On the train the other morning were two Japanese schoolgirls who were probably about 11 years old. The smaller of the two had biggish ears and a clever, imp-like face. The other wore glasses and was unremarkable in her looks. There was only one seat free and each offered the seat to the other before the one with glasses finally gave in and sat down.
The imp-like one put her hand in her coat pocket and started playing with something in it. She looked at her friend who, like a cat being teased by something moving but hidden, grabbed at the unseen the hand. The Imp pulled out her hand and opened her palm to reveal an old sweet wrapper and then explained why it was in her pocket.
Then two adjoining seats opposite me became free so they both sat down together. They talked quietly, looked at each other’s faces to see what the other’s reaction was to something they said, inspected their hands and moved their fingers, presumably to see if they were still working properly. Something about Imp’s face caused Glasses to inspect it closely and make one or two comments while Imp sat still while she was being inspected. She then looked at her friend to see what the conclusion was.
They checked the soles of their shoes, either for anything that might be stuck to them or to see how far the tread had been worn down, then they found some new topic to chatter about. It was like watching two bright young woodland creatures. I imagined that their whole day would continue in much the same way and their psychological state seemed to me as near ideal as it gets for humans. They were unself-conscious and the smallest things interested them. It was such a contrast to the world-weary expression of some western children for whom almost everything is b-o-r-i-n-g. The two girls were unburdened by self-importance or an obsession with their own image.
All of this started me thinking about meditation’s aim of trying to live more consciously. In meditation it isn’t enough to do things. Instead you must be conscious of doing. It’s a kind of meta-living. You observe your breath as it goes in and out, and if some stray thought intrudes upon this observation you note it and let it slip out of consciousness before returning to breath-watching.
In a recent article Theodore Dalrymple wrote how consciousness of happiness is often what brings happiness to an end:
Happiness is like the blush of a grape, and consciousness of it is like the finger that destroys that blush.
So are meditators wrong to want to live more consciously? I think it depends. If you are already happy then I see no point in taking a mental step back to observe yourself being happy. Doing so would surely spoil things. On the other hand, if meditation can bring calm to an out-of-control life then slowing your mind down until it can settle might be worthwhile. After all, the words ‘meditation’ and ‘medication’ share the same root.
Even so, if things in your life are more or less fine, why you would want to sit observing your breath? I personally wouldn’t call that living, at least not in the way those two Japanese girls were. I suppose you could argue that comparing the activities and attitudes of two children to adults is unfair. After all, there are various things that adults do that children don’t. This is perhaps true though I don’t see why meditation is one of them. Some meditators do indeed recommend that children start meditation early and I don’t see why, if meditation is really as beneficial as practitioners tell us it is, what’s sauce for the goose shouldn’t be sauce for the gander.