Archives for the month of: December, 2013

I recently received some very good advice which I have been thinking about for a week or so now, and I thought I’d share both the advice and my meditations on it here. The advice I received was this:

Not all doctors got ‘A’s.

On the face of it, this advice can be read that “even those in positions of authority might not be the best”. It suggests we can get to positions of life-or-death authority in life without necessarily ticking every box one might expect lies behind attaining such positions, and that’s reassuring in a number of ways. Firstly, it takes a little pressure off ourselves to be the best at everything. We can be good, or OK, and still do a decent job. Secondly, it enables us to look at others with a kinder and more forgiving eye – they’re also fallible and sometimes make mistakes. Even taken at this level, that’s an important insight. However I think there’s a further level to it.

Who gives out the grades? Schools, universities, people with the “answer sheet”; a system of ideas. Who decides who gets to be a doctor? HR departments, job adverts requiring certain qualifications; a system of ideas. Who decides who’s a good doctor? I’m sure some will say the systems in place to inspect doctors; many, however, will recognise the best doctor is the one who does most to heal sick people. It’s not quantifiable in an grade – here, on the ground, the A-grade certificates on the wall are meaningless; they don’t guarantee the doctor won’t kill every patient they treat. Another way of putting this is “there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path”.

There is value in being able to manage one’s preconceptions. Without preconceptions, we can’t be disappointed, because we take the situation as it comes. We can approach each moment as a single moment without the baggage of our ill-remembered past or imaginary future. We can also learn to understand that even the “best people” in the world have bad days, and start to recognise that we are all different, fallible, human; people aren’t defined by single moments and conversely even the “worst people” aren’t total scumbags. As Jedi, we cultivate the capacity to live in the moment, to cooperate with the situation we find ourselves in and maximise harmony with the universe. If we get offended or angry by every passing moment because of the preconceptions we hold, we are never in a position of true harmony.

But even as we acknowledge it is wiser to approach the world with a “clean slate”, we train (or, more aptly, untrain) ourselves so we can act in the moment, trust our and through mindful awareness operate from a certain structure of values which lie at the core of the Jedi path. And what is a value structure? It is a system of beliefs, ideals. When we apply it to our lives it equips us with certain ideas which others may have formed but which we perceive as true and valuable, but one way of looking at these ideas is that they are preconceptions; they are principles, maxims, creeds which ask us to behave in certain ways. They don’t necessarily require us to think in certain ways, however – what I’m getting at is if you want to make a pizza, you can do it a hundred ways, and still make a pizza. Ham and pineapple or Margarita? Store-bought dough or homemade? It’s still a pizza. And this applies to most things in life, including these value structures or other systems of belief.

We strive to follow the path laid out by the doctrine of the Temple, but sometimes we don’t make it. That’s OK and not reason to fret. We can be hard on ourselves, systems can be hard on us, but at best any system must acknowledge that we are all individuals, behaving, understanding and thinking in very different ways, even as we aim to achieve the same goals. There is a tension between the “clean slate” and the predefined structure of a value system. Whilst we want to be open, we aren’t innately open creatures; or at least our culture conditions us to “close off” to such an extent the business of unlearning is a real effort most will never undertake. The values of Jediism include these seemingly conflicting notions in an effort to untrain us from preconception, and it’s not always easy. I’m reminded once more of the sections of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Tao Te Ching which suggest one can be brought to understanding by writing in a book, but that the writing in the book isn’t the full picture. As I said earlier, “there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path”. The important part, I realise, is the effort; and the sincere desire to increase harmony, even if that’s sometimes hard, and even if sometimes we end up achieving the opposite.

