Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

Buddhist Meditation for the Non-Religious

12 February 2014 by Jim

Quite unlike my typical rational self, I have been reading up on meditation, especially Buddhist meditation. Buddhism as such may well be called a religion, but by virtue of its emphasis on personal practice and the comparatively low amount of mysticism, it seems to be one of the most unobtrusive and least dogmatic religions there are. There is no obligation to subscribe to all of its beliefs.

The common ground covered by religions that makes them appeal to all people in some way is the essence of religion. Everything else, the mysticism and wacky beliefs around the edges are colourful ornaments. Buddhism seems to have a very large part of non-dogmatic content and only a little slither of ornaments.

In my opinion, it is more inspiring to choose what to believe in because it fits who you are once you’ve actually become a person than it would be to just go on living with the religion that just happened to be dominant where I grew up (in my case, Roman catholicism).

Buddhism is a natural source of inspiration for me. I do not intend, however, to become a Buddhist in the full sense of the term.

The lessons taught by Buddhism, however, resonate with me, because most of those lessons that I have read about seem very close to what I have been experiencing myself. I am in no way an expert on Buddhism, but I would like to discuss how the Three Characteristics seem intuitively correct to me, and what that means for life in general, even without being a Buddhist.

To summarise, Buddhist teaching states that all our problems are just a matter of attitude. To free ourselves from suffering we need to understand the Three Characteristics. ‘Understand’ does not mean ‘intellectually grasp the concepts of’ as you do by reading these paragraphs. It means ‘deeply feeling the truth of’, something you need time and practice for, and that’s where meditation comes in. Is that really necessary? Yes it is.

Why? If I gave you a book full of quotes from highly successful or intelligent people, including Einstein, Sartre, Franklin, Smith, Montesquieu, the Dalai Lama, and others, would you, upon reading this book, have acquired all this wisdom, and be guaranteed to become a successful, intelligent person yourself? No? Didn’t think so.

There’s more to wisdom than reading a self-help book, unfortunately, and reading a book about life does not exempt you from living it and learning how to live it well for yourself. Meditation, in Buddhism, is basically the tool you use to convert intellectual understanding of the teachings into a personal truth that you feel deeply inside you and that guides your life. There is no fast way to acquire this wisdom.

So what are the Three Characteristics?

1) Impermanence: Nothing is permanent, neither the world around you, nor you yourself, nor anything you see or experience. It’s all just temporary sensations. Careful, though, this does not mean that nothing exists. Things do exist, but they do not have the permanent form you think they have.  How does this help? If you are in a difficult situation, you would know it won’t last forever, if you understood the first characteristic.

2) Non-satisfaction: The things and experiences that are around us are not satisfying for us. They are not meant to be. Their purpose is not to satisfy us, so don’t be surprised when they don’t. The universe does not magically converge to make a happy life for you. Understanding this can help accepting things the way they are. In fact, desire – the act of wanting something to be different than it currently is – is the source of all suffering. If you stop wanting things, you stop suffering.

3) No-self: There is no ‘self’, no ‘I’. There is no division between what I am and what the rest of the world is. We are all the same, influenced by the causes and conditions that lead to our existence in the universe, and we will continue to evolve according to the conditions and causes around us. This means there is no separate permanent self that we could want to keep, since we never had it, and we do not have to want to keep it either.

To me, these three alone are mind-blowing. If you think there’s truth to them, grab a book on Buddhism, like ‘Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha’ by Ingram, and read up on it, and, more importantly, meditate.

You’ll see that it’ll be worth it!

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