This talk was given to Golden Wattle Sangha, Sydney, in August 2018.
Peter Hughes of Golden Wattle sangha proposed the title of this talk – Specific challenges we face in our meditation practice living in this culture at this time – explaining it as follows:
We tend to accept what we see going on around us as normal, but I suspect our expectations are very different from those living in the Buddha’s era. Even as we see our culture change and seemingly to me becoming more decisive, these attitudes quickly become normalised and often go unchallenged. I was thinking about this in the context of Jonathan Page’s talk about our tendency to perhaps just look for peace and calmness and avoid the hard work of looking at what is really going on.
In this way, Peter brings in the expectations of people living in the Buddha’s era (5th century BCE) about meditation practice as a counterpoint to our own. This was a time of low productivity of labour and uncontrolled fertility. So for the vast majority providing food, shelter and clothing for a growing family was enormously arduous. No holidays, no weekends, no knock-off times. Living spaces were cramped and reverberated with the chaos of family life. Far from ideal conditions for meditation!
The Buddha attracted and retained quite a few lay disciples – known as ‘adherents’, or more generally as ‘householders’ – but the widespread assumption was that you had to be a homeless mendicant if you wanted to have a serious crack at meditation. Mendicants had no dependents and households to maintain. Ordinary people fed them when they turned up with begging bowls. So: plenty of time and wide open spaces to meditate in, and plenty of famous competing seekers and ascetics to offer advice and gather practice communities. For purely pragmatic reasons, the price of admission was celibacy and no sexual love means no spouse or kids!
Shortly after the Buddha’s death the adherent/mendicant distinction hardened and was institutionalised as that between laity and monastics. The monastics devoted themselves to spiritual things and did the meditating, while the laity did the hard graft of providing for all the monastics’ physical needs, which they did on top of their own and those of their families. Out of this division of labour grew the unhelpful idea that meditation was the preserve of the monastics, which made it appear to be something technical, rarefied and esoteric, and well beyond the capacities of ordinary folk. This idea is still widespread in traditional Buddhist communities.
In the affluent west we’ve come a long way out of this setup. We live in societies with a very high productivity of labour, and we control our fertility without taking on celibacy. Most of us have a place where we can meditate, and the leisure to attend meditation classes, practice evenings, weekend workshops, and even residential retreats. We can download a cornucopia of written and oral teachings from the web and even download apps onto our mobiles that will help us manage our meditation practice. The monastic life seems to offer us very little we don’t already have.
And yet! Something there is that doesn’t love a sit – to a paraphrase the first line of Robert Frost’s deathless poem, Mending wall. And that ‘something’ comes in two parts. One of them is embedded in the human genome, so it’s been there for quite a while. The other is a creature of our own time and place. Both obstruct our settling and focusing.
We don’t have to dwell too long on the perennial obstacles, as the Buddha highlighted and discussed them often enough under the rubric of ‘the five hindrances’:
- craving for sensory stimulation;
- negativity towards what comes up as we meditate;
- sloth and torpor;
- restlessness and anxiety; and
- ‘doubt’ – lack of confidence in ourselves, the teachings, the teacher, and/or the practice.
At least one of these hindrances is usually waiting for us when we sit and meditate. Sometimes more than one. Sometimes the whole gang. ‘A multi-hindrance attack’ as it’s known in the trade. We can assume that all humans since time immemorial – not just 21st-century westerners – have craved stimulation, hated things that get in their way or threaten them, needed rest, experienced anxiety, and doubted themselves.
If it were otherwise, meditation would be a breeze, but our species would not have survived nature’s survival-of-the-fittest-regime to enjoy its onward-and-upward meditation. In a state of nature, the ability to settle and focus isn’t exactly rewarded! But rapacity, fear, brief repose, hyper-vigilance and curiosity, and a sense of our own vulnerability and limitations, have helped us to survive. And yet, down through the ages, some individuals have meditated consummately, and have handed down their advice about how to get past the five hindrances. Obviously, that advice belongs in our toolbox. No mere app can replace it.
The five hindrances endure!
Something that attracts very little comment is that these five hindrances are tugging at us as we go through the day, not just when we’re meditating. They’re part of our character structure. They’re the traits that diminish our effectiveness as dharma practitioners, as decent human beings. Hold that thought!
On a purely experiential level, what ails and assails us 21st-century westerners when we try to meditate? It would be a long list, one that might include:
- we’re time-poor and time-miserly – especially in a city like Sydney;
- thanks to neoliberalism, our workplaces are understaffed and we’re under pressure to get things done by yesterday;
- there are so many damned things happening that we need to see and do – things that nag at our FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and hunger for immediate gratification;
- with a 24-hour news cycle, we need to hear breaking news as it actually breaks;
- We’re on social media with new posts are coming in all the time that demand our immediate response, otherwise we fall out of our ’virtual community’ and lose our sense of relevance;
- We’ve abandoned the leisurely rhythm of corresponding by post; we use email instead, which calls for much more rapid fire, treadmill-like interactions;
- The ubiquity of mobile phones brings the not-so-subtle demand that we make ourselves available to be interrupted at any time. (Remind me: how do you spell the word ’solitude’ again?)
The net effect is that we lead culturally-induced jittery lives that keep us attached to remarkably buzzy and sticky items – our dreaded devices. Lives in which the act of shutting ourselves away for a 45-minute device-less silent sit seems almost immoral, if not entirely mad. Lives that lack depth and inner probing.
In passing, we should note that the mendicant open-air meditators of the Buddha’s time suffered from disturbances and distractions comparable to our digital devices: flies, mosquitoes, snakes, as well as heat and cold.
So, have we really left the traditional five hindrances behind? Hasn’t our new world just found more ways to galvanise our age-old hindrances – our propensity to crave stimulation, to hate, our inertia, our anxiety, and our paralysing doubts?
The shortcomings of the standalone meditation practice
‘But hey! [I hear you cry] So many of us are meditating these days. Our authority figures demand it, too: our therapists, corporate bosses, senior officers in the armed forces, and even our prison officers. Not to mention all the mindfulness-based meditation courses we can plump for on our own motion, because we keep hearing they’re good for us – they counteract depression, PTSD and stress!’
Hereby hangs an interesting tale. Yes, carefully crafted and well-taught mindfulness- or concentration-based meditation practices can have good therapeutic effects, without our having to change anything else in the way we live. They help us to ratchet down our skittery-jitteriness and tame a few inner demons.
But it’s so hard to maintain a long-term meditation practice on this purely utilitarian, problem-solving basis if we don’t integrate it into what each of us identifies as our central, guiding principles – our ultimate concerns – as we live our all too finite, scattered lives.
Historically speaking, things began to go astray when meditation was introduced into the modern west as a standalone practice, one dis-integrated from its dharmic context. It became a standalone, goal-oriented, problem-solving activity, thus losing its true processual nature in the context of an ethical path – the Buddha’s middle way. Once the original problem (whatever it is or was) no longer presses down on us, our meditation practice runs out of steam. It no longer appears to serve any purpose.
Reintegrating meditation practice
We need to understand that this is a culturally-induced perception. If we reintegrate meditation practice into a wider dharma practice, we gain a whole new perspective. In it, meditation is part and parcel of living an examined life each day, right to the end. A journey, not a destination.
Meditation gives us deeper insight into what is happening in our lives on an everyday basis, how we are changing (or just staying stuck), and how we can rework ourselves to attain the character traits we recognise as nobler. How we can live more integrated and meaningful lives.
In that way our meditation practice gains a new momentum and a more enduring place in our lives. And the distractions and disturbances of modern life shrink back to their true proportion.