When you first start to meditate, you think there's somewhere to get to. Or at least, I did – for maybe 20 years. And I never seemed to get 'there', wherever 'there' is.
Maybe the penny drops, one day. I'd read and heard any number of times that in the Buddhist way, or at least the Zen way, of mindfulness there is nowhere to get to – I understood that intellectually but somehow I still harboured this secret belief that one day I'd get there: be a better person, learn unconditional love, have a sorted and stress-free life, radiate serenity, be a perfect friend/lover/mother, accept transience, suffering and loss, dying and death... oh the tyranny of idealism!
Gradually, I realise, over a very long time a truer truth has crept in. This is that here really is where I'm needing to be (and that perfect human being is not even a distant dream), but it's my relationship to it that matters. Nothing is going to take away the fact of our living, the fact of our dying, and the fact that we and our loved ones will suffer in between. And being alive, just being alive, with all this – what a miracle! And really waking up to here and now – that's what it's about.
If you are reading this and are unfamiliar with Buddhist teachings, a word here: Buddhism is not a religion, and certainly not a 'revealed' religion. It doesn't require belief. There is no 'God' and doctrine around God to be bought into. We do not worship the Buddha – images of him are simply reminders that he taught a very simple truth: how to wake up, how to stay awake. The Buddha, after his own struggles, identified the things that keep us suffering, and spoke of a way that we can put into practise and see for ourselves reduces the sum of suffering in the world. That's all. The Man would say (though I don't entirely agree, and he's not a Buddhist) it's not even a spiritual path, more a psychology and a methodology. That's true; but to me, it also has a spiritual component in that it moves us beyond the petty concerns of ego into a view of interconnectedness, a felt sense of belonging to and within everything that is, (no inside no outside), and within that there is potential for transcendence.
What it means for me is that I meet over and over my demons – they don't go away, but over time I have started to change my relationship to them. I see that they're not 'real'; I see that they're primarily fear-driven responses to the world. Having identified them, developing an awareness of how they present and in what circumstances, and exactly how far they can run with us if we're not paying attention gives one the possibility of freedom. ('We are born free, and everywhere we are in chains', to paraphrase Rousseau.)
In Zen meditation there is no goal, no object. What we are doing is bringing our awareness to how things are – and how we habitually relate to them. That's waking up. We're watching the tricks the mind plays. There's the surface level of the water, which is normally disturbed, to put it mildly. Simply sitting, bringing one's attention over and over to the breath, and noticing where one's 'monkey mind' scampers – as it will – is the practice. Sometimes one can still the surface of the pool, and then a deeper level of practice becomes possible: the mind becomes a clear mirror and a deeper truer picture arises, something of essential nature. Perhaps we experience our sense of a separate self dissolve. Over the years, it takes less time each time to access that.
Or at least, that's the theory. Sometimes I manage to still the surface thoughts (clouds gliding across the blue, and I observe but don't hang on) and really drop somewhere beyond space, time and reactivity. Often I simply don't manage it, but instead spend the whole time chasing after monkey mind. That's just how it is. And of course the work really starts when we get off our cushions – when deeper mind is continually challenged by the world and our habitual reactions kick in.
So yesterday morning I wake with a lot of emotional pain: for the 'state of the world', for five years of personal losses one after the other, for my mum who, on top of her Alzheimer's has recently had a diagnosis of cancer, for my much-loved dog who has just, literally overnight, developed a life-threatening illness that is baffling vets; for my insubstantiality in the face of it all.
I'm sitting on my meditation cushion, doing a quick body-scan to relax, and then visualising, as I do to start my practice, myself as a locus between the above and the below, with the Great Wheel of being and the four directions doing their thing around me, sending what I can of goodwill and love to the beings who share the wheel with me in all four directions (and those in between). Then the axis that passes through me, above to below, is suddenly pulled so dramatically off course it is as if I've entered a different gravitational field – which I have, that of fear.
The image comes to me of a Red Dwarf planet (I know that astronomically speaking they're stars, not planets, but hey) exerting a pull bigger than my will – have you noticed how fear can hijack everything of your awareness? The trick with transient states of mind/emotions is not to identify one's whole being, one's Self, with them. 'I am not my fear' is a good reminder.
What's useful for me about this is that the Red Dwarf is a small discrete ball of energy a long long way away, and I'm not living on it – or in it. Nor do I have to – I have a choice. I notice the planet, its shape and size and distance, a small thing in a huge sky, and bring my awareness back to the present moment: this light rain on the skylight; the dog still breathing, and quietly asleep right now; a robin's song. The insubstantial but present fact of my body, my own breath. The miracle of being alive.