by Stefano Bettera
’No matter how well you endure the difficulties,
without wisdom one is like a person
who intends to go east and heads west.’
Human beings have been since the dawn of time a nomadic people, scattered throughout every corner of the earth. In today’s global society, each one of us carries with us the legacy of our local traditions to new homes and places, which generates that mixture of encounters and mutual influences that makes life vital and creative. There is no alternative to this profound interdependence and our thirst for new knowledge. Modern technology and globalized society tend to reduce significantly the distances between us, to make less significant differences that until recently seemed etched in stone. As the Coronavirus pandemic has shown, this ‘liquidity’ of our world can lead to problems; on the other hand, it is a unique and precious opportunity for evolution. The wisdom of a spiritual practice, whatever it may be, can support and foster this process. Understanding how and with what quality a spiritual practice will be able to guide us is the challenge.
‘What practice do you follow?’
In this context, we need to pay attention to the dangers of reductive definitions of meditation or practice, if we prefer this term. We are often faced with the question ’what kind of practice do you follow?’ This question implies, in reality, the need to define, in a direct and definitive way, a belonging, a choice of field. With this question, we are being asked if we ‘belong’ to some specific spiritual tradition, or if we follow a particular discipline. In defining a certain type of applied technique, we are also reassured about the presumed imaginary of reference and the cultural background of those who speak to us.
This need has an understandable function because it helps to identify a language, a common ground that allows dialogue and understanding. But it presents many risks. First of all that of simplification, of generalization, of taking for granted that a trend or an opinion or a habit represents and exhausts the general picture. One trait that is indispensable in a spiritual journey for today is the ability to develop a form of practical wisdom capable of addressing the ultimate demands of our modern, fragile and confused human life. Practical wisdom is the heart of a philosophical life. It is not something you believe in or confront on an intellectual level, but something you do. That you enact.
Investigation of the human soul
However, we must not forget that any kind of investigation of the mind has always been conceived as a way to deal with the practical need to relate to experience and interpret it: living has to do with our presence on this planet, with our connections to other living forms and the emotional relationships that arise from these interactions. The functional mind tries to manage these interactions and to defend itself, as well as control or sometimes dominate them. Living this condition requires different capacities of vision to which respond different means of action, more or less extensive.
Meditation, understood as a form of wisdom, starts from this practical point to shift attention to our awareness of our relationship with other living forms and our interdependence with them, putting the functional individual in the background. What manages to emerge, therefore, is the space for the experience of a more universal consciousness that is confronted not with the individual instances of the specific person of this or that moment but with the ultimate dimension that unites every living form. As the functional mind recedes in meditation, the need for an objective disappears. In fact, the only ‘objective’ of this form of practical wisdom is to live wisely and compassionately with all that this entails. Meditation understood in this way abandons the characteristics of technique and even practice; it becomes a wide-ranging investigation of existence and reveals itself for what it is, a heritage of the human spirit and this is its ‘field of action’. This includes, of course, also work on the dynamics of the mind, but it is not the end of it. If anything, it is the beginning.
The Western tradition
In the West, there have existed very refined forms of spiritual practice and this is the time to rediscover them. We need to put them in dialogue with others, such as Buddhism, and enjoy the spectacle of this encounter of wisdom traditions. The result will be to find a way to lead a more authentic, fuller, more serene, and more philosophical life – if we understand philosophy as a practice and not as a set of theories about reality.
Meditative wisdom is therefore a practical philosophy. In fact, philosophy means love of wisdom and this practice is also a form of deep love for life, of constant re-reading of our experience guided by the questions: ‘What is this thing called life? What is this living?’. Here are the lyrics of a famous Italian song: ‘The construction of a love breaks the veins of the hands, mixes blood with sweat, if you have any left. The construction of love does not repay the pain. It’s like an altar of sand by the sea’. In the same way, the search for our wisdom, for our meadow, is built day by day, with passion, with patience, and we must continue to choose to stay on the path. That choice requires us to trust a feeling, an intuition, a push that guides us, a ‘feeling’ that looks a little beyond the limits of an individual’s horizon. In a certain sense it is an act of faith. Not because we believe in it but because it pushes us into a terrain where the categories of normal logic are inadequate, insufficient to contain the totality of this experience. Poetry, music, and art succeed in this space of questioning. They succeed in capturing and expressing this ineffability, this taste that we all know in our hearts but we struggle to express.
