Mindfully Crazy

08/21/2013 09:07 am ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

"Meditation practice is simply moving from a life of hurting myself and others to a life of not hurting myself and others." -- Charlotte Joko Beck

When I was young I had a job driving a truck for the Salvation Army. One day, another driver and myself were resting at the city dump. My partner reclined on a broken down old chair, and with a mouth full of Red Bull, just right out of the blue, declared that "A man can only go so long without a piece of ass and then, something snaps. He goes crazy." It didn't take much -- a glance at his undeniably crazy face and another into my freshly broken heart -- to understand that he was speaking a deep truth.

Centuries after its discovery, meditation has emerged from Asian monasteries to enjoy an unlikely wave of popularity. American media are flooded with articles about its simplicity and its benefits. Generally missing is any recognition of the inevitable and substantial challenges.

The human brain is wired for survival. It is hard-wired to seek gratification through things it absolutely thinks that it absolutely has to have and then to get bored just moments after it gets the. This is, of course, the dynamic that drives our economy. It is also the first of the four Noble Truths: dukkha, dissatisfaction. When people first meditate they often notice that their brain is a veritable rat's nest of desire and frustration. This inspires the complaint that either they can't meditate properly or that meditation doesn't work. This actually means that they are meditating just right. They are simply noticing the baseline level of discontent that they've spent their entire lives avoiding and that our consumer economy has quite effectively helped them avoid.

I began a meditation practice about 25 years ago after it became apparent that I didn't have sufficient interpersonal skills to function in my job teaching junior high special education. The kids would resist what I wanted them to learn. I'd get frustrated, then I'd get angry and then I'd get ill. The getting ill was wonderful because it really let me know that I needed help. The great thing about working with kids is that you can get really crazy with them and since they haven't learned to behave properly themselves, they will hardly notice that you're a lunatic and they'll love you anyway if they sense that you love them back, which I did.

The great thing about meditation is that it is simple enough that when there isn't a zen master available, you can learn it from the zen master's books. I did a lot lot of reading and then I did a lot of meditating in the middle of the night. I'd wake up with my mind just on fire with fear and anger over some silly incident. I'd sit there, watching my mind plot revenge against some poor nutty kid and I'd shift my attention from the dreadful story in my mind to the dreadful feelings in my body and time after time, those feelings would just evaporate. I could go back to work with a clear mind and a surprisingly open heart. For a while I thought I might actually become a buddha.

I never have. My mind continues to go about wanting what it wants and I'll still follow it and I'll still cause trouble. My mind recently began worrying over the hopeless state of humanity and how awful it is and it just wouldn't stop obsessing over it. All I could do was go sit down and listen to it go on and on about how awful things are. I began to feel myself spiraling into a depressive state. I'd shift attention to my stomach and I'd feel the clench of tension and I could see that my self absorbed little mind was hating it but, perversely, unwilling to give it up.

Finally, I decided to turn to the Tibetan practice of tonglen. Tonglen is pretty easy. You just have to be willing to do it. You consciously inhale suffering and exhale relief. It is a very powerful practice that reveals the universal nature of suffering. I'd been thinking, against all prior experience, that I could think my suffering away. Allowing myself to practice tonglen allowed me to know that I couldn't wish it away. It provided the tool I needed to be with it. I didn't let go of my suffering but it let go of me.

I was suffering so dreadfully for the simple reason that I insisted on believing the narrow little story in my mind. In the common parlance, I went crazy. The insanity I experienced wasn't just delusional thinking. It was rooted in the scary reality that we are experiencing a civilizational crisis rooted in our insatiable desire for life to be something other than it is and for people to be somehow other than they are.

Mindful suffering is the key to meditation practice. If you don't allow yourself to go mindfully crazy, your spiritual practice will be useless. It will only make you smug. You learn a lot by feeling crazy. It doesn't just happen to other people. It happens to you and being crazy hurts. People don't think crazy things just to be mean. Wonderful people have done terrible things, not because they are evil, but because they are hurting and scared. Mindfulness is a great gift that, if we practice well, may help us react to out to others with love and kindness and not hatred.