditation are pursuing the practice in a basically therapeutic spirit. And that includes many who follow Buddhist meditation teachers and even go on extended retreats. It’s also true that mindfulness meditation, as typically taught to these people, bears only a partial resemblance to mindfulness meditation as described in ancient texts.

 

Nonetheless, the average mindfulness meditator is closer to the ancient contemplative tradition, and to transformative insights, than you might think. Though things like stress reduction or grappling with melancholy or remorse or self-loathing may seem “therapeutic,” they are organically connected to the very roots of Buddhist philosophy. What starts out as a meditation practice with modest aims can easily, and very naturally, go deeper. There is a kind of slippery slope from stress reduction to profound spiritual exploration and radical philosophical reorientation, and many people, even in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, are further down that slope than they realize.

 

 

 

CONSIDER THE CRAZY-SOUNDING idea of “not-self.” According to Buddhist philosophy, your intuition that there is a “self” at your core—the thinker of your thoughts, the doer of your deeds—is an illusion. And not just any illusion. It is an illusion so deep and so debilitating, so central to the Buddhist diagnosis of the human predicament, that dispelling it can lead directly to full enlightenment and liberation from suffering. At least, that’s the claim made in the seminal work on the subject, the Buddha’s “Discourse on the Not-Self.” In that text, the Buddha explains not-self to a group of monks and, once they get the picture, they become arhats—truly enlightened beings.

 

Which is good news, and not just because they’re liberated from suffering but because they’ll now be much easier to get along with. Just listen to how Walpola Rahula, a Buddhist monk who in 1959 published an influential book called What the Buddha Taught, put the matter. The false notion of the self, he said, “produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities, and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.”

 

Kind of makes you wish more people would realize they don’t have a self! But here lies a complication. The experience of full-on not-self is famously elusive, typically reported only by meditators who have done a whole, whole lot of meditating—certainly more than I’ve done. If saving the world depends on a big chunk of humanity having this experience, we may be in for a long wait.

 

But we have to start somewhere! And here there is good news. The not-self experience isn’t strictly binary. You don’t have to think of it as a threshold that you either manage to finally cross, to transformative effect, or forever fall short of, getting no edification whatsoever. As strange as it may sound, you can, with even a fairly modest daily meditation practice, experience a little bit of not-self. Then, as time goes by, maybe a little more. And—who knows—maybe someday you’ll have the full-on transformative version of the experience. But even if you don’t, important and lasting progress can be made, and benefits for you and for humankind can accrue along the way.

 

So what would it be like to experience just a little bit of not-self? I got an answer to this question in 2003, on my first meditation retreat. Up to that point I was what I would call (though meditation teachers discourage you from talking this way) a complete and utter failure as a meditator. I had tried to meditate, but my dinky attention span and hypersensitive emotional equipment had kept me from mustering enough concentration to see any benefits. I decided that boot camp was in order.

 

I signed up for a seven-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in rural Massachusetts. There, every day, I would do sitting meditation for a total of five and a half hours and walking meditation for about that long. As for the rest of the day, when you add three (silent) meals, a one-hour “yogi job” in the morning (vacuuming hallways, in my case), and listening to one of the teachers give a “dharma talk” in the evening, you’ve pretty much exhausted the day. Which is good, because if there was time you needed to waste, the traditional means of wasting it wouldn’t be available. There was no TV, no internet, no news from the outside world. And, of course, no talking.

 

This daily regimen may not sound taxing, but the first couple of days were excruciating. Have you ever tried sitting on a cushion with your legs crossed, focusing on your breath? It’s no picnic, especially if you’re as bad at focusing on your breath as I am. Early in the retreat, I could go a whole 45-minute meditation session without sustaining focus for 10 consecutive breaths.

 

But, slowly, I got better—focusing for 10, 20, 25 breaths. Then, on the fifth morning of the retreat, came my first big breakthrough. After breakfast I had consumed a bit too much of the instant coffee I had brought, and as I tried to meditate I felt the classic symptom of overcaffeination: a very unpleasant tension in my jaw that made me feel like grinding my teeth. It was kind of like an amped-up version of stress—the kind of stress you’d feel at the end of a really bad workday.

