It may look as if we’re doing nothing on the cushion, but in fact we’re cultivating peace. From that point of view, the practice of meditation is a very courageous activity.
People often ask me how we can apply meditation in dealing with forces bent on aggression. Without using aggression ourselves, how do we stop somebody determined to harm others?
As practitioners, we try to use whatever we encounter to open up our minds. When the whole world comes to a point of intense aggression, can we go beyond our own anger into openness? Aggression only invites more aggression and produces further pain. We have no choice but to cultivate peace, which means developing tolerance and understanding.
Cultivating peace is a long and difficult process. The challenge begins with practicing peace on the meditation cushion even while we’re having aggressive thoughts. Meditation is the best preparation for working in a world where we are increasingly in each other’s faces. By engaging our mind on the cushion, we learn to work with our own reactivity.
In shamatha (mindfulness) meditation, we use the breath as the object of meditation. Instead of reacting to thoughts, we recognize, acknowledge and release them, and bring our mind back to the breath. Stabilizing, strengthening and clarifying our mind this way is called “peaceful abiding.” Once we’ve achieved a sense of stability and strength, we can shift the technique by using thoughts themselves as the object of meditation. This is a form of contemplative practice. In particular, I encourage contemplation on the principles of compassion and love. But anger is another useful subject. How can we deal with aggression in the world if we don’t first work with our own?
Contemplating anger helps us see it clearly, and it also adds an element usually missing when we’re in the throes of intense feeling: reason. One of the most painful things about any negative emotion is that it feels so solid. Yet there are always at least three separate components: a subject, an object and an action. For example, when you’re angry about being stuck in traffic, the subject is “me,” the object is the car just in front of you, and the action is being stuck behind it. Your pain is also the object. You’re angry with yourself for being stuck, you’re angry at the car in front of you for being slow and you’re angry at being angry. These are the elements that have come together to create the emotion.
In contemplating anger we can begin to dismantle it. We start by looking into the feeling itself: “Why am I angry? What has made me feel this way?” When our mind strays, instead of bringing it back to the breath, we use these thoughts as the anchor of our meditation. Soon we see the components of our emotion: what someone did or said, some disappointed expectation, the simple fact that we’re tired. In contemplating how our negative emotions have come together-and how they create pain, suffering and anxiety-we see that they are not as solid as we thought. By dismantling the emotion and looking at the components, we dilute the strength of our attachment.
Practicing like this is not about being judgmental. It’s not about whether someone is right or wrong. We’re trying to work with our anger in the privacy of our own mind, so that we’re not as susceptible to the grip of high emotion. We start to see that the situation or person we would like to blame is not the reason for our anger. The reason is that we’ve rolled subject, object and action into a reaction and a response, and solidified that thought into a feeling as big as a house.
With determination and motivation we may eventually be able to let go of our anger and return to abiding in peace. But even in the context of meditation, we can usually do it only bit by bit. Off the cushion, it’s very difficult to jump into that peaceful mind when we’re already mad at someone. By the time we’re really angry, we’re already caught in a reaction. In that case, the solution may be to derail the intensity of the emotion by going for a walk or taking a bath. We can contemplate it later.
Contemplating anger offers the space to become aware that we have a choice: we can try to keep solidifying the emotion by continuing to blame, or we can let it fall apart in the inherent openness of our being. We can allow that difficult situation to plant seeds of aggression-and then we can water the seeds with angry thoughts-or not. Training our mind in meditation gives us more control over how we use it. At some point we might be able to use it to extend love and compassion toward that angry person.
That’s why contemplating love and compassion is so useful in working with aggression. When we contemplate love and compassion, we wish that others might have happiness, that they not suffer. We start by extending this wish for happiness in a small way-we wish that the cut on our friend’s finger might heal. We build in increments until we can wish for happiness in a big way-that all beings may become Buddha, that all may achieve enlightenment. Contemplating the welfare of others is the quick path to peace, because in wishing for the happiness of others, we rise above our own attachment and aggression.
Extending love and compassion toward others in contemplative practice is a rehearsal for stepping beyond stinginess and self-centeredness in daily life. Eventually our training will give us the power to flip the mind instantly by letting go of the “Me Plan” and considering the happiness of somebody else, whatever we’re experiencing, wherever we are. In that moment, we are cultivating peace. When we live like this, we feel happier. The reason is simple: love and compassion are the basis of our consciousness, and we thrive when we let them come to the forefront.
Is doing these funny contemplations going to counter aggression in the world? Not all at once, but it’s a step in that direction. In meditation practice our mind is no longer pinned against the glass of our life. By contemplating anger, we become familiar with the rigid mind of attachment and aggression. By contemplating compassion and love, we become familiar with the pliable mind of peace. The practice of meditation creates the psychological space in which to choose our responses off the cushion.
Through practice we grow as individuals, as opposed to just surviving our life. We learn that by working with our mind-the consciousness we’re walking around with every day-we can discover our love and compassion and use it, instead of being used by negative elements that bring us down. At the end of the day, we’re different from the day before. That’s why we call meditation a “path.” It may look as if we’re doing nothing on the cushion, but in fact we’re engaging our mind in a proactive way. We’re cultivating peace. From that point of view, the practice of meditation is a very courageous activity.