I was talking with my friend Satyapriya last night. We were discussing my work on the Heart Sutra and his experiences in meditation.
The non-Buddhist approach to life is generally to cram in as much experience as possible. In NZ people used to say they "lived life to the full" and this meant having as many experiences as possible, and as intense as possible. Extreme sports, bungy jumping, white water rafting, night-clubbing, and so on.
The Buddhist approach is the opposite. Buddhists, ideally, strive to calm down, to eliminate unnecessary distractions, to reduce the intensity of experiences. Ultimately the goal is to meditate in such a way that one is aware and alert, but there is no sensual or mental experience whatever. A state traditionally called cessation (nirodha) or emptiness (śūnyatā).
I should emphasise that this is not ceasing to be. It is not non-existence. It is a state of perfect balance and contentment, with no attention being paid to the senses or too superficial mental processes (like our inner monologue). One is emphatically alive and *existent*, just without all the distracting effects of experience.
Which already sounds weird to people oriented towards experience. Why would you want to experience nothing?
Cessation is not an end in itself. The experience of no experience is *profoundly* transformative. It reorganises how you perceive the world. It often results in an attenuation of the first-person perspective so that "ego" or self-seeking drops off. One stops being selfish and self-centred because there is no self to centre on. (This practical result has led to much unhelpful metaphysical speculation, but I'm not going to get into that today).
The trouble is that it takes a particular kind of person to experience cessation. In our Order, to 2000 members we have a handful with any experience of cessation, and a minority of them have any great depth of experience.
The rest of us know fairly early on that we're not that kind of person. If you discover meditation and just naturally start doing it for two hours a day, then you're in with a chance. If you struggle to sustain 20 minutes a day, then you're not in the running. You still *benefit* from calming down, but you'll always be too over-stimulated for cessation. We don't often state this up front. Indeed we tend to maintain the myth that anyone can experience cessation. In theory, maybe, but in practice, no.
One has to be thoroughly disinterested in the pleasure of sense experience. To be happy with very low levels of stimulation. To be fascinated by just watching one's mind for hours on end. One has to be quite non-reactive to other people. Most of these qualities cannot be learned, at least not to the extent required. We can get better at all of them, but unless we have the temperament or talent to start with, we're always going to be mediocre.
So the rest of us form an auxiliary that ideally would support the people who are experiencing cessation/emptiness, or who genuinely have the potential to.
For example, I try to write about issues of conceptualising this process and the philosophy that is often invoked. In doing so I'm trying to clarify things, to eliminate wrong or unhelpful views, and assessing whether or not certain ideas serve the greater goal of our community (i.e. cessation). On the whole, our conceptualisation of the process and the goals appear to be highly convoluted and confused. Our metaphysics are a mess. I advocate a radical clean out - we could eliminate all the history and 90% of the metaphysics we talk about without any deleterious effect on those who seem cessation.
Indeed, the history and a lot of the stories are to gee up the auxiliary. Because, deep down, we know that we're not going to be anything special. We're not going to experience cessation or anything like it. So we constantly have motivation problems. Pursuing a low stimulation lifestyle against one's natural inclinations is pretty difficult. Without the payoff of deep meditative states, it is not very rewarding and we end up getting a bit nihilistic or cynical. There is only so much reward to be gained from taking the moral high-ground and criticising people who seek pleasure. There's a lot of that about. A lot of criticising other people for not being good enough Buddhists from people who will themselves never experience cessation.
It's a weird thing to be involved in. At first, it seems like a cornucopia - a solution to all of one's problems. Many of the people get religion have major problems (or they wouldn't be looking). Religion promises the universe. We all start off with convert zeal. What religion delivers, on the whole, and at its best, is a supportive group of like-minded friends and one or two inspiring role models. If you have the kind of talent required, you'll find an outlet for it one way or another. If you don't, you'll be filling the pews, making financial contributions, and hanging out with the talented people. At its best, this set-up does allow some people to shine in mundane ways. Me as a writer for example. Someone else as an administrator. Another as a teacher of values or basic principles.
Still, the ideal of cessation inspires many people to slow down, to calm down, to stop being overstimulated, and so on. And on the whole, I think many of us who live simpler, calmer lives, find them more satisfying than the usual alternatives.