 

This feeling kept intruding on my focus, and after trying for a while to fight the intrusion I finally surrendered to it and shifted my attention to the tension in my jaw. This sort of readjustment of attention, by the way, is a perfectly fine thing to do. In mindfulness meditation as it’s typically taught, the point of focusing on your breath isn’t just to focus on your breath. It’s to stabilize your mind, to free it of its normal preoccupations so you can observe things that are happening in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way.

 

And “things that are happening” emphatically includes things happening inside your mind. Feelings arise within you—sadness, anxiety, annoyance, relief, joy—and you try to experience them from a different vantage point, neither clinging to the good feelings nor running away from the bad ones but rather just experiencing them straightforwardly and observing them. This altered perspective can be the beginning of a fundamental and enduring change in your relationship to your feelings. You can, if all goes well, cease to be their slave.

 

After devoting some attention to the overcaffeinated feeling in my jaw, I suddenly had an angle on my interior life that I’d never had before. I remember thinking something like, “Yes, the grinding sensation is still there—the sensation I typically define as unpleasant. But that sensation is down there in my jaw, and that’s not where I am. I’m up here in my head.” I was no longer identifying with the feeling; I was viewing it objectively, I guess you could say. In the space of a moment it had entirely lost its grip on me. It was a very strange thing to have an unpleasant feeling cease to be unpleasant without it really going away.

 

There is a paradox here. When I first expanded my attention to encompass the obnoxiously intrusive jaw-grinding sensation, this involved relaxing my resistance to the sensation. I was, in a sense, accepting and even embracing a feeling that I had been trying to keep at a distance. But the result of this closer proximity to the feeling was to acquire a kind of distance from it—a certain degree of detachment. Or, if you want to put the point in more conventional Buddhist terminology, a degree of “nonattachment.” I had, in a sense, let go of part of my self.

 

YOU DON’T HAVE to go to a meditation retreat to get this kind of experience. People who are more natural meditators than me can get it via daily practice as guided by a local teacher, or by an online teacher, or even by a good meditation app, like Headspace or 10% Happier. Or, if you don’t want to invest even that much time, try this: Next time you’re feeling sad, sit down, close your eyes, and study the sadness. Accept its presence and just observe it. For example, you may notice that, though you’re not close to actually crying, the feeling of sadness does have a strong presence right around the parts of your eyes that would become active if you did start crying. This careful observation of sadness, combined with a kind of acceptance of it, can make it way less unpleasant. And, more to the point, less a part of your self.

 

Granted, sadness, like stress, is just a small part of you—so small that touting this experience as a step toward the elusive, transformative experience of not-self may sound ludicrous. And yet, if you look at the canonical text on the subject—that discourse on not-self delivered by the Buddha—you’ll find some validation of this touting. In that sermon the Buddha chips away at the notion of self bit by bit, chunk by chunk.

 

He does an inventory of the categories that constitute human experience: feelings, perceptions, “mental formations” (a big category that in Buddhist psychology includes thoughts and complex emotions), and so on. With each category he raises the same questions: Is this particular part of you, when examined closely, really under your control? And doesn’t this part of you sometimes make you suffer (precisely, he suggests, because it isn’t under your control)? The answers are of course no and yes, respectively: We can’t magically control all the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that dominate our experience, which helps explain why they often cause us pain.

 

Well, then, does it make sense to think of these things as “self”? The Buddha’s answer is unequivocal. Feelings, thoughts, and all the rest—even your physical body—“must be regarded with proper wisdom, according to reality, thus: ‘These are not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ ”

 

Note how pragmatic, even therapeutic, this argument sounds: If you want relief from suffering, quit identifying with the things that make you suffer, the things that are beyond your control. This kind of guidance is very much in the spirit of “mindfulness-based stress reduction”—which, in fact, is what my little triumph over overcaffeination basically was.

 

And yet, according to the logic of Buddhism, if you follow this pragmatic, therapeutic—even, you might say, self-serving—logic far enough via meditative practice, you can get to the point where it feels as if there is no self at all. And a big reason for this apprehension is that everything in your field of experience—feelings, thoughts, perceptions, everything—can be seen, on close inspection, to not really be under the control of some “inner you.” It’s just stuff happening. Stuff you don’t have to identify with.

