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Lions Roar : November 2017
Something seminal happened to me during a difficult era when I discovered The Princess Bride. I took my first formal class in meditation, a class just for children. I was nine or ten, and found the practice incredibly boring—I didn’t start medi- tating semi-regularly until high school—but it was a productive boredom, a nonevent that carried tremendous value. Being silent with the tools of mindfulness introduced me to a feeling of vivid ordinariness. In that space, the seeds were planted for a delayed-release curiosity about the mind. Most of the ordinary magic of meditation was lost on me at the time—I fell in love with the practice only later on—but I remember the value of realizing that I had an entire internal world to explore, my own VHS collection of thoughts and stories, perceptions and projections. The mind was an inner space that was related to, and yet totally distinct from, the world out there. In fact, my mind was my true home, a home into which others could never be fully invited. Because of this privacy, the mind is a realm equal parts scary and fascinating: one part castle, one part haunted house. I have spent many years since then trying to get to know my mind a bit better, in order to become more genuinely available for the people I know and love. If you’re going to learn how to befriend other humans, you have to match that effort by befriending yourself. In the course of my life, if I really wanted to “find my people,” I also had to learn how to find myself, if not as my best friend then at least as my first friend. Later on, the existential confusions of puberty and high school made me commit to regular meditation. And the first time I got dumped in college, that’s when I knew I was a Buddhist. During those years, the practice and teachings became indispensable to who I was. When you meditate, you don’t find instantaneous peace, although practice can definitely guide you into a less tumultu- ous inner setting, a relative calm within body and mind, at least temporarily. The positive effects of mindfulness techniques on the parasympathetic nervous system have been well documented, both anecdotally and empirically. I trust the accumulated accounts of millions of practitioners more than I trust the objec- tive evidence of scientific studies, but both are quite helpful. There is, however, one big fairy tale currently being offered up about meditation: the fantasy of transcendence, the possibil- ity of entering a permanent bliss state, an inner paradise devoid of thoughts and feelings. Some systems of meditation promise a sudden bypassing of all the discomfort of thoughts and emotions, the ability to set- tle into the same induced ease every single time you sit. While these approaches may have some positive effects on stress levels, I believe they are not as reliable as promised. And even if these versions of meditation are helpful, they miss the real treasure chest of the practice. The deepest benefit of meditation, for me, is the possibility of befriending the inherent creativity of the mind itself. When you feel at home in your awareness as it is, you have access to the power of your mind as a creative tool. The mind no lon- ger needs to be wrestled or suppressed into peace. When your awareness is like a movie screen, and your thoughts are seen as worthy characters, the mind becomes like a theater. When you watch a movie, would you rather get to know the characters or pretend they don’t exist? Genuine meditation includes a certain amount of discom- fort. Chief among the uncomfortable experiences of medita- tion, you will eventually discover, are your own Rodents of Unusual Size. In this case, they are Rodents of Unusually Small Size, so small they aren’t even physical entities. These Rodents of Unusually Small Size are negative thoughts, the aggressive commentaries with endless self-critiques that gnaw at you. They’re the thoughts that tell you you aren’t good enough, not properly equipped to be human. These pests try to convince you that you’re probably going to die forgotten and unloved. No one knows yet where negative thoughts reside physically in brain or body, or where they come from. (They aren’t single origin.) Maybe it’s our advertising culture that forces these Rodents of Unusually Small Size upon us; maybe it’s institu- tional racism and sexism; maybe it’s inherited trauma from our parental and genetic lineages regarding self-worth; maybe it’s an inheritance from a previous lifetime of confused circumstances. I think it might just be all of the above. Who knows? Long before anyone knew what the brain looked like or how a nervous system functioned, the Buddha realized an important point. Moment by moment, we don’t need to know exactly where our thoughts live in the brain; we just need to know how to work with them. The set of tools for doing so could collec- tively be called “mindfulness.” Over time, mindfulness can help you cohabitate your nervous system safely with the Rodents of an Unusually Small Size. With greater familiarity, some of your negative thoughts might become harmless. Some rodents might dissolve into space. Some might even morph into little Mice of Compassion. Embracing Aloneness The purpose of meditation is to learn to be truly yourself. But if you want to be yourself, you have to invest considerable train- ing in being with yourself. As I have discovered through my own struggles, if you don’t set aside time for getting to know your mind directly, then in the presence of others your sense of self will get increasingly confused. Without mindfulness, you will always be construct- ing your sense of self based on others’ perceptions. Why is this externalized experience of self a problem? Because you can’t PHOTO:AFARCHIVE/ALAMYSTOCKPHOTO LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2017 68