The Truth About Buddhist Meditation

For most of my life I have believed that in order to be effective at meditation one must wear long flowing robes, sit cross-legged on a mat and engage in some form of alternative lifestyle that rejects modern Western values. Of course I now know that this simply isn’t true, but is merely the result of media images that have been engrained into my mind since early childhood – beginning with Bugs Bunny cartoons that feature exactly this meditative character sitting on a street corner in some unnamed Eastern country whose peculiar and complacent appearance results in him being the unfortunate and unwitting participant in Bugs’ mayhem.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The truth about meditation is that it is certainly is not restricted only to those in long flowing robes, nor is it only an Eastern practice. Meditation fits into modern Western culture just as easily as it has traditionally melded with Eastern. It is not a counter-cultural phenomenon. One does not have to deny the world in which he/she lives to effectively practice meditation. Rather it is an introspective process in which we have the opportunity to examine the true nature of our selves and make our psyche aware of the mental suffering that we have created and are enduring.�¯�¿�½

Traditional Buddhist meditation in its purpose is not so different from modern psychoanalysis. Though evolved from different schools of thought, both practices maintain that the mind is central to our reality and that human attitude is the single most important factor that affects our state of being. With the understanding that meditation and psychoanalysis are linked in this way, it makes sense to explore the one with which we are unfamiliar in terms of that with which we are familiar. Michael Eigen does just this by investigating Buddhist meditation in Western terms that are indicative of his psychological training and immersion in Western society.

Eigen, an NYU psychoanalyst, attempts in “One Reality” to uncover a bit of the mystique surrounding Buddhist meditation and assess its role in modern Western society. He conjectures that Westerners often idealize Buddhism with the hope that it will succeed where other religions have failed. Eigen, however, dispels this idealization by approaching Buddhist practice from a clinical perspective asserting that it allows one to open up to the “One Reality” to which we all belong, yet cautions that it should not be viewed as a universal solution to all of life’s problems. He goes on to present two case studies that illustrate the role of meditation in two individuals lives that in no way represent the Western idea of the ideal Buddhist, yet maintain meditation to be a significant and meaningful feature of their everyday lives.

His first subject, Owen, is a respected meditation instructor who has become trapped in feelings of destitution and emptiness that are in some way related (either resulting from or causative) to erotic liaisons that he forms with his students. Seemingly, Owen owes much of his success and satisfaction in life to his meditative practices, yet cannot seem to eliminate his destructive erotic feelings and practices. As Eigen presents it, Owen has allowed himself to become trapped by his own self-indulgent practices. Meditation enables Owen to continue to act in a self-destructive manner because he is able to commune with himself during meditation. Unfortunately his actions and attitude inhibit his communion with anyone else.

His second subject, Jesse, is also a Buddhist and regular practitioner of meditation who makes a living working for Wall Street firms. Meditation opened Jesse up both spiritually and emotionally, yet has also seemingly become a form of escapism from problems in his personal life. He is very open with himself and is in control of his feelings, yet seems to have trouble reconciling his waking Western reality with his meditative one. His personal achievements have made it difficult for him to find anyone who can stand up to his high expectations. Eigen shares that even he had difficulty relating to Jesse because of his confidence. He writes, “How self-assured and controlling this sensitive, vulnerable man was. Or was I the controlling one?.” Ultimately, after months of therapy and conversation, Eigen concludes that Jesse uses meditation as a way to exercise control over his emotions. Rather than connecting with reality and with people, Jesse merely connected with himself and shut out the rest of the world.

In his essay, Eigen does an excellent job at illustrating the reality of meditation. It is not an easy practice, nor is it a guaranteed solution to one’s problems. Rather, it is an ongoing process that one must work at and personalize to his/her life. If one attempts to use at as a means of escapism or tool for perpetuating self-indulgences as do Owen and Jesse, the practitioner will become stifled in his/her practice and not succeed in reaping the full advantages of meditation. “We are sustained directly by God, not only through others. We are sustained by others, not only by God.” In this quote, Eigen sums up how meditation must work. He makes it clear that meditation is a practice that must involve both human contact and divine contemplation in order for it to succeed.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Eigen concludes by aligning religious practice and psychoanalysis. Both Owen and Jesse benefit from their meditative experiences, yet fail to reconcile their gains from meditation with their everyday life practices. They cut themselves off from the world and become destructively self absorbed. Each have created a world in which they have given themselves total control, yet have allowed for no means of self-correction and therefore cannot escape their misery.

Eigen successfully illustrates that meditation is not only for Buddhists and per his case studies, is certainly not only for the chaste and righteous. Meditation is a practice that can be employed by anyone who is in search of something beyond our material reality, whose mind is open to exploring the “One Reality” that we all share. Meditation, however, is not really that different from modern psychotherapy. As Eigen contends “âÂ?¦meditation and prayer are a form of psychotherapy and psychotherapy is a form of prayer and mediation.” With this last statement, perhaps it is a bit easier for those us with the robe and mat conception to venture into the realm of meditation and begin exploring ourselves and our realities in ways that we have yet to experience.

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