I often say, paraphrasing my own teacher, that the purpose of Buddhist meditation is not to be calm, but to be real. Being real doesn’t exclude being calm, if that is what is happening. But being real is not some particular state of mind; it is the mind in accord with the actuality of things—“real thinking”, as Suzuki Roshi would say.
I think the notion that we are “supposed” to be calm is a common misunderstanding, and a cause for discouragement, among meditators. “I’ve been meditating for X years, and I still can’t calm my mind!” This may be a particular problem for those of us who are older, because we know, in the way the young can’t, that “the things that happened to happen” can’t ever un-happen. Our irrevocable losses pile up, year after year. It is hard to be calm in the face of those kinds of losses.
Actually, there are three stages, or levels, to mindful awareness. In the first level, we become aware of how busy and distracted our mind is. In the second level, through attention and concentration we are able to calm our mind and actually enjoy that calm as a fruit of meditation. In the third level, the distraction of the third level seems to come back, but with even more force. The disturbances of the third level are actually more real, and more difficult to face because they are so deeply true.
However, there is actually a deep calm in the foundation stones of the third level, one that we may not realize if we just look at the superficial activity of our thinking. Actually, the disturbance we experience as we face our deep and universal problems (like growing old and losing what we love) is only there because of deep acceptance and the power of our meditation effort. The deep acceptance invites those deep problems in, and holds and contains them. It gives us the strength to face them.
It is like the difference between the misbehavior of a stranger, and the misbehavior of our child. The misbehavior of a stranger is like the first level. It irrirates us: Why are they like that? The misbehavior of our child is like the third level. At first it seems to be even more disturbing. “I raised you and loved you and still you are like that!” But actually, our attitude is held and contained by our love. Whatever our children do, we will never abandon them.
According to my teacher, deep meditation practice evolves from the third level. So here’s to being real! (Imaginary cup raised in tribute).