Mark Epstein and Meditation.
I finished Mark Epstein’s wonderful book Going on Being yesterday. What a wonderfully enriching book it is. Mark strikes me as a wonderfully authentic and together person. I appreciate that it is stylistically inappropriate and inept to use the same adverb twice in such close conjunction, yet “wonderfully” is so well worth repeating. Epstein recommends that we should always be really open to all our experiences, shutting out none, especially if they are painful ones: “…the route to nirvana was clearly through the development of an accepting attitude toward all aspects of our experience, including emotional ones. This meant making room for them, even if they made me uncomfortable, developing a kind of tolerance for the most disturbing aspects of my psyche.” (155)
I was also intrigued by this piece of information: “In many Eastern traditions, of course, the word ‘mind’ encompasses more than just the organ of thought. The mind is not even thought of as localized in the head. It extends to the heart, so that one word represents both our concepts.” (156)
Then that awful frightening abyss that we meditators encounter! This is what Mark says, quoting a hero of his: “The mind creates the abyss and the heart crosses it,” Jack Cornfield repeated, quoting an Indian guru known as the bidi wallah, a teacher who was enlightened from his perch on an Indian street-corner selling inexpensive cigarettes (or bidis) to passers-by.” (157)
Or this insightful piece on how well we really know who we are – our so called many masks, our ever strong ego and the world of our feelings - “We fear our feelings precisely because they have the power to overwhelm us. Our conventional self, who we think we are, disappears in the heat of passion or excitement or sorrow. We fear this loss of self because it reminds us of what a tenuous hold we have on ourselves in the first place…. The self we are afraid of losing is a false self. If we can learn not to fear our feelings, we gain access to the real. We have the opportunity to reclaim our going on being.” (161)
Epstein recommends that we should stay with whatever our original feelings are in any particular situation for somewhat longer – we must cultivate patience. I liked this quote also: “The willingness to stay in the uncomfortable feeling when there is nothing else to be done is the cornerstone of Buddhist wisdom.” (163)… Or to put it metaphorically,“There’s always another train.”
There is, he says, a very important phrase in therapy, which goes: “Follow the effect”. (163) This means that the therapist should attend closely to the emotional reality of what the client is saying and how they are saying it. Content is less important. I suppose the best way to summarize this is to write this piece of advice down: “Stay with the uncomfortable feeling!” Jack Cornfield, apparently, had always advised staying with and embracing “the emotional body.” (164) The Buddha’s advice (like advice to the musician on the lute or the plough man with the plough or the carpenter with the saw (TQ)) is as follows –“If energy is applied too strongly it will lead to restlessness, and if energy is too lax it will lead to lassitude. (JC)”see p 170.
Mindfulness is often said to be like the lead horse of a pack of five – if the ability to maintain moment-to-moment awareness is maintained, the others naturally follow.
Here’s interesting advice from John Cage, the composer, whom Epstein quotes: “In Zen they say: If something is boring for two minutes, try it for four. If it is still boring try it for 8, 16, 32, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all, but rather very interesting.” (176)
Don’t fix the pain, feel it…
The Diamond Sutra: “The world is but a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.” Quoted p 190.
The following insight is profound and resonates with my own experience:
“But it is the unmistakable consequence of mindfulness meditation that we start to notice that we are no longer necessary. Thoughts, feelings, emotions, and reactions all arise of their own accord. It is quite possible to notice them without identifying with their content, which is a strange and awesome experience, akin to watching waves pounding against the shore in anticipation of a big storm. They just keep on coming. The original Pali word for a Buddhist monk or renunciant (sic) is “bhikkhu” and means “fear seer”, one who can tolerate his own terror. At the point in meditation where the first glimpse of lack of identity is realized, the terror can become quite pronounced.” (191)…Emptiness and “empty phenomena rolling on and on…” In Buddhism it is compared to an open-eyed man falling backwards into a well.
Or this intriguing situation which I can resonate with also: “But at certain times in meditation we can observe thought just as it is forming, just as it is bursting into consciousness. This is a very strange experience at first, for it immediately begs the question “Who is thinking?” The thoughts appear to come from nowhere, and the tendency to identify oneself as the thinker of those thoughts is loosened.” 192
Or this further elucidation is also enlightening:
“”Formations, the meditator begins to realize, “break up all the time.” The image that is used to describe this stage of meditation is one of the sage with a burning turban; the volatile nature of reality is literally upon him.” 193
Death and Dissolution:
“Wherever a meditator turns, he finds only dissolution. Death is everywhere.” (194)…. The groundlessness of the world, its insubstantiality… nothing is lasting or stable … 195
“If things do not exist in their own right and are flickering rather than static, then we can no longer fear demise. We may fear their instability, or their emptiness, but the looming threat of death starts to seem absurd. Things are constantly dying, we find. Or rather, they are constantly in flux, arising and passing away with each moment of consciousness.” 195
Thus we have the transparency and interconnectivity or interconnection of life. There is no absolute severance between life and death – they are rolled into one. TQ
The three Cravings: 2nd Noble Truth: - 1.sensory pleasure, 2 Being, the desire for more, if only I had got a 1.1, if only we were still together etc 3 Non-Being…, the death wish, if only I were dead etc p 203.
As the Buddha said: “It is in the nature of all formations to dissolve. Attain perfection through diligence!” (207)
What meditation has done for Mark Epstein: “I have seen how it is possible to change, not by making my problems go away or even by exploring them more deeply, but by cultivating my capacity to accept things as they are… Meditation has enabled me to take possession of myself, to inhabit myself, not through identification but through acceptance.” 213.
“Meditation seems to me an effort of re-parenting” 214 brilliant, presumably Mark is referring to re-parenting the self.
This book is well worth buying for anyone interested in Buddhism, meditation and/or counselling. See www.amazon.com or any other book site for bargain copies of same.
The picture I have uploaded centre above is of a turtle at Parc de Montsouris, Paris, near which I was staying with my friends Mat and Isa Staunton in early June this year.