Before it Gets Better
A word of warning. We’ve touched on this, but it bears repeating, emphatically. When you start a regular meditation practice, you may not be very happy with the results at the outset. There seems to be abroad in the land the belief that Buddhism is a route to happiness, and it is. But the route to happiness goes through some pretty scary territory. We discussed the forces of Mara attacking the Buddha as he was on the cusp of complete enlightenment. The traditional texts treat the forces of Mara as actual demons that beset Shakyamuni to deter him from achieving enlightenment, but for modern Americans it likely works better to think of them as your own psychological processes. This is a familiar concept in American culture. As Kris Kristofferson put it in a song, “You’re dealing with some demons that are driving you insane, and I’ve seen them drag you screaming down the hallways of your brain….”
After meditating for a while, I suddenly understood why some people become alcoholics or drug addicts. The intoxicant turns off the intolerable thoughts inside their heads. I’m lucky enough to have avoided that fate. Meditation will do the same thing, only more gradually. The Buddhist approach is to believe that thoughts are just thoughts and the best way to deal with them is to allow them to surface and float away on their own, which they will do, if you don’t grab them and run with them. We talked about Pema Chodron’s notion of biting the fish hook and how the effects of doing so are usually not great. Biting the fish hook means seeing a thought arise and choosing to hang on to it, and chew it and spin it out into a huge, complicated story that seems very compelling and inevitable, when it started as just a thought. Hint: don’t do that. We all have thoughts we don’t want to admit to. You don’t have to tell anyone what you’re thinking. You don’t have to act on your unpleasant thoughts. They really are just thoughts, the most airy, ephemeral phenomena you’ll ever encounter, so just let them fly away.
Again, much of our thinking is habitual, and the other thing that meditation does is it allows you to notice your habits, good and bad, and allows you to work on eliminating the bad habits. But, of course, in order to eliminate them, you have to start by noticing them, and it’s the noticing that’s the initially unpleasant part.