For years I have been vaguely interested in mindfulness meditation. I remember buying a book on Zen Buddhism 30 years ago in the belief that there might be something to the claim that we moderns live too busily and not enough in the present moment. Since then the whole subject has been at the back of my mind without ever really taking root.
Recently Sam Harris’s interest in the subject reawakened my own and I have read all his columns, listened to all his interviews and read his book on the subject, Waking Up, and I have to say that despite being a huge fan of his I am no more persuaded than I was 30 years ago.
Nurturing a detached attitude to life by sitting in the lotus position for hours on end and emptying your mind strikes me as a peculiar way of spending your time. If you want to be less busy why not just cross some things off your to-do list? Or do a mentally undemanding activity like listening to music.
One of the goals of meditation appears to be to make the meditator less attached to things yet surely it is our attachment to things that makes life worth living. As Paul McCartney sang in Hey Jude,
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
To my mind just trying not to be at odds with yourself is a surer way to achieve calm detachment than meditating. This means being honest about just how rubbish you are at almost everything, and irritable, and tetchy, and accepting all this with as much good humour as you can muster. Put it all down to determinism and that things are as they are.
I used to find something distasteful about the idea of self-contentment, as though one might end up annoyingly smug like Russell Brand or Piers Morgan. Even so, I think there is a clear difference between being on good terms with yourself and being an arrogant twit. And if you never manage to accept yourself you might just end up like Isabel Huppert’s vicious, self-hating character in The Piano Teacher.
If I were stranded on a desert island and were able to choose between a construction worker or a meditator as my fellow cast away I would choose the former. A construction worker tests himself against the physical world and is thus more in touch with reality. He is probably made of sterner stuff than someone who can only feel calm when he sits cross-legged on his living room floor for several hours, watching his breathing and imagining that he has no self.
Just as an aside, I work at a university that has some trainee Zen Buddhist monks. I have only seen one or two of them on campus but their goofy teeth and flat-footed gait immediately suggested to me they might not have randomly chosen their ‘profession’. Monks can be as delusional and inept as they like and if they fail to bless a newly-built house properly, who would know? It’s much more likely to fall down due to being poorly built than poorly blessed. you may be able to sue a builder for not building to adequate standards but you couldn’t sue a Buddhist monk for shoddy work. My point is that people who have little ability probably gravitate to jobs where it’s hard to tell what success or failure might look like, jobs like monk, diversity consultant and Equalities Commissioner of some big publicly-funded organisation.
The Buddhist goal of becoming less self-obsessed strikes me as quite a reasonable one until it spills over into the madness of No-Self. Some Buddhists try to convince themselves that the self doesn’t exist. The problem is that attaining this insight is apparently so hard that even experienced meditation teachers spend most of their lives living as though they had a self, a ‘delusion’ familiar to the rest of us.
For me the question is not whether we do or do not have a self but how self-obsessed we are. I think Tim Ferriss is probably someone who believes he doesn’t have a self yet he is as self-obsessed as they come. Why don’t meditators look for a more reliable way of losing their self-obsession? Couldn’t they, for example, rather than sitting on their tatami mats for hours on end take more of an interest in other people? At least an interest in something outside yourself reliably helps you diminish your ego, even if you don’t lose it completely. And taking an interest in others is not an all-or-nothing enterprise like the realisation that ‘you’ don’t exist. Becoming less self-absorbed through an interest in things other than yourself can be achieved by degrees.