While my wife and I were on our Fall camping vacation last week, I was “meditating” near a pathway in a botanical garden on cliffs over the Pacific while she was taking photos. The rugged coast of northern California is so beautiful!
Since I’m always going on about how useless that word “meditation” is, unless you get a lot more specific about exactly what a person is actually doing, let me elaborate on that.
I was sitting comfortably on a bench, eyes usually closed, listening to the sounds of the sea, the wind, birds, and the occasional sounds of people, silent or conversing, as they walked toward me on the graveled path, passed behind me, and walked on. My meditation aim was to listen to whatever sound was actually there moment by moment, without wandering off into thought reactions about the content of anything I heard, or emotional reactions such as trying to block out things I didn’t like or amplify and hold on to perceptions and reactions I did like. Particularly, I was trying to be aware of the way one content of my consciousness, one perception, changed and morphed into another content of consciousness, what Shinzen Young calls meditating on flow, and what I think might more formally be called meditating on impermanence or choiceless awareness. I like calling it meditating on flow, that’s such a straightforward description, although words like impermanence or choiceless awareness sound so special and spiritual, it makes me feel like I must be doing something that’s a big deal! 😉
I was doing pretty well, and then a mother and child started walking down the path toward me. The child, a little girl, was crying and quite unhappy, and although my eyes were closed, I could imagine the mother feeling angry and dragging little girl along by her hand, probably telling her occasionally how childish it was to cry.
I immediately lost what equanimity I had about following whatever sounds happened as they came and went, without being caught by them or reacting to them. My emotional mind always reacts strongly to the sound of children crying, and other parts of my mind chimed in and started generating scenarios about this poor suffering little girl, her cruel mother, etc., etc. I realized that this was not something I could do anything about, given our society’s social rules, and also remembering that I was attempting to meditate, to experience the flow of events with concentration, clarity, and equanimity. My heart didn’t give a damn about all that meditation stuff though, it was caught up in the little girls crying!
Then I remembered that one of the useful techniques that both Shinzen Young and Sogyal Rinpoche teach about dealing with painful experiences, with physical or emotional pain, is to focus your attention down more toward the basic components of the experience. If it’s a physical pain, for example, pay attention with an attitude more of “What is the exact nature of this stimulation/sensation, moment-by-moment?” rather than “I hurt! I don’t like it!” Why not try it for emotional pain, I thought? It’s helped me with physical pain. Indeed I had heard Sogyal Rinpoche teach that specific technique for emotional pain, although I’ve never tried it before.
So I focused on the sound quality of the little girls crying, the sounds I heard of her mother’s footsteps, the sound of the waves breaking in the sea, moment-by-moment, etc. — and almost all of the emotional upset went away, as long as I kept this focus.
On the one hand, I was very pleased. I had successfully used a meditation technique to substantially reduce my suffering. On the other hand, I was horrified! I had successfully used a meditation technique, something I associate with spiritual growth, to tune out the real suffering of another human being so it wouldn’t bother me…
As I thought about it later, in one sense this was no big deal. Life confronts us with all sorts of painful situations where we can’t really do anything about the reality of the situation, but do we need to suffer when there’s nothing we can realistically do? That we can practically do?
But, like everyone, over the course of growing up, I had learned many ways to at least partly shut out things that bothered me in order to reduce my suffering. For me it usually tends to involve getting lost in thoughts, which reduces my perception of events that bother me. But I have had to expend a great deal of effort over the years as an adult learning to be more sensitive to the suffering of others, because my psychological “insulation,” my learned insensitivity, my automatic defense against emotional suffering, was too good. So, do I really want to learn another insulating technique?
I think I can make some more sophisticated remarks along the lines of yes, we should all learn techniques like these to reduce useless suffering, but then it’s a moral choice as to how and when we use them. If we just automatically shut out others’ suffering for the sake of feeling better, and so don’t help them when we could, that’s losing an important part of our humanity. But where exactly is the boundary line between the use of this kind of meditative technique as what Buddhists would call “skillful means,” and where is it a narrowing, pathological psychological defense and isolation from reality?
I’m not very clear about the answer, so I’ll just leave this little observation as it is.