 

This may sound crazy. Surely there are some things under our conscious control? Well, maybe, but modern psychology has challenged that assumption. One famous series of experiments seems to show that by the time someone is consciously aware of “deciding” to do something—pushing a button, say—the brain activity that initiates the pushing is already well under way. Other experiments suggest that people are often not aware of what their actual motivations for doing things are—but that, even so, they generate explanations for their behavior and actually believe the explanations.

 

This doesn’t mean science has “proved” that we’re on autopilot, and that the conscious mind is just a passenger under the illusion that it’s flying the plane. There are questions of interpretation surrounding some of these experiments, and lots more experiments to be done. Still, there’s no doubt that modern psychology has cast serious doubt on the intuition that your conscious “self” is your CEO.

 

Which gives modern psychology something in common with ancient Buddhist texts. And something in common with modern meditation teachers. I’ve heard more than one of these teachers assert that “thoughts think themselves.” Thoughts may feel like things we generate, but when viewed mindfully, with “non-attachment,” they are seen to be things that just float into our awareness. They aren’t generated by the conscious self but, rather, come from somewhere beyond it.

 

This image—of thoughts being received by your conscious mind rather than created by it—makes particular sense in light of a conception of the brain that has gained many adherents in recent decades: the “modular model.” The basic idea is that the brain consists of lots of different systems that have different specialties and may have competing agendas.

 

So, for example, one system may be focused on getting you to eat while another is focused on getting you to impress someone you’re talking to with your knowledge of politics. The conscious mind might be unaware of the competition between these systems and unaware of the thoughts they’re championing—except for the thought that wins. As the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has put it, “Whichever notion you happen to be conscious of at a particular moment is the one that comes bubbling up, the one that becomes dominant. It’s a dog-eat-dog world going on in your brain, with different systems competing to make it to the surface to win the prize of conscious recognition.”

 

In this scenario, the conscious mind tends to identify with the winning thought, the one that bubbles up, even to the point of taking ownership of it—thinking of itself as the thought’s generator. But highly adept meditators actually see the bubbling up part, and for them the identification, the sense of ownership, never kicks in.

 

Personally, I find it harder to get this kind of perspective on thoughts than on feelings. Whereas I might succeed in viewing anxiety or sadness as “not-self” during my daily practice, I don’t generally view my thoughts that way until well into a weeklong meditation retreat—if then. But the point is just that this perspective on thoughts is part of the logical progression of mindfulness meditation and a way station on the path to the experience of full-fledged “not-self.” It’s an experience commonly reported by those few meditators who, having logged thousands and thousands of hours on the meditation cushion, say they’ve gotten to the point of “not-self” and even stayed there—day in, day out, on the cushion or off.

 

So what does it feel like to be one of these people? Unfortunately, if you ask them that question, they tend to say things that are a bit opaque. One such meditator, describing life without a sense of self, said to me, “If you’re nothing, if you disappear, you can then be everything. But you can’t be everything unless you are nothing.”

 

I guess we’ll have to take his word for that. Still, even someone like me—someone who meditates 30 or 40 minutes a day and occasionally goes on meditation retreats—can have glimpses of what he means. I’ve gotten to the point, deep in meditation, when a tingling I felt in my foot seemed no more a part of me than the singing of a bird I heard outside. And both, by the way, were wonderful, as was everything else; I felt utter peace and serenity. I also felt very favorably disposed toward that bird and to living things in general.

 

I had to go on a meditation retreat to have that particular brush with not-self. Still, there’s a sense in which the experience wasn’t that far removed from my daily practice. One reason it was hard to see a clear line between the tingling in my foot and the singing of the bird is that I wasn’t identifying very closely with the tingling in the first place. The disaggregation of my self made its contents seem more like the contents of the world beyond me; the diffuseness of my self made its bounds less distinct. And this sense of the diffuseness of self begins with workaday mindfulness meditation: looking at any part of your experience—stress, physical pain, tingling in foot—from a more objective standpoint than usual. So objective that experiencing it is kind of like experiencing a bird’s song.

 

Indeed, I think the reason I felt so favorably disposed toward other beings when the bounds of my self dissolved wasn’t just the dissolution per se. A big factor was that all the self-centered preoccupations that keep us from appreciating other beings—and sometimes make us envy, resent, even hate other beings—were not part of my self at that moment.

