“TAKE UP MEDITATION,” friends have advised me for years. “It’ll make you feel better.”
Without a guru or a Zen Master at my disposal, I tried but didn’t master the art of meditating. Thirty-plus years later, I’m still hearing, “Have you tried meditation?” So, when an email from Book Bub came along in November, offering a “transformational” and “life-changing” book by a famed Tibetan Buddhist, I snagged a copy. First published December 1976, it is now available as an ebook: “Gesture of Balance: A Guide to Awareness, Self-Healing, & Meditation (Nyingma Psychology Series #2)” by Tarthang Tulku.
The good news, as Tarthang articulates it and as I understand it, is that we can abandon the formal, academic approaches to meditation and enlightenment. A more natural method can lead us to peace of mind and mental clarity.
Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche
The ebook does not include much of a bio, so I looked him up online. Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, has written and published more than two dozen books. He also reprints endangered Tibetan sacred texts.
The blurb from Dharma Publishing calls him “A pioneer in communicating the wisdom of his tradition to a secular audience,” and he “speaks to us like a good friend, offering ways to clear away confusion, strengthen self-confidence, and brighten our lives with meaning and joy.”
Well, all right. I’ve only read thousands of books already; let’s see if this one is more accessible than the rest!
“Traditionally, beginning meditation involves certain practices, such as intense concentration, the visualization of various images, or the chanting of mantras,” he writes. So far, so good. “Generally, however, our practice should be whatever works best for the development of stillness and concentration.”
I was fresh out of college when a guy named Nick shared his mantra with me, writing it out as something that looks like “sharing” but sounds more like shah-rrrrrrring. I gave it a few minutes before feeling too annoyed to come up with my own mantra, and besides that, my knees have always hurt in lotus position, even when I was in my twenties.
The next guy (Fred) got me into scuba diving and buying bullets for his M-16 rifle in exchange for him teaching me how to shoot, but then I met and married a Catholic, and it seemed like a no-brainer to meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary instead of trying to come up with a mantra of my own that works.
Fast forward ten years and three kids: Evidently I was still a long way from being “centered” and “Zen,” because a fellow parishioner (a mother of five who barely even knew me) urged me to read “Awareness” by Anthony de Mello.
I bought the book. “The heart of Anthony de Mello’s bestselling spiritual message is awareness. Mixing Christian spirituality, Buddhist parables, Hindu breathing exercises, and psychological insight, de Mello’s words of hope come together in ‘Awareness’ in a grand synthesis,” the publisher promised.
Meditating On …
I’ve read that one three times in the past twenty years and bought copies for friends, but people were still telling me I should take up Meditation. The Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche book was free, so why not. Here’s the first line I highlighted in my Kindle:
“We can deal effectively with our problems, develop our potential, and discover meaning and value in our lives. This may sound simplistic, but it sometimes is helpful to just forget our problems for a short time.”
With a pitcher of beer over Happy Hour, right?
Ha ha, no.
Well, then, how?
“We may be able to retain our tranquility in most circumstances, but experiencing and transcending upsetting situations can be very difficult.”
Yes, Captain Obvious. Do tell. How are we to “just forget” our problems for a time?
“From time to time, we can remember to be grateful that we are alive and have the opportunity for inner growth. As for frustration and impermanence – we can be grateful that they are there to wake us up.”
Um … ok?
I kept re-reading these pages without finding explanations. Just generalities such as this: “So let us take the time to develop our awareness” (that word again!), “to freshen our minds and our senses … for we cannot afford to waste time being sad, emotional, or confused.”
Right. So when our loved ones die after a horrible, painful, excruciating battle with cancer, we can just decide not to waste time being sad?
“Impermanence permeates all existence,” Rinpoche reminds us. “We can see the changes in our lives and the lives of our friends and families, but the most devastating change in human life – death – is always catching us by surprise.”
Tell me about it.
“Even when we want to give up suffering, it seems that we are not ready – we hold tightly to it.” Suffering does not give us answers but may push us to wake up, to develop awareness (yes, that word again, the one thing I seem to be most conspicuously lacking). Eventually, “we may firmly decide that we do not want to suffer anymore. At that point we let go of our suffering and wake up – there is an inward change, and we clearly see the foolishness of the countless self-tortures we have created for ourselves. This inner change is the real learning process.”
Well, yes, there’s that: the foolishness of the countless self-tortures we have created for ourselves. Guilty!
Deciding we do not want to suffer? How simple and easy that sounds. It reminded me of the most memorable take-away from a Religions of the World class, my first semester of college: “Suffering ends when craving ends.”
