Mindfulness In Plain English – Henepola Gunaratana – “You are a mess”

Extracts from Chapter One:

Buddhism as a whole is quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm without addressing deities or other ‘agents’. Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we would call psychology than to what we would usually call religion. It is an ever-ongoing investigation of reality, a microscopic examination of the very process of perception. Its intention is to pick apart the screen of lies and delusions through which we normally view the world, and thus to reveal the face of ultimate reality. Vipassana meditation is an ancient and elegant technique for doing just that.

Meditation is not easy. It takes time and it takes energy. It also takes grit, determination and discipline. It requires a host of personal qualities which we normally regard as unpleasant and which we like to avoid whenever possible. We can sum it all up in the American word ‘gumption’. Meditation takes ‘gumption’. It is certainly a great deal easier just to kick back and watch television. So why bother? Why waste all that time and energy when you could be out enjoying yourself? Why bother? Simple. Because you are human. And just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life which simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time. You can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back–usually when you least expect it.

You suddenly realize that you are spending your whole life just barely getting by. You keep up a good front. You manage to make ends meed somehow and look OK from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you, you keep those to yourself. You are a mess. And you know it. But you hide it beautifully. you hide it beautifully. Meanwhile, way down under all that you just know there has got be some other way to live, some better way to look at the world, some way to touch life more fully. You click into it by chance now and then. You get a good job. You fall in love. You win the game. and for a while, things are different. Life takes on a richness and clarity that makes all the bad times and humdrum fade away. The whole texture of your experience changes and you say to yourself, “OK, now I’ve made it; now I will be happy”. But then that fades, too, like smoke in the wind. You are left with just a memory. That and a vague awareness that something is wrong.

Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, that brittle-tongued voice that says fun on the surface and fear underneath. Feel the tension, feel the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it.

At first glance this seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren’t there? No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension, that no matter how great the moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have got and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.

You can’t make radical changes in the pattern of your life until you begin to see yourself exactly as you are now. As soon as you do that, changes flow naturally. You don’t have to force or struggle or obey rules dictated to you by some authority. You just change. It is automatic. But arriving at the initial insight is quite a task. You’ve got to see who you are and how you are, without illusion, judgement or resistance of any kind. You’ve got to see your own place in society and your function as a social being. You’ve got to see your duties and obligations to your fellow human beings, and above all, your responsibility to yourself as an individual living with other individuals. And you’ve got to see all of that clearly and as a unit, a single gestalt of interrelationship. It sounds complex, but it often occurs in a single instant.

The purpose of meditation is personal transformation. The you that goes in one side of the meditation experience is not the same you that comes out the other side. It changes your character by a process of sensitization, by making you deeply aware of your own thoughts, word, and deeds. Your arrogance evaporated and your antagonism dries up. Your mind becomes still and calm. And your life smoothes out. Thus meditation properly performed prepares you to meet the ups and down of existence. It reduces your tension, your fear, and your worry. Restlessness recedes and passion moderates. Things begin to fall into place and your life becomes a glide instead of a struggle. All of this happens through understanding.

There is only one way you will ever know if meditation is worth the effort. Learn to do it right, and do it. See for yourself.


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