From The Under 35 Project: “No Cheating”

From The Under 35 Project: Michael Felberbaum on the harsh and difficult realities of meditation that don’t get advertised in pop culture.

Michael Felberbaum
27 July 2012

Here’s the latest from The Under 35 Project: Michael Felberbaum on the harsh and difficult realities of meditation that don’t get advertised in pop culture.

Advertisements for meditation almost always contain images of airbrushed men and women in straight-backed, Buddha-like cross-legged postures, sitting under brilliant blue skies in an open meadow or on a rock next to a gently rolling sea at sunrise. Serenity blankets the meditator’s face.

What does not show up in the advertisements are grimaces, foot cramps, twitches, tears, boredom and the other common experiences of practicing meditators. It’s especially ironic to me that popular images surrounding Buddhism and meditation are so idyllic when, in actuality, it is a philosophy based on the truth of suffering and the inevitably of death. Most people do not associate suffering and death with clear skies, perfect yogi postures and sunshine.

It’s not just non-meditators who glorify sitting — even much of the meditation literature supports the popular image by likening thoughts to clouds in the sky and enlightenment to their parting. As meditators we are instructed to observe the passing thoughts/clouds so that the luminous sun/awareness can shine through, warm us and offer us unending clarity. The only prescription is to sit and observe the breath and then those open meadows and clear skies will appear like the Red Sea parting.

So, if the images are so tranquil and serene, why is the common experience for daily meditation practitioners so turbulent and difficult?

In fact, a daily sitting practice can be excruciating. Pema Chödrön once said that if we knew what we were getting into with the kind of meditation she presents most of us would never actually start. There’s a reason why Trungpa Rinpoche and others sat for extended meditations in cemeteries. There’s a reason why advanced practitioners go on solo, silent retreats for months or even years. Truth in advertising would demand a disclaimer that said something like: extended periods and training may reveal severe emotional distress, physical discomfort, and bizarrely unsettling realizations.  Confusion will arise. Familiar views and ideas will be shaken. To deal with this type of meditation, perhaps the only recourse, as Alan Watts was known to say, is to follow your weirdness.

Maybe Alan Watts is right and weirdness is the direction to choose, but it’s certain that high gloss images of clear skies and sunshine are the wrong way to go for a daily sitting practice of meditation. Arrival at enlightenment does not seem to involve a rock next to a rolling sea at sunrise.

The beauty of meditation is its stark clarity. There’s simply no way to cheat or fake the meditation Trungpa Rinpoche and others teach. There are no “I’m a peaceful meditator” images to hide behind alone on your chair, cushion or pillow. The breath goes in and out, thoughts and feelings emerge in such a way that none of us can sit with our own energy day in and day out and maintain that we do not have anger and sadness and remorse and envy and all the other experiences that make us human and give definition to our personalities. We cannot deny our anxiety and torment. Without fail, the dark clouds roll in and sometimes they stay for months.

So why hold onto a still-life, high-gloss image of meditation as serene and tranquil? The great teachers invite us to think bigger and ask bigger questions. Why look for a respite from chaos or a moment of peace when you can live a peaceful life no matter what the circumstances? Why identify with pain and suffering, when you can open to the fullness of life? Even if we are embarrassed about our hunched posture and our inattention to breath, even if we think through entire meditations, and even if we talk to ourselves ceaselessly and beat ourselves up relentlessly, it’s not the sunshine and clear skies that are going to make things alright – at least not according to the Buddha and many others – it’s uncovering the compassion, wonder, learning, clarity and wisdom that are already present.

Michael Felberbaum

Michael Felberbaum lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife and two kids. Meditation has been a daily part of his life for more than 5 years, but he’s been studying since his early teens. He’s currently a graduate student at Wesleyan University and works full-time at Yale University in the Development Office.