Meditation or John Wayne?


An acquaintance of mine would like me to try meditation but I am wary. This is not because I am afraid of getting in too deep but because I don’t really know what meditation is for. Would I be doing it to become more serene, to feel as though I were stepping outside myself for a while, to grasp that ‘I’ am really just an illusion, or just to slow my racing mind?

I can’t decide if meditation is a good way of becoming less neurotic and twitchy or just the royal road to smugness. I tend to think that people should gaze outwards at the world rather than inwards at their navels. Forgetting yourself through a fascination with the world seems healthy to me, while observing your breath and forgetting the world just doesn’t seem right.

My acquaintance says that meditating allows him to take a step back and observe his thoughts and emotions more dispassionately and this sounds good to me, especially if thoughts and emotions are unpleasant or out of control. When I am nervous or unreasonably angry such equanimity would do me good.

On the other hand, there are times when I don’t want to be dispassionate. If I were watching England winning the World Cup, why on earth would I want to step back and coolly observe myself watching a football match? What could be more life-denying and self-obsessive than that? Surely to lose yourself in good moments is, well, good.

I suppose I could coolly observe my negative moments while losing myself during my positive ones but surely that’s cheating. It’s like being an atheist from Monday to Friday but believing in God on a Sunday when it becomes convenient to do so.

Even so, I like the idea of dispassionately watching myself. I guess it is the idea of being in control that appeals. Instead of getting annoyed or upset I could instead sit and observe my thoughts and emotions as they rise up in me, as if from nowhere. To feel that things are just happening and all I have to do is watch might make a nice change from feeling that I always have to be suppressing or encouraging my feelings.

On the other hand I fear that meditation could lead to a greater obsession with myself. After all, time spent exploring your own inner workings is time not spent looking out at the world. Maybe in peaceful times you can afford to turn your gaze inwards because you know the world around you poses no threat, but what if you are facing a tribe of angry Indians? Then you had better start observing them rather than your breath.

I could certainly do with being calmer but I would prefer to do it John Wayne-style. He was never ruffled because he was confident he could deal with most situations and for the few situations he couldn’t deal with, there was no point in worrying about them.

It seems to me that the calm of meditators is due primarily to the fact that they aren’t actually doing anything; absolutely nothing is required of them so what could go wrong? After all, any old fool can stay calm when there is nothing to do. John Wayne on the other hand was calm in dangerous situations because experience had taught him what to do, and familiarity with danger breeds contempt and made him tough. Equanimity is probably best learned at the school of hard knocks and not on a tatami mat in Rinpoche’s Californian Meditation Studio.

In a nutshell, John Wayne isn’t precious about himself. He tests himself against the real world rather than trying to think himself into the right frame of mind. Psychologists might say that he confronts life rather than rehearse for it. I think it highly likely that a meditator could spend years in his perfectly safe surroundings, persuading himself that he had achieved serenity, only to go to pieces at the first genuine crisis. Back to the drawing board. My hunch is that not spending too much time worrying about yourself is best achieved by riding horses and fighting Indians instead of sitting cross-legged in the safety of your Santa Monica home for years and observing (pretending?) that ‘you’ don’t really exist.


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