Loving is a paradox
We often complicate this basic understanding for no reason and complicate life accordingly. But loving is as paradoxical as living. Being in this paradox, relating to what can be sublime and terrifying, is not a matter of technique or ability. Nor is it about resilience. It only has to do with the wisdom of surrendering and embracing life for what it is, which is beyond the self and mine. It’s beyond any etiquette or definition with which we are accustomed to weighing down simple experience. This practice is a laboratory, a work in progress, which proceeds by trial and error, intuition and flashes of genius. It’s a process that requires the art of remaining in contact with the fragility of each new discovery, a moment later outdated and in any case impossible to reduce to a scheme.
Living with all this is our most authentic form of wisdom. Accepting this challenge requires strength, courage, passion and great dedication. Never expecting anything but simply staying there, in the current of time. This path of practice has to do with the ability to say yes to what happens, to embrace life, simply because of what it presents to us. From this practical point of view, meditative practice, study, ethics and action are indissoluble and therefore we need a method to guide us in this adventure, a method that combines integrity and contemplation as a view of the world.
One ‘real’ practice?
In defining the type of path we choose for ourselves we rely on conventional definitions. Language imposes it on us. But these terms often risk creating contrasts more in form than in content. Or, at worst, they create new sectarian simplifications that lead to the birth of new doctrinal orthodoxies that I personally feel little need for. Therefore, getting out of the traditional definitions we are used to requires first of all a different approach to the practice itself.
There is, for example, a passage in the Buddhist Pali Canon in which Gotama speaks of his teaching as something clearly visible and accessible to every wise man. At the same time, he says that those who love their place, their identity too much, will never be able to understand it. Why not listen to this advice? Yet we know very well that conflict arises when we use the word to define every aspect of life in a rigid and immutable way. If we think of a spiritual tradition or meditative discipline as a kind of ultimate truth or revelation, it becomes necessary to explain which of the various traditions has more legitimacy than others, because each truth or revelation they propose is very different from the others. So, we enter into a concatenation of reasoning from which we will never be free again.
The secular way
So, instead of saying that a tradition or discipline has, in itself, the whole truth, including the secular way, we should take these ideas as wise insights or suggestions and accept that there is no authority to decide what works for everyone. Perhaps it is better to understand this same secular approach as a method of research and dialogue with the contemporary world that starts from our perspective as modern human beings, from our ‘saeculum’, precisely, from our time, and thanks to this lens revises the meaning also of the teachings of ancient traditions so that they can speak to the human beings of today. Moreover, all traditions, religious or secular, have arrived in this time and place not from a timeless dimension, but have their roots in a lineage of people and events that has allowed it to become what it is. Therefore, a new approach that takes into account our historical, philological, anthropological and archaeological knowledge is necessary and strongly useful to shed light on the links in this long chain. But it is better to remember that the characteristics we can attribute to each link are often the result of a conventional and functional definition that does not do justice to the vitality and heritage of ideas present in each of them.
The fence of definitions
What the spiritual practice of this modern, global world will be like in this modern, global world is an open question and I don’t believe the solution lies in conflict or opposition with traditional forms of practice. Perhaps it is easier to imagine a path that is the fusion of both these elements. A new path that requires confrontation, dialogue, openness and a not inconsiderable dose of risk. This is what has always happened and there is no reason why it should not happen now. The fundamental question is whether to side with this stranger or embrace any kind of orthodoxy, traditional or otherwise.
Buddhism itself – whatever we mean by this conventional term – is, ultimately, an ever-changing project, like the lives of those who give it vitality. If, therefore, every definition is valid as an instrument of communication – and secular Buddhism is no exception – at the same time it remains an imperfect definition and incapable of including every nuance of experience, just as every form of wisdom suggests. The problem with rigid definitions lie in the fact that they are often the antechamber for the creation of orthodoxies. Human beings like to have certainties and are not particularly inclined to open their eyes to the mystery of the sublime because this same sublime has a tendency to be unreliable and disconcerting. One moment it seems here, at hand. The next minute the confusion returns.
Yet, Huineng, a Chinese Zen master, said that ’a passing thought that clings to objects is delusional, while the next thought that frees one from attachment to them is awakening’. The bottom line is whether to side with the gamble, the freedom that is the condition of an open, awakened mind, or to defend any kind of orthodoxy, traditional or not. And in developing the ability to engage creatively in this way, ethical action that aims at integrity and wisdom plays a fundamental role. We need a wisdom that is capable of capturing every moment of wonder and in the next instant letting it go without any sense of regret or bewilderment.
 The term is used by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
 From ‘La costruzione di un amore’, from the album Panama e dintorni, by Ivano Fossati. 1981