In Buddhist meditation, we have the intention of working on our minds. (Although that may be contentious: the idea of having any goal in meditation, rather than just being in the meditation – even if that is to aim at being in the meditation).
Since clinging was identified by Buddha as the cause of all suffering, we are aiming to let go of clinging, which we practise, by letting go of thoughts and of the breath. We work to improve our mind states, to be present, and therefore to be aware of what comes up in the mind, and to let go of whatever comes up, whether we judge it to be positive or negative.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche (Restoring the Balance, p53) states: “Most of us have fifty percent good and fifty percent bad. So there is fifty percent to work on.” That seems to me to be a high percentage of bad!
Jinananda – an angel to my mind – wrote in his blog two months before his death:
“There are still one or two people who I may have felt treated me badly at one time or another, that I’ve lost contact with, but you know, we’re all in the same boat. Human beings do damage to each other. And now it’s the damage I’ve done to those I love that I feel in the guts, not the damage done to me.” (31.10.17)
So this is not a good assessment of the human condition from a couple of Buddhists. Most of us have 50% bad (and good), and “human beings do damage to each other”. Bearing in mind that the ratio of bad to good is so high in most of us, we should not be surprised when we ourselves, or other people, do not live up to our expectations of consistent goodness. Yet it is surely not productive to expect ourselves or other people to have approximately 50% of bad in them. People often deliver according to their own and others’ expectations, so it would surely be more productive to set high expectations of goodness. At any rate, I think there must be more variation in ratio of good to bad in people. And these ratios will also vary at different stages of our lives.
So whenever I find myself particularly unable to let go of something in my mind; whenever I make what feel like catastrophic, yet avoidable, mistakes through carelessness or anger, I wonder whether Buddhist meditation is in fact doing me any real good. I wonder if there has really been any point to spending hours of my life on the cushion. (When I come across negativity in other meditators, I find it similarly paradoxical.)
Perhaps the difference is that after the fact of this cumulative meditation, I may be able to own up to my mistakes more quickly, or at all. While my reaction might initially be defensive, and I may search for ways to mitigate or justify or even disown unskilful actions of mind, body or speech, I might now perhaps become aware of these things sooner. It’s hard to know if I get fewer things wrong the longer I keep up a meditation practice – how can we know what we would have got wrong otherwise?
In aiming for or wanting something (non-clinging), we may be averse to and resistant to what we do not want (clinging), and Buddhism teaches us that we actually strengthen thoughts and feelings that we resist, by giving them energy. This is why we practise letting go of thoughts. So could our meditation, with such an intention, actually be strengthening our clinging through our resistance to it, instead of eroding it? This may be the logic behind the ideal of sitting in meditation with no purpose. Just to be with the sitting, with the body, and the breath. (However, someone once pointed out that when we meditate, it is a good idea to set up conscious intentions, because otherwise unconscious intentions may take over.)
In speaking of intentions, these are apparently the driving force of karma: the consequences of our actions. To put it simplistically, actions deriving from positive intentions reap positive karma, and the opposite applies to actions deriving from negative intentions. But in my experience, great harm may come about from actions where intentions have not been negative, and it is possible for positive consequences to result from actions deriving from negative intentions. I have not found a way of reconciling this with ideas of karma, but welcome input/discussion on this. Actions and intentions can be very mixed. One can be doing something beautiful, such as caring for a child, and at the same time, mindlessly engage in idle gossip without negative intentions, which may result in someone being hurt. Or in trying to protect oneself (a positive intention), one may unintentionally endanger someone else.
According to Chogyam Trungpa, “The Sanity We Are Born With” apparently evades us thereafter unless we can avoid psychosis (manifested by our habitual reaction to our own projections) by developing an effective meditation practice.
And according to Tibetan Lama Rinpoche Yeshe, meditation strengthens the mind. These are certainly good reasons to meditate!
Many people come to meditation to find peace. Chogyam Trungpa seems to scoff at the idea of using meditation as a tranquillizer. The bigger aim of Buddhism is the cultivation of world peace; the sum total of the cultivation of all our individual peace.
One kind of Buddhist meditation is known as “insight” meditation, and I have found, from time to time, that I seem to receive insight during meditation – particularly on meditation retreats.
To return to the quote from Jinananda’s blog: “And now it’s the damage I’ve done to those I love that I feel in the guts, not the damage done to me.” What can be done with that feeling in the guts? The Buddhist way is to acknowledge the feeling, rather than to push it away. To contact the feeling rather than find a way of evading it through self-medicating with drugs, or alcohol, or other distractions. To be aware, and to resolve not to repeat negative actions. I have come to the conclusion that there is no way of truly compensating or being compensated for harm caused to anyone, even if the harm was unintentional. Feelings of guilt, which is in fact “self-hatred” are definitely not the answer. But perhaps what some of us can expect, like Jinananda, as time starts to run out, is that feeling in the guts.