At first, you weren’t here — now, here you are — but soon, you’ll be gone forever. Sunrise, sunset. We all die.
But in the space of your life, there is also a space called your mind, where everything interesting happens. Your mind is where your uniquely personal and private experience roils, like an eddy in a larger river of conscious people and beings popping in and out of life. It’s this conscious experience that serious students of meditation seek to understand.
What is Consciousness and Why Explore It?
A fancy word for this space is the noosphere, but esoteric, new-age definitions of consciousness are huge time-wasters if you’re the type who likes to know how things work, in order to make a difference. This is especially true when you understand that consciousness is something you already have and are, and can examine for yourself—directly.
Your mind is fleeting, priceless—and free.
As a working definition, consciousness is no more or less than the process of mapping the external world to onto a complicated neurological network, by way of our senses, producing subjective experience. The elements of this mental map are the sensory modalities of sight, sound, feeling, taste, and smell. Each modality registers impressions on the map in the form of sub-modalities, such as brightness, focus, color, distance, volume, pitch, temperature, pressure, sharpness, saltiness, bitterness, sweetness, etc. All of these impressions have a perceived intensity and occur within our perception of space and time.
The reason you’re here reading this now is that your mental map (like those of your ancestors) is tightly integrated with an affective system (how you feel about things) that assigns an emotional valence (positive or negative) to the mental images flowing through your mind. It’s the center that determines good from bad, right from wrong and pleasure from pain. Your affective system is the governing mechanism that motivates you to move in the direction of rewards, and away from pain, real or imagined. If we were wired any other way, our ancestors would have been eaten by lions, starved to death, or otherwise failed to do the needful to copulate and raise copies of themselves capable of repeating the cycle. The chain would have been broken, and thus, no you.
Above and beyond our affective system (all mammals have one), we humans have an extra faculty for constructing and reflecting on our mental maps and trying to make sense of the world through them. We also reflect endlessly on the mental maps of other humans (e.g. what are they thinking?). If this were not enough, our minds also manufacture meaning in the form of stories, images, metaphors, and dreams. Stories are how we create order out of the chaos of life. Those stories and dreams have a central character we call “I”, in relation to everything and everyone else. These stories run all the time. They define who we are, who and what we love, who and what we fear, and what to do about it. And the difficulty is, that these manufactured stories are what most of us mistake for the real world most of the time.
Buddha Show Us the Way
Before Siddhartha Gautama became known as the Buddha, he was a guy who noticed that he noticed things. He also noticed that what he noticed made him feel bad. By paying close attention to his own mind, he gained some measure of familiarity with how his mind made him feel so bad, then he applied compassionate to the whole business, and then more or less became the master of it all. All the metaphors, teaching and traditions that flowed out of his experience in the centuries since are gross exaggerations or pale reflections of what really happened in his own mind.
It’s important to understand that before Buddhism came along, there was mind. If the Buddha had not come along and told people what happened, it’s almost certain that other explorers of the mind would have come to very similar insights, and developed other systems with other names.
As a means of disseminating information, Buddhist lineages function like any priesthood, guild, or brand—on one hand, ensuring consistency of methods and a kind of quality control—and on the other hand, providing a living for the purveyors. Nothing wrong with middlemen, but they are the finger pointing at the moon—not the moon itself. They allude to the existence of the map and may offer clues to interpret it, but as Alfred Korzypski said:
The map is not the territory.
You don’t need permission to explore your consciousness. No books, no audiobooks necessary. No shaved heads or funny clothes, expensive seminars, retreats, or degrees required. Just look, and there it is. This is what the Buddha did for himself. It is also what you can do for yourself. [^Books]
[^Books]: There is nothing wrong with books, audiobooks, retreats or anything else. I refer to them myself, but use them in moderation.
What Good Meditation Isn’t
Good meditation is not all those traditions. It is not the teachings. It is not the trappings, it is not the chanting, nor the gongs, nor the incense, nor the endless sitting. It is not the whacking with the stick or the koans, nor is it the temples. If these things are what you bought, then own them responsibility. But if they don’t support the understanding of your mind, you may have paid too much for them.
Good meditation is not avoidance or escapism. Like alcohol, Buddhist practices done with the intent to numb oneself, or run away from anxiety rather than courageously confronting the causes of it, have the potential to create a dependency and addiction, rather than dealing with the problem. If you meditate to relax, fine. But meditating in the hope to be magically transported to a better place is just allowing the real problems to compound.
Good meditation is not exclusive. If there is anything in your brand of Meditation that tells you that you can’t do it, or that causes you not to allow another’s point of view to exist, then that is you, not the Meditation talking. Sit with that thought.
What Good Meditation Is
Above all, good meditation is meditation that works.
Good meditation is safe and effective. Like any good medicine, should work quickly and reliably, with few negative side effects. Good Meditation becomes more effective the more one practices, without developing a tolerance or dependence to it. Good Meditation always makes mental processes sharper and clearer, not foggier. Good meditation can go by many other names, as long as it works. Increases in awareness, mindfulness, compassion, and courage tell you it is working.
Good meditation is inclusive of all kinds of experience, from serene meditation sessions to the chaos of the subway, to all the emotions experienced in relationships, to sicknesses of all kinds, and the approaching of death itself. It includes joy and sadness, pleasure and pain. It is learning to abide them all.
Good meditation is inclusive of all kinds of faith and cultural backgrounds. Remember, religion and culture came after mind arose, and your mind was always free to examine, regardless of the kind of culture or religion that permeates your mind. Borrow what works. Reject what doesn't. Stripped of all of its eastern trappings and traditions, mindfulness works as well for a Jewish grandma in Toronto, as it does for an aspiring young monk in Tibet.
Good meditation allows subconscious dark things from one's shadow into awareness to be experienced directly and courageously, and compassionately dealt with. If you confront your shadows, you're doing something right, even if it takes time.
Good meditation is meditation that you can carry in your pocket. It should be lightweight and portable. You should be able to use it anytime, anywhere, without much preparation. Stripped of all its eastern traditions and trappings, mindfulness doesn't weigh much. It's more portable that way.
Good meditation is aided by effective practice. Sitting straight seems to help, but you can also pay attention to your mind while walking, riding, listening to others, and so on. You can meditate for days, or minutes. The difference between 3 hours and 12 hours is small, but the difference between no minutes and 20 minutes is huge. And like playing an instrument, 20 minutes a day is better than 3 hours in a single sitting on the weekend. 2
Good meditation is patient. It is not in a hurry. It tolerates backsliding. When you are distracted, or completely freak out, you can just start again from where you are. It's especially useful to invoke mindfulness in the heat of an argument, but it does not always happen that way. So when it doesn't, then use mindfulness to review the situation after things cool down. Even if what you did lands you in jail, mindfulness can go there with you too.