Is the goal of the Buddhist meditator the same as the scientist (the breaking of spells and the dispelling of ignorance)?
Ron Liefer, psychiatrist and Buddhist meditator, in his book The Happiness Project (Snow Lion 1997), writes the following (14):
From the Buddhist point of view, the unwillingness or failure to see the facts of life as they are, to see ourselves as we are, and to conduct ourselves in harmony with these realities, is the chief cause of our self-inflicted suffering and, therefore, the chief obstacle to our happiness. This state of denial, or lack of realization of the facts of existence, is called avidya in Sanskrit–literally, “the failure to see, or know”–translated as “ignorance.” […]
In other words, Liefer locates two categories of facts around which we live in ignorance: facts surrounding existence in general and facts surrounding individual existence.
What are these facts? As to existence in general, Buddhism has its Big Two:
- All things are in flux, transient, fleeting. “Everything is burning” (Buddha’s Fire Sermon).
- The self is ultimately empty, an unlocatable illusion when we search for it closely, a narrative convention upon which awareness too narrowly and intensely identifies and attaches. This ultimate emptiness applies to everything else as well. “No flower in the flower.”
Ignorance and repression of these two facts causes suffering because we wish that some of the things that are contingent, empty, and transient (including ourselves) were necessary, essential, and permanent. And so, in our desires and aversions, we cling to smoke.
What also causes suffering are the contingent facts surrounding each individual’s existence that are not accepted. You might, for example, be dishonest in some aspect of your life, but are not acknowledging this to your (transient) self or others, thus generating yet another layer of illusion for your awareness and expending mental and bodily energy in its maintenance. And so Leifer writes the following: (17):
From an overarching perspective, the spiritual journey involves the transformation of our ordinary state of denial, repression, defensiveness, armoring, self-constriction, tension, anxiety, and negativity into a state of courageous openness, honest awareness, guileless spontaneity, trusting vulnerability, and joyous equanimity. It requires accepting and relaxing into existence as it is, rather than anxiously rejecting and fighting it because it is not what we want it to be. Easy to say, difficult to do.
Hence the need for a meditation practice. Meditation conditions you into habits of awareness that make it more likely you’ll face reality with some degree of calm and openness (most especially when it is unpleasant). That’s a pretty important skill to acquire. As George Orwell, in a different context, quipped in an essay for London’s Tribune titled “In Front of Your Nose”:
[Because we view things through the lenses of] either wish or fear […] To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
In other words, the difficulty of life is to not look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out your eyes. Thus the nice resonances of Buddhism with the goals of scientists and therapists. If religion and the sciences are anywhere not in conflict, it would seem to be within Buddhism.
In fact, combining the culture of critical thinking, objectivity, and evidence that scientists and therapists attempt to practice with training in calm acceptance (as Buddhists engage in) is a pretty potent combination. If you want to live a life in touch with reality, you could do much, much worse.
So yippee! Science and religion on the same page for a change! And that would seem to be at least one good reason to take up some form of Buddhist meditation practice.
If you’re a novice to meditation, where might you start? Let’s let the two “Uncle Allens” (Allen Ginsberg and Alan Watts) sing us out.