Editor-in-Chief Melvin McLeod’s introduction to the May 2014 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.
Like a lot of families, we have a screen problem. Sometimes we’ll all be in the same room on our own screens, separated from each other, from our environment, and ultimately, from ourselves. We share the space, but otherwise we’re in our own worlds.
When people talk about distraction these days, this is usually what they mean. It’s a very real problem, and to help us deal with it, the meditation tradition offers us helpful techniques to create gaps and pauses in which we can unplug and reconnect with ourselves. But as simple and immediately beneficial as that is, it could also be the first step on a path that goes very far—all the way to enlightenment, in fact.
In this issue, we take a deeper look at the problem of distraction. It is not just a modern obsession. According to Buddhism, it is ego’s fundamental defense mechanism. What we are actually distracting ourselves from—what we are protecting ourselves against—is the open space and full intensity of reality.
Enlightenment is both a promise and a threat. Take a look at what are traditionally called the three doors of liberation, which Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us about in this issue. The three doors are no self, no identity, and no goal. Is there worse possible news if we’re holding onto the experience of ourselves as solid, continuous, and fixed? Liberation sounds good, until we realize that what we’re liberating ourselves from is ourselves. From ego’s point of view, enlightenment is the worst possible news.
To shield ourselves, we must always stay occupied with goals, distractions, entertainments, and experiences. In fact, you could argue that our very world is a form of distraction. We need other to confirm self, and so we create an entire universe of perceptions, emotions, and concepts to protect ourselves against the ultimate reality of no self, no identity, and no goal.
Distraction is a form of ignorance, and as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche pointed out, ignorance is extremely clever. The ways that ego creates constant distractions, entertainments, and occupations are myriad and deceptive. In her insightful teaching in this issue, Judy Lief unpacks the world of distraction layer by layer. She takes us on the journey of working with distraction, a path that starts with taking a few minutes away from our screens to breathe some fresh air, and ends when we’re face-to-face with the complete openness and intense energy of enlightened mind.
This is the union of the practical and the profound, and it is Buddhism’s great genius. If ignorance is the root of our suffering, then the antidote is deep insight into the true nature of mind and reality. So the really practical solutions are found in profound understanding. And profound understanding is found in addressing the human condition. Real practicality is profound; real profundity is practical.
Chögyam Trungpa talked about the spiritual path as a kind of surgery. Cutting through our discursive thoughts—or our screen addiction, for that matter—is like making the first incision. It is only the beginning of the operation. In the end, we must cut through to the very root of our suffering—our distractions, our struggles, our fears, our very experience of self and reality. If we don’t do that, if we stop at the first incision, we will not really be cured. This union of the profound and practical is what Buddhism offers us.