Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Goal of Meditation

There is a famous story about something that happened to the Buddha just after his enlightenment. He was wandering around India, when he encountered several travelers on the road. They were amazed by his sense of peace and ease, and they asked him, "Are you a god?" "No," replied the Buddha. "Are you a sorcerer?" "No," he answered. "Are you a demon?" "No," said the Buddha. "Well, then, are you a man?" "No," came the answer again. "So what are you?" they demanded. The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

At another time in his life, the Buddha was asked to explain himself and his teachings. He said, "I teach about suffering and the end of suffering." Obviously there must be some relationship to being awake and the diminishing of suffering in our lives. Both of these things are the goals of vipassana, or mindfulness meditation.

In our daily lives we are often not awake. We operate on automatic pilot mode most of the time, not really aware of what our mind is doing. This allows the mind to engage in habitual tendencies, or outmoded and ineffective way of dealing with situations as they arise. We are unconscious, almost as though we were sleepwalking through life. Because of this unconsciousness, we are like prisoners of our mind's habits of thought. These habit patterns can lead to suffering when the mind fixates or ruminates about the past or the future, or makes up stories about people and things that have no basis in reality.

In vipassana practice,we never try to control the mind or our thoughts. Instead, we make a choice to pay attention to the feeling of the breath as a present-moment sensory reality. Inevitably, the mind will wander - usually to a fantasy about the future or a memory of the past. This wandering mind is very much like the automatic pilot mind in daily life: we have essentially gone unconscious. When we become aware that the mind has wandered, that means that we have awakened. "Buddha" means "awakened one," so this shift of awareness means that we have become a Buddha ourselves.

After we have awakened to the wandering mind, we then make the choice bring the attention back to the feeling of the breath, and back to the present moment reality. We make this choice over and over and over again. Soon, we can become more attuned to those times when we go unconscious in our daily life (which signals a moment of awakening), and then we don't have to follow the habitual tendency of the mind because we are free to make other choices.

When we know we have choice, and when we exercise the right to choose, we are free from the old habitual patterns. Our choices become more effective, and we suffer less.


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