 

 

 

SPEAKING OF MOMENTS: One phrase that hasn’t occurred in this piece so far is “living in the moment.” This may seem strange, since this theme is so commonly associated with mindfulness, and so emphasized by meditation teachers. Indeed, The New York Times recently defined mindfulness as the “desire to take a chunk of each day and simply live in the present.” Stop and smell the roses.

 

There’s no denying that deep appreciation of the present moment is a nice consequence of mindfulness. But it’s misleading to think of it as central to mindfulness. If you delve into early Buddhist writings, you won’t find a lot of exhortations to stop and smell the roses—and that’s true even if you focus on those writings that contain the word sati, the word that’s translated as “mindfulness.”

 

The ancient Buddhist text known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness—the closest thing there is to a Bible of mindfulness—features no injunction to live in the present, and in fact doesn’t have a single word or phrase translated as “now” or “the present.” And it features some passages that would sound strange to the average mindfulness meditator of today. It reminds us that our bodies are “full of various kinds of unclean things” and instructs us to meditate on such bodily ingredients as “feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.” It also calls for us to imagine our bodies “one day, two days, three days dead—bloated, livid, and festering.”

 

I’m not aware of any bestselling books on mindfulness meditation called Stop and Smell the Feces. And I’ve never heard a meditation teacher recommend that I meditate on my bile, phlegm, and pus, or on the rotting corpse that I will someday be. What is presented today as an ancient meditative tradition is a selective rendering of an ancient meditative tradition, in some cases carefully manicured.

 

But that’s OK. All spiritual traditions evolve, adapting to time and place, and the Buddhist teachings that find an audience today in the United States and Europe are a product of such evolution. In particular, modern mindfulness teachings retain innovations of instruction and technique made in southeast Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the main thing, for our purposes, is that this evolution—the evolution that has produced a distinctively Western, 21st-century version of Buddhism—hasn’t severed the connection between current practice and ancient thought. Modern mindfulness meditation isn’t exactly the same as ancient mindfulness meditation, but the two can lead to the same place, philosophically and spiritually.

 

What’s more, they start at the same place. The Satipatthana Sutta—the Bible of mindfulness—begins with instructions that will be familiar to a modern meditator: Sit down, “with legs crossed and body erect,” and pay attention to your breath.

 

The text then enjoins the meditator to pay attention to lots of other things—feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells, and much, much more (yes, including pus and blood). Then, at the end, it makes an extraordinary claim: If you practice mindfulness assiduously, you are following “the direct path for purification of beings” and so can achieve nirvana. Sufficiently diligent mindfulness meditation, apparently, can lead to true awakening, complete enlightenment, and liberation.

 

Of course, that other Buddhist text I’ve mentioned puts the story differently. It says that what leads to enlightenment is the apprehension of not-self. I hope by now it’s clear why these two claims coexist easily: Mindfulness meditation leads very naturally toward the apprehension of not-self and can in principle lead you all the way there. And the reason it can do so is because it’s about much more than living in the moment. Mindfulness, in the most deeply Buddhist sense of the term, is about an exhaustive, careful, and calm examination of the contents of human experience, an examination that can radically alter your interpretation of that experience.

 

Most meditators don’t give much thought to going all the way down the path toward this radicalism. And many meditators, like me, would love to go all the way but aren’t optimistic about making it to the end. Which leads to a question: Why keep meditating if you suspect that this path won’t realize your deepest aspiration, won’t lead all the way to full enlightenment?

 

The easy answer is that meditating can make your life better—a little lower in stress, anxiety, and other unwelcome feelings. But that’s the therapeutic answer. The spiritual answer—or at least my version of the spiritual answer—is more complicated.

 

It begins with one of the more striking claims made by Buddhism—that enlightenment and liberation from suffering are inextricably intertwined. We suffer—and make others suffer—because we don’t see the world, including ourselves, clearly.

 

One common conception of this relationship between truth and freedom is that you see the entire truth in a flash of insight, and then you are free. Sounds great! And what a time-saver! I’m not just being sarcastic here; there are people who seem to have been blessed with the “spontaneous” apprehension of not-self, and an attendant sense of liberation. But the more usual experience is incremental: A bit of movement toward truth—a clearer, more “objective” view of your stress, for example—leads to a little freedom from suffering.

