My attitude towards meditation is that Awakening (aka “enlightenment”) is possible.
Awakening from what? one might ask. Consider the mystery that crops up from time to time — say, you know, when you wake up groggy and in an unguarded moment you make eye contact with yourself in the mirror. A slightly dizzying sense of looking into a hall of mirrors. Existential groundlessness, you could call it.
When faced with this mystery, for many years I tended to shrink away, sometimes I’d shiver involuntarily. It was like a slight concussion for a few moments, until the question faded. Then I brushed my teeth, or had a shower, and returned to my normal life.
But maybe you get away from the city and all around you is evidence (wildlife, geography, sunshine, starlight, seasons) of a process taking place, and that this process is much larger than we normally realise. Intuitively we know that we are part of that great mysterious process. Yet we continue to think of ourselves as a protagonist in our own story. Our narrative feels crucially important to us, yet we shall all be dead for much longer than we are alive. A lifetime rarely registers on a global scale, and our individual selfhood is vanishingly tiny on a cosmic one.
One can be an atheist and still suffer the vertigo of this groundlessness.
Albert Camus, French philosopher of the mid-twentieth century, begins his startling essay The Myth of Sisyphus with the statement “There is but one serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.”
Which is another (admittedly intense) way of phrasing things.
It seems likely that there is no answer to Camus’ question. Suicide implies a narrative — a self, who chooses to either continue in the confusion of existential groundlessness, or cease existing. There is a third alternative. If the narrative is seen through as a simplification of reality[TED Talk, opens in new window], then it is no longer considered central to the experience of life. Instead we submerse our “self” in the larger mystery that we are part of.
It is the illusion of being a separate self that we Awaken from. Just thinking about it isn’t enough — that’s like dreaming about waking up. Or as Donald Hoffman says in the TED Talk I linked to above, you’re still on the desktop. We must experience the illusory nature of the self, viscerally, in repeated glimpses, repeating this process over and over until it echoes through our subconscious and emotional programming. Then that existential groundlessness becomes, in the words of Pema Chödrön, positive groundlessness (not an affiliate link).
Now, I’m pretty sure others had found ways to unravel the “self delusion” before the Buddha did so. And many others have done so since. The true brilliance of Siddhartha Gautama — the Buddha — was that he discovered a way to repeat the process in others. Apply the instructions, put in the effort, and Awakening follows. It is easier to miss the ground as you take a step, than it is to miss Awakening, provided the instructions are good, you understand them, and you put them into practice.
Today I am much more deluded than that. I can write these things, but if enough shit hits the fan, I will forget and the habits will take over. But I’m in process like all else 🙂
This attitude informs my approach.
Posts about Secular vs. Religious Buddhism
Also published on Medium.