Dostoevsky once said, “The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.” This is the point of meditating on renunciation: to gain a clear-eyed sense of our state of mind right now, with many moments of frustration and anger and impatience and craving: feelings that we’d rather be free from. And turning away from these delusions toward liberation, the true source of refuge that we can find within our own mind.
Hello everybody, and welcome to this week’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, a meditation on what’s called renunciation.
Find yourself someplace quiet if you can, and arrange your body in a cross-legged posture on the floor, or in a chair with your legs straight out, feet flat on the floor. Straighten your spine, put your palms in your lap or on your knees. Tilt down your head and relax all the muscles in your body, your face. Let go of any tension that’s accumulated during the day.
And then briefly set a motivation for meditating; that we are not just to relax or de-stress, but to bring out our own best human qualities: the qualities of gentleness and kindness and love and patience and compassion, mental stability, and even understanding the true nature of reality. There’s nothing better I could be doing now than diving into my own mind, getting to understand it, and finding the true causes of happiness.
And as always, we’ll begin with a brief meditation on the breath to stabilize our mind. Bring your mind to your nostrils or your abdomen where you can feel the breath coming in and out. And for one minute we’ll focus on the breath. And as thoughts or feelings in your body appear, try and just let them pass by of their own accord: don’t pull them close and don’t push them away.
So, just for one minute, let yourself fall into your breath.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Meditating on renunciation means two things. One is understanding the causes of suffering in our disturbing mental habits. And the other is turning away from them, toward a true source of refuge that we can find within our own minds.
Dostoevsky once said, “The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.” And this is the point of meditating on renunciation: to gain a clear-eyed sense of our state of mind right now, which for most of us includes many moments of frustration and anger and impatience and craving; feelings that we’d rather be free from.
Yet, renunciation isn’t turning away from the world, but turning away from our disturbing mental states. We are also then turning toward something, turning toward a deep sustained source of happiness that we can find in our own mind.
This refuge that we find in our mind can then help us be happy, whatever our circumstances: whether alone or with others, whether enjoying life’s transient pleasures, or bearing its inevitable hardships.
The Suffering of Suffering and the Suffering of Change
The first part of this meditation is meditating on life’s difficulties. First we consider our material suffering: poverty, homelessness, sickness, aging, death abuse, exploitation, violence.
We may have experienced these things, and others experience them by the tens and hundreds of millions. Even if we are free from these forms of suffering ourselves, others suffer, which causes us pain through our sense of injustice and empathy.
Kim Stanley Robinson has an amazing quote I read in one of his books: “Until we treat all beings equally, and all have the same opportunities for health, happiness, and security, perhaps history has not yet really begun for humanity. We have not yet lived up to basic universal human rights.”
So in a way humanity has not really begun as a project until everyone has the same basic rights and freedoms and opportunities.
But even when we’re free from ordinary suffering, we feel a dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction, in Buddhism, is called the Suffering of Change. It’s the discomfort we feel even at life’s pleasures because of our minds, attachment or a failure to accept its fickle changeability.
The first aspect of the Suffering of Change is how things wear out, how we might not attain them again: meals, relationships, possessions. With each of them we can feel a kind of anxiety, worrying, plotting, planning for how to get this thing the next time; instead of enjoying it in the moment, realizing this could be the last time we experience it.
But even when things don’t wear out or relationships don’t end, our mind can change. We no longer like this food or this person or our phone or our apartment or our job. They don’t please us any longer. And then, finally, there’s the hovering knowledge that, of course, we’ll eventually meet our death and lose everything, something none of us can avoid.
Even if our objects last, even if our relationships endure, and even if our mind remains pleased by them all our lives, eventually, still, we lose them all at our death.
Delusions – the cause of suffering: attachment, anger, and ignorance
Though there’s no way to rid ourselves from the external aspects of suffering, there is a way to be free of the mental side of suffering. Otherwise, there’d be no point in meditating like this, reviewing all the ways that life can be difficult.
The point is to understand the causes of our suffering, the causes of our delusions and to lead us toward wanting to apply the antidote.
So to understand the delusions, the source of our suffering, we review them briefly.
Attachment is a delusion that exaggerates the positive qualities of people, of things.
Try to reflect on this now, bring up something specific: a person or a thing or an achievement in life, your status, your job; something that you feel great attachment toward. And reflect on how your mind may be biased.
See how you ignore the drawbacks of something that you want. And, for a moment, think of all the ways that this object has flaws. It’s not perfect. It won’t bring you complete happiness on its own.
