One of the things I’ve always liked about Buddhism is that it’s based in a ‘check it out for yourself’ attitude. Because the Buddha didn’t talk about a lot of cosmic stuff there’s very little to take on faith; you’re invited to check out the principals and practices and see if they work for you.
John Horgan is a science writer who has been super critical of Buddhism and the modern mindfulness movement, but always at a remove. He doesn’t meditate. I get where he’s coming from – this shit seems ridiculous from an outside vantage point. But friends convinced him to do a 10 day retreat and, even though he half-assed it, he came to the conclusion that there’s something to this meditation business after all.
But he makes a really common mistake – he thinks that meditation is selfish. He writes:
[S]eeking enlightenment is pretty self-indulgent. The world isn’t all fireflies and goldfinches. It has problems that need fixing, as I was reminded whenever I looked across the Hudson at the West Point Military Academy.
Horgan is wrong, but I get where he’s coming from here as well. For most of my life I have looked at self care as decadent and hedonistic. Once I attributed this to having a working class background (and there’s some truth in that) but now it seems clear to me that it comes from a childhood of neglect that bordered on abuse. There are a lot of fucked up levels to it, but from a young age I learned that being good to myself was actually bad. Later in life this led to me thinking I was self caring by engaging in addictive and gluttonous behavior, or by being totally self-seeking.
As has been the case with so many of the lessons I learned in my childhood home, this was wrong. It took me 43 years to see a therapist, and I still can’t quite make myself put on moisturizer. But I’ve been able to do more self care than ever before, and I’ve especially been able to do more healing and ‘self improvement‘ because I finally understand why these things are important to do: I do them for other people.
Not only specific people in my immediate life, but people in general. I have gone through my life with my eyes closed, bumping into people almost at random. Some of those people have had good experiences with me, some bad. A few have had truly harmful experiences. I don’t want to be harmful anymore, and in fact I’d like it if people didn’t have bad experiences with me at all. I’d like to get to a place where I’m not only safe to be around, I’m beneficial to be around. That’s where all the work comes in. I’m trying to open my eyes, and keep them open.
This is the point, not only of meditation, but of all legitimate self care and ‘self improvement’ concepts. The hoary cliche used in this world is that when your plane depressurizes you’re supposed to put on your oxygen mask before helping others with theirs – you’re no good to anyone if you’re passing out during your valiant attempt to be heroic.
This is the main value in self care. This is why it’s important to make sure our bodies and minds are working at their best possible levels at the moment – so that we can be of use to others. So that we can solve those problems Hogan is talking about. Saying that a retreat doesn’t solve the problems of the world is like saying going to the gym doesn’t help you carry your groceries into the house. Of course it does – you’re in training for the time when you need to use the muscles/mind.
Yes, we heal and improve for ourselves – it makes our lives better and our days happier – but that isn’t the end goal. The end goal is to be a human being who is of value and is of use to other human beings and to the world at large. If you train your muscles every day, all day, you may never get a real world opportunity to do anything good with them, but if you train your mind you will be gifted with an endless series of opportunities to do good with it.
For one, you’ll be a nicer person to encounter. You will be less grumpy, less negative, more hopeful, more helpful. That alone makes a difference – if someone being shitty to you can really spin your day out in a bad direction, you being kind to someone can spin their day in a good direction. But you’ll also become more aware of the small ways you are harmful to others, and you won’t like it. And you’ll stop doing those things, or at least try to stop doing those things. Meditation has the same effect as seeing a candid photo of you taken at a party – you’re suddenly seeing yourself from a new angle and you do NOT like what you’re looking at.
This is the cliche “Think Globally, Act Locally” distilled down to its most simple form. You need to make the changes in you so that you can make the changes in the world. And here’s the larger theory – by making the changes in you, you’re already making the changes in the world. Horgan looks at West Point, which I’m assuming is making him think of… militarism? violence? … whatever it’s making him think of, and has some idea that we can change that thing (whatever it is) in one fell swoop. One day we’ll solve the problem of West Point! But the reality is that you don’t solve the problem of West Point, you solve the culture that makes West Point. And you don’t solve the culture anyplace except within your own head and heart.
Take climate change. Back in the 80s we had the ability to take control of trends in climate change – we had the technology, we had the knowledge, we had everything except the cultural will. The American public, for whatever reason, could not bring themselves to give a shit about the coming environmental catastrophe, and now we live in a world that is becoming inhospitable to us. Without a population that cared, that was connected and gave a shit, hopes for averting climate disaster were dashed.
“But!” you say, “It was the system that did this. The polluters and the GOP and the rich people.” True, but it’s important to remember that the system is made up of people. And we are, in fact, people. In the system. You know how Millennials are killing off Applebees or mayonnaise or whatever this week? That’s an example of how even a system that is set up to favor Applebees can’t fix the problem of individuals within the system changing their values.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
That’s Margaret Mead, and she’s right. Or to put it into the words of Dr. Otto Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (hey, it’s still MY blog):
That’s what I’m worried about. Later. Later, we’ll do something about pollution. Later, we’ll do something about the population explosion. Later, we’ll do something about the nuclear war! We think we’ve got all the time in the world!! How much time has the world got?!! Somebody has to begin to care!
We have to transform ourselves into one of those thoughtful, committed citizens. We have to be the somebody who begins to care. And the way we do that is by healing ourselves, by fixing what is wrong with our hearts, by training our minds. This isn’t self-indulgent – healing ourselves is something we must do so that we can get into position to save the world.