Taking this back to the original advice then; the doctor who scraped through with ‘C’s might be a lousy doctor, but they may also be a fantastic one. They may not have met the criteria of one grading system, but the system itself could be flawed; the C-grade doctor may be the one who invents a new procedure or evolves new understanding, precisely because they don’t sit squarely with the established order of things. And the opposite may be true; they may devote themselves to a full and thorough understanding of the established scheme, to prove their C grades wouldn’t limit them. Both A and C-grade doctor will stumble on the path, but neither A or C grade is a guarantee of sincerity or care. Therefore the grade, certificate, position or badge can only serve as a guide, and only in a very narrow way (ie if a doctor told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?); they are no substitute for capacity to approach the situation with a good set of tools, a strong heart, and a head clear of preconceptions.

I am a Jedi, an instrument of peace.

I thought I’d write a brief entry on some of the lesser-reported benefits of meditation. We often read it protects us from anxiety and depression, it increases our net amount of happiness, and it gives us more control over our thoughts (or at least a greater capacity to deal with them), but I find some other benefits I rarely if ever hear mentioned in connection with meditation.

First up, one of the best things about meditation is that it shows you that everything other than your body is unnecessary for some things in life. No fancy dojo? No problem. No classy zafu? No sweat. No enlightened sage to guide you through a mystical internal journey? Never mind. No clothes? Well, we can’t have it all. No arms, or legs? No eyes, ears, nose, tongue… no big deal, when it comes to meditation. You can literally meditate with nothing more than your bare consciousness, unlike almost any other human activity. This is tremendously humbling! It shows us that there is no need for superficial things, and no requirement for high-end sound systems and the latest games consoles to find contentment. It waits within us all, irrespective of our outer circumstances.

The next unpublished benefit of meditation is that it teaches you how unimportant small pockets of time are. “These damn traffic lights, I’ve been waiting for 5 minutes now!” we mutter under our breaths. The meditator knows that five minutes can feel like an eternity, but is in fact just five minutes. Or ten, twenty, thirty. We take this small moment out of our pre-existing day and what do we lose? What irreversible problem does this “lost” half hour create? The meditator knows that a short part of their day is of no significance, and this teaches patience. Patience at the light, or with the elderly relative who repeats themselves, or with the child who needs one more trip to the loo before you head out. You can afford ten minutes – the world won’t end.

Another unremarked benefit of meditation is the increased awareness of the nature of distractions. When we meditate, the world around us doesn’t stop. I have two small kids and life can be hectic in every room of my house at times, so I meditated in the bathroom the other day. What happened? The cat began meowing and clawing at the door, begging to be let in to go lap water from the sink. Did I think “Damn cat! Little bugger won’t give me a minute’s sodding peace?”… well, yes I did, briefly. I let the thought go, like leaves in the wind. It drifted off, I reached out a hand to let the cat come in, and my meditation continued undisturbed by the grateful lapping right beside my right ear. The truth is distractions will always happen, but they needn’t truly “distract” us, if we hold true to our purpose. The meditator carries this wisdom into other parts of their life, acknowledging their urges and their habits but not necessarily submitting to them.

The final unpublicised benefit of meditation I’ll mention involves the end of the meditation sitting. I have a little timer on my phone, which rings a beautiful long-chiming bell when my personal allotted time is up. The bell rings, and I know it’s time to return to reality. I suspect every person who has meditated can relate to that notion of “bringing yourself back to the room”; the feeling that you must “return” to external reality, even though you’ve spent the last few moments completely at one with it. For me this tells a very important fact: we “put on” reality, like a coat. When we meditate, we gradually shed it, but at the end of the session we can’t simply open our eyes, spring up and carry on as if nothing happened. We must, in a very real sense, resume our engagement with the external world. This is tremendously important! It reveals the true nature of our interaction, our transactions with the external world. We add it, as we would add a coat and scarf, to our innate and fundamental experience of reality. This highlights the undeniable conceptual nature of our interaction with external reality; indeed, our distinction between internal and external worlds.

I hope this has been an enlightening entry. I don’t think there are any surprises here for those who meditate, and nor do I expect these points have in all of human history never been written down before – they just seem to be marked down as “less important” than the perceived health benefits of the regular practice of meditation. But there is more to meditation than just mastery over your feelings. As Shunryu Suzuki memorably said, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.”