I have been interested in meditation as a way of improving quality of life ever since I first read about it in 2004, and have even dabbled in it from time to time. I find its track record in healthcare impressive. But I have also always had questions, and been a bit skeptical and even fearful of it.
Jonathan Haidt’s comment (in “The Happiness Hypothesis“) that he sees Buddhism as an overreaction to the problem of suffering sums up my main fears quite well. We are told that the Buddha started out from an extremely sheltered upbringing and wasn’t even aware of suffering, until he went out into the world and was shocked by the painful reality of life. His philosophy starts from that shock and fear. As a result, the mindfulness meditation we are taught in popular books today might be an overreaction, in the direction of total acceptance and trying to eliminate suffering by refusing to judge anything as positive or negative.
These fears of mine boil down to a perception that meditation helps ease suffering by promoting acceptance of and disengagement with experiences, and a fear that too much of this would make a person emotionally “neutral” rather than happy.
I think acceptance is a perfectly natural mechanism. The less we are used to suffering, the more we fear it and want to reject it when it comes along. But when faced with unpleasantness that we can’t do anything about, although we tend to react against it initially, eventually something in us realises that we’d be better off just accepting it and working with it as best we can. A simple example is a delayed flight – after a burst of annoyance and upset, we usually find ourselves accepting the news, and settling into the departure lounge with a book to wait it out patiently, rather than remaining agitated. It’s not hard for me to see the sense of this, or how the Buddha might have come to realise this. But I don’t want to take it too far to the point where I don’t feel any difference between good and bad experiences. Suffering can often be alleviated or avoided, and happiness can result – this belief seems to be a necessary basis for morality, too.
What does meditation actually do, though? The Dalai Lama, in his book “Beyond Religion“, uses a key phrase that has clarified for me exactly what it does that’s different from other types of mental activity: it develops a “second-order level of attention”. This is a beautifully succinct and precise way of describing that quiet place you go to in meditation to observe your own thoughts. “Being present” is often the most emphasised feature of mindfulness, but that feature is shared by many other wellbeing-enhancing activities, such as deep engagement with music. Some aspects of meditation, such as loving-kindness or religious devotion, are perhaps more akin to the musical experience or to what I think of as spiritual experiences. But developing the second-order awareness is quite different, I think.
And what effect does a second-order awareness have? Does it diminish whatever is being observed in the first-order experience? Diminishing pain would seem great, but I am skeptical that it is worthwhile to try if it means diminishing everything and being left, well, somewhat numb. My concern is that feelings should still matter. Quality of life should still matter. There should still be a direction to act in.
On the one hand, I suppose it has to change something about the first-order experience – I can’t think how it could be helpful otherwise. On the other hand, how is it possible for pain to ever be anything other than pain? That would be like yellow not being yellow, or loud not being loud. The saying goes “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” – but doesn’t that have to have a limit somewhere? It seems to me that all our primary experiences are uncontrollable as they happen: we can to some extent engineer what kind of experiences they are, for example moving your finger away from a flame to avoid experiencing pain (sensible), but we can’t fundamentally alter the primary experiences that do come in, whatever they happen to be.
Maybe the answer is that the primary experience – the feeling – is not changed by seeing it from a second-order perspective, but the cascade of thoughts and behaviours and other feelings triggered by it can be changed; if these are unhelpful, they could perhaps be circumvented due to the clarity that comes with second-order observation. The useless resistance we put up can be dropped in the light of that clarity, just like it is when our flight is delayed. So the second-order perspective helps just because it gives space for saner reasoning to naturally kick in. It’s about the mind naturally rectifying itself, not about dampening it all down.
As far as still having a direction to act in, I see no reason why intelligence and wisdom should go out the window when we become more aware of our thoughts and feelings about things and better able to bear the difficult ones. If anything, it ought to become easier to get a clear view on the situation, and to choose the best way forward away from suffering based on reason, rather than on seeking immediate relief from hardship. Therefore yes, feelings would still matter.
I think meditation is about clarity, not neutrality. This feels like a breakthrough in my understanding and willingness to trust it.