And then reflect on anger. Anger exaggerates the negative aspects of an object.
So, bring to mind an object of your anger, usually a person of some sort. And see how hard it is to see any good in this person. But try and do it now.
You can do this with an enemy of your own, or with someone famous like a politician. Try and see that many people love this person: their children, their parents, their friends, their admirers. Try to see how this person benefits many people around him or her.
And then look at ignorance, the third of the root delusions.
Notice how most of us believe that we’re each just a little bit more important than everyone else in the universe. We think more about our own problems and often ignore or minimize others’.
What if I could see every person as equally deserving of happiness, health, security, wealth?
You might logically believe this, but try for a moment to truly feel it.
And also see another form of ignorance: how we mistakenly pursue objects and experiences that we think will make us happy, when the true causes of happiness are available to us inside ourselves, within our own minds: the true causes of happiness in mental stability, inner peace, patience, forgiveness; feeling that others are equally important to ourselves, even our enemies.
Are we ready to turn away from our mind’s suffering?
Are we ready to turn away from our mind’s suffering?
Do you have the courage to admit that external pleasures and relationships and jobs, while providing some satisfaction in life, are not themselves the ultimate source of happiness?
You don’t have to let go of your goals and relationships and objects and pleasures, but are you ready to let go of the belief that happiness will wholly come from these? Are you ready to commit to some inward journey of discovery to understand what your mind truly is? What are the sources of happiness? To let go of aspects of your personality like worrying and feeling anxious or nervous? To see that there’s a better, more stable way to live?
It’s a path of great responsibility: that I am responsible for my happiness. That no one else is to blame. And, once you attain it, even if you experience ordinary suffering, your mind can remain stable—and even happy. Because deep inside yourself is a profound well of warmth and stability and goodness and satisfaction.
Meditation on the mind, the ultimate source of stable happiness
So, let’s try and get in touch with that part of our mind right now.
Take a couple of breaths and try to focus entirely on them.
And now, let anything appear at all in your mind, but don’t bring it forward. And there’s no need to push it away either. As we did when we focused on our breath, we can let thoughts arise and disappear on their own without getting attached to them, without getting annoyed by them.
See how you can watch thoughts from a distance. See how your mind can remain at peace. Watch your thoughts like this for one minute.
(Meditate silently for one minute).
Now, see if you can turn the mind upon itself to reach a subtler level of awareness, to reach the place where stable happiness resides. Turn the mind upon itself and observe what you see. Without any expectation, do this quietly for a moment.
And now we’ll take a guided tour of the mind to examine some of its aspects. What is the space of the mind? How does the mind function over time? What are thoughts and feelings and perceptions made of?
Try to turn inward into the space of your mind. What does the space of your mind feel like? Is it large or small? Does it fit within your head, your room, your home? Or does it expand out, perhaps even to encompass the whole universe?
With the temporal aspect of your mind, can you perceive moments of consciousness? How long are they? If you feel a moment of mental experience has a duration, can you slice it in two and observe the parts? What happens if you keep doing this? Do you ever reach an atomic slice of consciousness?
Does the mind have a color or brightness? Is it light or dark? Does it stay the same or does it change?
Does your mind have a texture? Is it dense or is it airy? Is it rough or is it smooth?
And is there a feeling, a mood, to the mind? Does your mind feel expansive or tight? Does it feel joyful or annoyed? Does it feel anxious or relaxed?
Rest in the space of your mind again, observing its qualities.
And now go beyond labels and observations to merge with the subtler aspect of your mind.
You may find that the corners of your mouth tip up into a smile as you find a stable, unending source of happiness and support deep within yourself. Meditate like this for one minute.
(Meditate silently for one minute).
And then, to conclude, we dedicate all of the good that’s come about in our mind from meditating; from understanding the suffering in life, and the delusions in our mind that cause us to suffer more and to feel dissatisfaction; and the antidotes to those delusions of looking at the full picture of objects and people and relationships, experiences; and turning toward a refuge that’s deep within ourselves; that we can rely on when we’re alone or with others, when things are going well or when we have problems.
We motivate to take these good habits that we’re building and carry them out into our day, so they inform the way that we see things, the way we see people and experiences, and the way we react. We remain in control of our minds, and we can choose how to react: whether to allow ourselves to get disturbed, or whether to accept the initial reaction we have to events, and then let that melt into the open spaciousness of our mind that’s always there as a refuge.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio