You will often hear that mindfulness meditation is good for stress reduction, calming the mind, etc. For many people this is usually true, especially if their mindfulness meditation is taken in small doses.
Mindfulness meditation can also be troubling. It can bring things to mind that keep you up at night. It can rekindle feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness that you had been ignoring. It can make you question the whole direction of your life.
As an elderly woman from Thailand who visited our center one night said about serious meditators, eventually you find yourself sitting on the cushion with tears streaming down your face.
Meditation is not a sedative. It is not anesthesia. Meditation is facing whatever is in your mind right now, kindly but unflinchingly. It’s facing your thoughts and feelings without dipping into the bag of tricks and justifications you use to cover up and pretend. It’s accepting what is, and not trying to rearrange the furniture of your mind to be more comfortable. It’s being the observer, the knower. It’s training the heart.
As Buddhist techniques tend to be though, it’s the usual three step. First, you focus on your breathing to calm the mind. Many people stop there, of course. The second step is to use your quiet state to reflect on the contents of your mind without judgement. You gently observe the mind, allowing mental objects and states to emerge in the silence. You see both the story you’re telling yourself and the feelings that they are sustaining. You drop the story and sit with the raw feelings, letting them unwind and finally cease.
As you become more quiet and sensitive, you see things you weren’t aware of — things that were obscured by your constant proliferation of thoughts. You find delusions and habits that have been causing you pain and stressing you out. This throws you off balance as you learn how to accept all of this mental garbage that you’ve been accumulating for years.
As you work through one set of suppressed emotions and half-truths after another, letting go of foolish ideas, useless fears, and reflexive grasping, something starts to change. You discover that your mind, and by extension the world, doesn’t throw you off balance as much as it did. You find that you can trust your mind and trust the current situation to be workable, to be dharma. Some people find that therapy is necessary in this second stage of sorting through sankharas, old patterns. You sometimes need to say things out loud to another person and watch them accept it before you can fully accept it.
In the third step, you use your stronger, quieter, kinder mind to focus more directly on the three characteristics of existence, anicca – impermanence, dukkha – unsatisfactoriness, and anatta – not self. Every physical and mental event you experience has these three qualities. They are all transient. None of them can provide any permanent satisfaction or relief from suffering. None of them are part of you, and none of them are your true possession.
Buddhism is nothing if not hard truths. You will be separated from everything and everyone you care about, including your precious sense of self, one way or the other.
For everything you think you are or you own, either you will die and leave it behind, or it will be taken from you, or it will change its nature such that you stop caring about it, or your nature will change such that you stop caring about it.
Many people can’t face these facts with their current set of tools. That’s why Buddhism provides for the development of serenity and compassion as well as wisdom. It’s metta, it’s the four Brahma abodes, that allow you to let go in the right way, to become equanimous instead of indifferent. To understand that the world is empty and yet full of suffering beings who can learn to free themselves, including you. To know for yourself that there is a stream of pure joy, pure freedom, behind the accidents of form in which we find ourselves.