02/14/2014 11:25 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Thinking Up a Suffering Self

"Meditation is the understanding of what is without trying to change it or make it go away." -- Krishnamurti

Oddly enough, I once heard Billy Graham say much the same thing. I was driving around OKC about a month after the the Murrah Building bombing when I tuned into him on my car radio. He told us we had a choice in how we reacted to the atrocity: We could allow it soften us into a compassionate appreciation for the fragility of life which would deepen our compassion. If we failed to do that, he warned, we would become hard and vengeful.

For a couple of months after the bombing, the people of Oklahoma City experienced something like a collective awakening. People drove more slowly and courteously and social interaction was kinder and gentler. The collective experience of shattering loss shocked us into a moment of unity. In time, we forgot and we returned to our usual self-absorption.

We can all appreciate what Krishnamurti and Billy Graham had to say, but really, the last thing in the world anyone wants to be is soft. Soft means vulnerable and we all have a really low tolerance for vulnerability. To understand what is without trying to change it or make it go away is to understand the depth of our vulnerability, the depth of our connection with one another.

That Krishnamurti and Billy Graham hail from opposite ends of the religious spectrum, but say essentially the same thing speaks to the great difficulty involved in spiritual practice. The message is the same across cultures, but it is hard to get and easy to forget.

The Buddha's great genius was his grasp of the obvious. Life is suffering. Observing this simple fact takes no study. You can do it by simply standing or sitting still. It will be okay for a short period then you will want something different. The force that drives us to spiritual practice is the instinctive desire for something different. What we actually get is a window to the endless variety of discomfort.

As long as we sit with discomfort, we are fine. Discomfort is not a problem. It is simply the energy of life manifesting as it is. Meditation practice is all about gracefully witnessing the ebb and flow of that energy. But the mindful awareness of the meditative state inevitably fades and the thinking mind sneaks right in. Before we know it, we are thinking about how bad we feel and contemplating the possible reasons we might feel that way and what we can do about it. Then we start making a problem.

We create a self out of a process that is essentially selfless. We experience an uncomfortable feeling, then we label it. It can be desire or aversion, but whatever it is, the label we give a passing feeling gives it the texture and drama that creates self. The drama of self drives ever more fevered thinking and it is unfortunate that we tend to believe whatever it is that we think. Attention narrows as we collect evidence and build a case in which everything points to one conclusion. The mind runs very quickly around and around a very narrow track.

But, if we can allow ourselves to experience the feeling without trying to change it or make it go away, something changes. When we decide not to scratch an itch, it itches worse but then, it just fades away. We soften. The heat and pressure eases into a benevolent warmth and feel happy and relaxed until the next time something sets us off.

And that is likely to be sooner rather than later. The self created by concepts is persistent. Concepts are these funny little crutches that hobble us when we can walk perfectly well without them.

We have an instinctual urge to escape the suffering that is the inescapable heart of the human experience. Thought is the tool we use to escape. The thinking mind is incapable of identifying itself as a natural process that is every bit as reflexive as breathing. The thinking mind sees itself as a separate and independent actor. But the reality of nature is that things are intricately and inextricably interwoven. The task of meditation is to find a way to a non-verbal awareness that allows us to experience the enormity of that reality.

We can no more stop thinking than we can stop breathing. We can very carefully transfer our attention from the thinking mind to the breath so that thinking and breathing can work together to calm the body. As the body calms we become a witness to our thoughts. The voluntary experience of suffering transforms it from a isolated sense of individual isolation to a deep universal compassion.

That there are so many complicated religious doctrines based on the difficult fact of human vulnerability tells us that there are, literally, volumes written in an attempt to escape reality. Krishnamurti taught that truth is a pathless land that can't captured by any system. But, the human mind creates one system after another, always a fine tuning of whatever came before in the hope that this little bit more will do the trick.

WH Auden summed it up nicely: "We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment, and let our illusions die."