Recently the New York Times published an op-ed piece on a conference for Social and Affective Neuroscientists (or “Neuros”) which took place in New York this past week. According to David Brooks, the writer, “the leading figures at this conference were in their 30’s, and most of the work was done by people in their 20’s.” And all of them, he pointed out, were “young, hip and attractive.”
Mr. Brooks went on to write, “many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds.” At the same time, another study “showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair,” for example, “it is possible to counteract those perceptions.” As the article points out, to live with a view or idea is not an option, it’s what’s happening. And it’s happening very fast.
As a newly-minted teenager, I ran with the cool kids. I knew who “we” were and who wasn’t “us.” I knew who was “in” and who was “out.” I assumed great things from “our” crowd and nothing from the “uncool” whom I ignored (or worse). In its rigid application of exclusion, and its focus on territory (school was assumed to be “ours”), being cool was a kind of warfare. Cool was to be joined; uncool, suppressed. To maintain my outlook and compelling view of the world, I had plenty of evidence – subjective and objective. One year later, a move and a new school would prove me (at least the cool me) irrelevant.
For the first year of high school, my parents’ divorce meant my brother and I moved from Massachusetts to Texas. Uptight by southern standards of sociability, insecure in the face of so much change (how did high school football, of all things, get so important?), in high school I found myself instantly on the outside of whatever was cool. I couldn’t even tell who the cool kids were supposed to be. “You really don’t have school spirit, do you?” a pretty brunette pronounced after understanding that I wouldn’t be attending the pep rally before the football game (not to speak of the game). I had to admit that whatever school spirit was, I didn’t have it.
Who’s Cool Now?
A few years later, in the middle of my senior year, I visited my old school back east. The band of cool kids was gone. One kicked out, one transferred, the others relaxed into non-distinction. Two of the most uncool kids from middle school days were on their way to Harvard. Their futures were promising, those of the former cool gang, unclear.
In the language of meditation, my “view” was changing. According to the tradition of meditation practice, your view (basically what you think and how you understand life) will determine where meditation practice takes you. From one angle, meditation practice is simply about embodying an understanding of life – deepening our ability to be the person our meditative insight has revealed to us to be.
Who’s That in the Mirror?
Because sitting meditation slows us down and allows mind’s natural intelligence to develop, meditation is often called a mirror. One of the first things we notice when we take up meditation is our view – the thoughts and underlying emotions that create and color our world. Learning simply how to be, in a genuine way, reveals the glossed fiction of our self-image. Gradually it dawns on us that whoever we really are, we are definitely not who we thought we were. At the same time, our convenient and habitual approach to others is exposed. In the space of meditative awareness, we notice tiny little flickering thoughts, continually evaluating others.
Though the process is more sophisticated than in high school, we are continually sizing people up. Are they worthy of us, or do they somehow occupy another status, one we cannot reach? To our astonishment (and some horror), we begin to recognize the birth of instinctive and instant likes and dislikes – based on the thinnest of fleeting perceptions. Looking closely, we wonder, are these prejudices borne fresh from the encounter with others or do they govern encounters from the beginning (or before)?
Faced with this raging specter of snap judgments and hidden discursiveness, we begin to question our view. For one thing, it becomes clear that the way we think migrates into how we are in the world, what we do. If world we inhabit is different than the one we tell ourselves we are living, what are we living? To paraphrase the great 19th Century Tibetan Scholar-Practitioner Mipham, we realize that “Whatever we think it is – it’s not exactly like that.”
Meditative traditions emphasize training in the view – that is, studying how reality is – because that is what we do anyway, at least our own version of it. In this case, study as support for meditation is not so much learning a new dogma or answer for the meaning of life, but shining a light on the views we do hold (cherish even) without knowing we have them.
The School of Life
The culture of meditation is based on the notion that we can continue to grow up. That the mind and the way it thinks and feels can develop. Most of us have moved on from the views we developed in high school. For me, these views were dispersed by another emerging reality. I didn’t need to be talked out of a view of myself among the cool ones; when its irrelevance was exposed, this idea vanished like fog in sunlight.
As I get older, I find it harder to expose habitual thinking for what it is. Truths somehow get more penetrating, but I’ve gotten better at hiding from them. It takes work to expose the self-limiting thoughts that put me and others “in” or “out.” As per the Neuros, it takes a “strategy”. To grow these days, I often have to admit adolescence all over again. This includes the challenge of being willing to question, in a fresh way, who and how I am in the world.
How Cool is Peace?
In my experience, the discipline of regular meditation practice (and attending meditation retreats) is a strategy that works. With the intention and courage to face ourselves, we give flickering thoughts room. When these thoughts gang up on us, we neither join them nor suppress them. Done properly, meditation is the experience of sharing the same boat with everyone. In the space of meditation, thoughts of who’s in or out no longer make sense. To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, when you sit on your Zafu, everyone sits with you. To practice mindfulness is to practice community, inclusion. Because our practice moves us beyond limiting ideas about ourselves and others, it is the practice of peace. How cool is that?
Editor’s Note: Karme Choling, just down the road from Samadhi Cushions, offers a week-long Simplicity retreat for those interested in exploring group meditation. Gaylon Ferguson‘s Natural Wakefulness brilliantly hosts explorations of view. Sakyong Mipham‘s Turning the Mind into an Ally is a primer for learning the basics and subtleties of mindfulness practice.