“Even if it‘s a brilliant insight, it’s not worth your freedom.”
When Lama Michael Conklin spoke these words at a 3-day meditation retreat at Cloud Mountain, I knew I was in for a strange, new experience. My first thought was, “What the hell does abandoning brilliant insights have to do with freedom?” Mind you, this was a 3-day SILENT meditation retreat, and I’m an extravert. I was already uncomfortable, and this stranger was suggesting I give up my brilliant insights for a crack at freedom. But I was determined to power through this retreat and soak up every bit of wisdom I could possibly absorb. And, so I did.
For three days, with my fellow yogis, I woke at 5AM and stumbled into the meditation hall, bowed toward the Buddha alter and settled onto my cushion for morning practice. We practiced meditation four more times throughout the day. I was silent, and I respected the silent space of my fellow yogis, even during mealtime. I attended all three dharma talks and took copious notes. Being a night owl, it was hard to bed down at 8PM, but I did this knowing the clear-sounding meditation bell would wake us at 5AM to do it all again.
There are many false notions about what meditation is. Some think it’s analyzing and reviewing daily life. Others think it’s a time to ponder the future. Still others think it’s a time for the mind to go completely blank or “Zen out.”
Yet, what I’m beginning to understand is meditation is about recognizing the attachment we all have to emotions, ideas and situations which take us away from the present moment. For example, my life would be perfect if only: I had a new road bike, bikini body or PhD. These attachments are simply constructs of the mind; quite literally, they do not exist. Still, these constructs are fiercely powerful and are often at the heart of human suffering. They lead us away from the present, including potential joy.
Generally, humans think happiness and suffering come from external circumstances. We are jumpy, fearful beings, and we constantly try to organize our lives in order to experience happiness and avoid suffering. But this rarely works. Why? Happiness and suffering do not fundamentally depend on external circumstances but on the mind. A negative mental attitude creates suffering, while a positive mental attitude engenders joy.
Lama Conklin’s quote was advice to be heeded during meditation. In order to fully understand it, I recommend you sit quietly for just 5 minutes and pay attention to the myriad thoughts, feelings and desires, both negative and positive, that arise in your mind. In seconds, our busy minds can take us from being comfortable in our living room — to revisiting a disappointing work presentation or a fond childhood memory — to a desire that we would rather be riding a motorcycle through India. It’s serious brainpower. Why not harness it for the betterment of yourself, and others?
Meditation is the tool for this. Through meditating with even mild dedication, the glimpses of true joy I experience are reason enough to continue exploring the practice. Along with my negative and positive thoughts, I’m learning to let go of my brilliant insights during meditation practice. It feels good to realize freedom is the better ride — and it can belong to us all.