08/05/2014 11:32 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2014

Salvation, Enlightenment, and the Dream of Thought

"The kingdom of heaven is within you."

"Be a lamp unto yourself."

Jesus and Buddha both instruct us to look inside. This is very direct instruction which happens to be the exact opposite of how we actually live. We always look for something outside that we can consume that we think will bring satisfaction. It is a deeply established reflex. When we were little, everything came from the outside- food, water, entertainment, and comfort. It shouldn't surprise us that our culture is devoted to the frantic pursuit consumption of those things.

We don't want to look inside. It's empty and boring in there. A study reported in the New York Times found that people who were asked to simply sit alone with their thoughts for as little as 15 minutes found it so discomforting that they preferred to distract themselves with electric shocks.

The study demonstrates illustrates both the difficulty and the importance of meditation. We don't want to do it because it is boring and we are willing to hurt ourselves rather than suffer a few moments of boredom.

The practice of meditation is enjoying a moment of popularity. It came to America as an exotic Asian discipline and remains here on the consumer premise will lead to better health, less stress, increased success at work and school, and improved relationships. But people won't won't stick with meditation because they think they'll get something out of it. There is nothing to get out of it. They will stick with it only because they understand that they are have been hurting themselves and they want to find a way stop.

I'm going use the term mindfulness as distinct from meditation. Meditation is the formal act of sitting. Mindfulness is the practice of applying meditative awareness to daily life. Meditation is just practice for the daily activity of mindfulness.

Mindfulness as practiced today was best described by the Buddha. If we wish to practice mindfulness it is really important to understand its underlying premises. The Buddha observed that life is marked by three characteristics, dissatisfaction, impermanence, and lack of a distinct and continuous self. He didn't speculate as to why this is so and he didn't make up an elaborate escape plan. His premise is an invitation us to look within to investigate for ourselves.


Satisfaction is the world's only commodity. We think we need so much of so many things that we live in a constant state of frustration, making us very good consumers. We want more and more and too much is rarely enough. For many of us consuming either goods or drama is all we know how to do.


Dissatisfaction's handmaiden. We get something new and tire of it. We eventually grow tired of or lose everything. We try to hold on to the self but it changes too. All things eventually fade away.

Not self

We seem so very real. But our bodies are really not our own and we have no control over either their coming or going. We have roles that we play and try to convince ourselves that they are real. It is illuminating to watch this process in kids because with them, the process is very transparent. They try on identities like they are trying on t-shirts. When they find one they like, they identify with the narrative that supports it and then they split up into mutually antagonistic groups. Adults do the same thing but adult identities are covered up under thick layers of justification that appear reasonable.

Shakespeare had it right it when he said that "all the world's a stage and all the men and women are merely players." Roles are a good thing that give us structure and purpose. But when we really begin believing in the roles we play we become more and more willing to sacrifice ourselves and others to them.

Sports are a perfect example. They are popular melodramas that are absolutely meaningless and of no consequence whatsoever. We invest huge amounts of emotion in them involving a relatively mild form of human sacrifice. Thankfully, we don't drag people up on an altar to cut their throats and tear out their hearts any longer but we do dress them up in football uniforms and cheer as they beat their brains out. I saw a pictures of Brazilian fans after their World Cup loss to Germany. Had I not known better I would have thought they were watching their children being torn apart by wild dogs.

The purpose of religion and spiritual practices is to see beyond our individual dramas to a greater, transcendent truth. Everyone who practices a religion understands this. Nevertheless, the practice of religion largely consists of bitter fighting over competing mythologies.

Mindfulness isn't about what we believe. It is the simple act of paying curious and non-judgmental attention to the present moment. The present moment sounds pretty good. We hear that and imagine a state of bliss. Then we spend a little time in the present we find that is mainly made up of one thought after another. We hate that and complain that they can't get the mind to stop. Minds don't stop. Minds think. We can only observe the endless stream of stories and witness our desire to believe them without actually believing them. That isn't so easy.

There are two elements to meditation. The first is shamatha, or calm. The breath is the tool we use to calm the body. As we pay patient attention to the breath and feel the tension in our bodies, they begin to relax. This makes the second element, vipassana, or insight, possible. We begin to see that our thoughts are neither accurate or permanent. They come and go. Sometimes they are just background chatter. Other times they are like a fever but even the most feverish of thoughts eventually fade.

We also begin to understand that everybody else operates just like we do.

There's a Buddhist story about a young woman suffering terribly over the death of her baby. She is sent to the Buddha who tells her that he can help her only after she brings him a mustard seed from a house that had not known death. She had been, as we all do, trying to escape her suffering. When he tells her to bring him a mustard seed he is really tricking her into doing what she is avoiding, conducting an investigation into her own suffering.

Her fruitless search for the mustard seed allows her to shine the lamp of awareness on her own suffering as well as the suffering of others. She discovers within herself a quality of which she'd been unaware, the space of awareness. All the stories we make up come from aware space which is unaffected by those stories. That space doesn't experience dissatisfaction, impermanence, or self. It is the same for you as it is for me, as it was for that suffering woman. It is the kingdom of heaven. The greater our familiarity with that space, the less of a danger we are to ourselves and others.

When the Buddha was about to begin teaching, he was asked how he was different from other people. He replied, "I am awake." He meant that he no longer believed the thoughts that he dreamed up.


It is important to spend some time in sitting meditation as a basis for mindfulness practice. It is very simple. Simply sit and turn your attention away from your thinking to the physical sensations of the breath. Listen to the sound of your breath. You don't have to spend a lot of time with this. If you are forcing yourself to do it, you create a conflict within yourself that won't help you at all. Ten or twenty breaths every so often will help you. I keep a small wrist mala with me. These have about 20 beads. When I have a few moments during the day, I take a turn of the mala. It is refreshing.

Whatever you think is OK. It is OK to be really angry or upset, or depressed or consumed with lustful, dirty thoughts. As long as you shine the lamp of awareness on your thoughts and feelings you won't be a danger to yourself or others. When you decide you have to change whatever troubles you or make it go away, you will hurt yourself or someone else.

Practice mindful awareness as much as you can. When you walk, feel your heels touch the ground and experience the way your foot rolls from heel to toe. Count your steps as you inhale and begin again when you exhale.

When you lay down to sleep at night, just feel yourself breath. I count breaths from one to four, over and over again. It works great for insomnia.

Do this for the rest of your life.