In later years, however, I read that we never overcome cravings (or bad habits). We just replace one with another.
Most of the suffering in my life stems from the loss of a loved one. It’s sad enough to see our grandparents grow old and die, but sadder yet to lose a parent or sibling or anyone at a very young age. Somehow we have to “accept” every loss and soldier on. My mom the Fundamentalist with her Protestant work ethic has manifested this. Her way of meditating is to knit and crochet while watching soap operas.
Instead of reading so many books, I should have tried harder to emulate Mom. She was an infant when her mother died, and she has buried three out of five daughters, and she could write the book on how to cope, but she’s too busy coping to bother telling others how it’s done. It helps that she believes in life after death. In heaven. With Jesus.
“When we contemplate death, we can see death itself as a natural transition – not necessarily an ending – but a continuation,” Tultu advises. “For those who are accomplished in meditation, death is seen as an opportunity to achieve a very beautiful experience-or even liberation from all suffering.”
Ah, so suffering ends when we die! Now I know how my cravings will end.
“After a while we may even stop caring and just let go of everything,” Tulku writes, “but we are not really ‘letting go’; we are just giving up in despair.”
Listening To Master Rinpoche
Ok, let’s cut to the chase and figure out how I’m to get Let Go without Giving Up. Death is ok for people who lived to be a hundred, but I’m still struggling to accept the loss of three sisters at ages 18, 62, and 63, while my mom soldiers on with her Bible, warning us that yoga and meditation open portals in our minds to usher in devils.
Me, I think the Bible can fill the mind with devils (ssssh, don’t tell Mom!). So I’ve tried to achieve detachment, but I’ve yet to distinguish it from apathy. Apparently I need to “set up a structure or a life pattern” for myself. “Self-discipline is essential if we are going to learn to lead constructive lives, free from the turbulence of our emotions, negativities, and pain.”
Ok, Master Rinpoche, I’m listening.
“We can just be. We can forget the ego – toss it away – and completely relax.”
Tell me more.
“When memories or discomforts arise, you may feel a little uneasy, but this feeling will pass if you do not mentally hold on to any thought in particular. Just remain very loose and quiet and do not think ‘about’ meditation. Simply accept yourself. You are not trying to learn meditation, you are the meditation.”
I’m still working on that. It reminds me of explanations a priest will offer when prayer seems to have no efficacy: prayer does not effect change; it changes the person who’s praying.
“Pushing yourself too hard, or attempting to follow a rigid set of instructions, may cause problems….”
The whole book reads pretty much like this. “Lacking specifics” may be its biggest strength and biggest weakness. How much easier it would just to fall back upon the familiar meditations of the Rosary, even though it has about as much efficacy as that guy’s *shaa-rrrring* mantra. At least the “canned” meditations (as Protestants sneeringly put it) help steer my mind away from the petty squabbles of this life and focus my thoughts more on the idea of peace, harmony, and everlasting love.
“Individual effort is called for, rather than a passive appeal for salvation at the hands of another,” Tulku reminds us.
Well, I didn’t say I believe the tenets of the Rosary. I just like the idea of a community of saints praying with us, and the possibility of meeting up in some afterlife with everyone. Whether or not a crucified Jesus really did rise from the dead, it seems worthwhile to meditate on the life and teachings of the humble carpenter’s son who revolutionized the way people were thinking in the days of Ceasar. As Tulku reminds us, “One thing we can be sure of: We do not know everything.” Indeed. I’m the first to admit I know nothing.
“So two factors are present,” Tultu writes. “One, that we do not know certain things, and the other, that we do know some things but we do not want to admit to ourselves that we know them.” I.e., that the Bible is fiction. “So we find ourselves caught in these two destructive patterns: ignorance and avoidance.”
Wait. Yes, I can see that. What I have yet to see is how this book is going to lead me to the light, to paths of clarity and awareness, and inner peace.
“Our spiritual strength may not be powerful enough for us to actually face reality, so we forget what we know or refuse to look … “
Every other reviewer seems to be posting 5-star raves. Am I just being obstinate, or blocked, or closed-minded? I refuse to assign numerical ratings to a book, unless I can whole-heartedly offer five out of five stars.
I can’t say that I learned more with this book than I did 20 years ago with Eckharte Tolle or Deepak Chopra or any of the enlightened best-selling authors telling us how to wake up and smell the coffee.
Perhaps I should find a remedial classroom and a teacher or guru who can hammer some sense into my head.
Or I could just strive to be more at one with my cat.
“I have lived with many Zen masters, all of them cats.” – Eckharte Tolle, Guardians of Being