 

Importantly, this incremental progress can work in the other direction: a bit of freedom can let you see a bit of truth. If you sit down and meditate and loosen the bonds of agitation and anxiety, the ensuing calm will let you observe other things with more clarity.

 

Some of these observations may seem trivial. Had I never started meditating, I’d never have realized that the monotonous-seeming hum generated by my office refrigerator actually consists of at least three distinct sounds, weaving a rich (and surprisingly pretty!) harmony. But sometimes these observations have larger consequence. If you view your wrath toward someone with a bit of detachment, you may realize that the irate email you’ve written to that person—the one sitting in your drafts folder—will, if sent, create needless turmoil.

 

And if you carry this kind of calm beyond the meditation cushion, you may find you’re less likely to label someone a jerk just because he’s at the checkout counter fumbling for his credit card and you’re behind him and in a hurry. Which I’d say qualifies as movement toward truth, since it’s logically contradictory to consider someone a jerk for doing something lots of people you don’t consider jerks—including you—have done.

 

Indeed, according to Buddhist philosophy, not seeing this person as a jerk is, in a certain sense, movement toward profound truth. The Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness”—the one Jack Kerouac cryptically alluded to—would take eons to explain fully, but one way to put the basic idea is to say that all things, including living beings, are “empty of essence.” To not see “essence of jerk” in the kind of people you’re accustomed to seeing “essence of jerk” in is to move, however modestly, and in however narrow a context, toward the apprehension of emptiness.

 

Here again, ancient Buddhist philosophy gets support from modern psychology. In many circumstances, it turns out, we do tend to project a kind of “essence” onto people. We may naturally conclude, upon observing a stranger for only a few seconds, that she is a rude person, period—rather than entertain the possibility that she’s had a stressful day that led her to behave with uncharacteristic rudeness. This tendency to attribute behavior disproportionately to “dispositional” factors, and to underemphasize “situational” factors, is known as the “fundamental attribution error.” To commit the error, as humans seem naturally inclined to do, is to see a kind of essence—essence of rude person, in this case—where one doesn’t actually exist.

 

Anyway, the key point is this: The two-way relationship between enlightenment and liberation—the fact that a slight boost in either may boost the other—can create a positive feedback loop that doubles as a spiritual propellant, pushing you down that slope toward deeper exploration. If sending fewer incendiary emails and spending less time fulminating in checkout lines reduces the amount of agitation in your life, maybe this effect will be so gratifying—so liberating—that it encourages you to meditate for 30 minutes a day instead of 20. And maybe that will lead you to view more of your emotional life with greater clarity—lead to more enlightenment—and this enlightenment will further reduce the needless suffering in your life and further deepen your commitment to meditation. And so on. Before you know it, you’ve gone on a meditation retreat, absorbed some Buddhist philosophy, and are driving the Adam Grants of the world even crazier than more casual meditators drive them. Well done.

 

But does this really qualify as a spiritual endeavor? After all, upping your investment in meditation certainly has its therapeutic payoffs. I’d say the answer depends partly on how far you go—how far toward not-self, for example—but also on how you think about the exercise, what you take away from it. When you’re standing in that checkout line, judging that credit card fumbler more leniently than usual, is that just a fleeting effect, the welcome byproduct of a particularly immersive morning meditation session? Or is it part of a sustained effort to be mindful of how casually and unfairly we’re naturally inclined to judge people—and how those judgments are shaped by self-serving feelings that, actually, we don’t have to consider part of our selves?

 

And when you’re getting some distance from stress and anxiety and sadness, is the ensuing comfort the end of your practice? Or is there ongoing and deepening reflection on the way feelings shape our thoughts and perceptions, and on how unreliable they are as guides to what we should think and how we should perceive things?

 

For many of us—myself included, I fear—pursuing enlightenment is doomed to failure if we think of enlightenment as a kind of end state—if we hope to eventually attain the elusive apprehension of not-self, of emptiness, and sustain that condition forever, living wholly free of delusion and suffering.

 

But you can always think of enlightenment as a process, and of liberation the same way. The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment —with a capital L and E—on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on a not-so-distant day. Like today! Or, failing that, tomorrow. Or the next day. Or whenever. The main thing is to make progress over time, inevitable backsliding notwithstanding. And the first step on that path can consist of just calming down a little—even if your initial motivation for calming down is to make a killing in the stock market. 

 

 

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