On Meditation and Craving

I am not the only elder baby boomer to attempt to do some writing at this stage of my life. I assume I am also not the first to discover the dastardly impact of “writer’s block.”  I have started three separate posts since my last published piece nearly 6 months ago. In no case did I make it to the “publish” key.                            

I discovered in the case of my writer’s block, that the more time that passed, the more impenetrable the block became; the more severe my inner critic became. “If this piece didn’t feel good enough to post last week, how are you going to improve it to make it worthy this week?”  The bar set by my critic went ever higher, and the writing never got appreciably better.                     

It didn’t help that I looked around at some close friends, also elder boomers, who were writing prolifically and well.  At least two have written books–one already published (Law of Recreational Boating), and two more seeking publishers. My wife is also a baby boomer and a regular and excellent blogger (Cambios Coaching), with a book about to be presented to publishers.                          

So, the Hell with it.  I’m going to get back on the PC and publish one of the posts that has been languishing in draft form for months.                               

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Buddhism and Meditation

This is a totally apolitical posting about a topic I have thought about and meditated about over the past months. I join a large number of my fellow boomers in being a regular meditator ( Pew Foundation estimates that up to 50% meditate regularly; I am dubious of this result, but there it is.) Few of us are practicing Buddhists, who comprise only about 1% of Americans. Rather I am a regular if imperfect practitioner of mindfulness meditation.

I was introduced to the meditative aspects of the Buddhist tradition by a wonderful therapist in about 2000 who lent me a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (I hope I returned it).   My “mindful meditation” practice waned for a long time, but I re-discovered it in 2016, and am now meditating daily for the past several years.  I recommend it highly as a means to calm the mind and attend to some of the practical tenets of Buddhism.                             

On Craving

Principal among these important Buddhist beliefs is that the basic cause of suffering (dukkha) is tanha–usually translated as “thirst” or “craving.” As Robert Wright in a wonderful book, Why Buddhism is True, writes, “To put a finer point on it, the problem is the unquenchability of tanha, the fact that attaining our desires always leaves us unsatisfied, thirsting for more of the same or thirsting for something new.” And this unsatisfied thirsting is a principal cause of needless suffering.

The Buddha was aware of the driving nature of tanha 2500 years ago, but we boomers have made it into a high (or should I say, low) art form. Boomers Crave!  We crave stuff, we crave fulfillment, we crave love, we crave satisfaction, we crave comfort.  On good days we crave a solution to the environmental crisis, we crave world peace, we crave justice. Nevertheless, we crave and it isn’t good for us.                               

The problem is not caused by having desires or feelings for these things. The problem (and it was a huge problem to the Buddha) is that we have fallen prey to cravings for them. Contemporary American Buddhist monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi put it this way:            

“It is here in this space between feeling and craving that the battle will be fought which will determine whether bondage [to cravings] will continue indefinitely into the future or whether it will be replaced by enlightenment and liberation. For if instead of yielding to craving, to the driving thirst for pleasure, if a person contemplates with mindfulness and awareness the nature of feelings and understands these feelings as they are, then that person can prevent craving from crystallizing and solidifying.”          

So how has my extremely flawed practice of mindful meditation cast light on all of this?  I have come to realize (not digest completely, nor integrate into my daily life) the Buddhist idea that I am not my thoughts. My thoughts–be they craving, or self-criticism, or anger, or jealousy, or hatred, or guilt, or fear–are not ME.  By being mindful of the thoughts as things that arise from my mind independent of ME, I can come to see them more as just thoughts. Nothing more.  They don’t own me.  I am not destined unavoidably to act on them, or to react to them.  I am not a slave to them.  I can observe them. Take note of them. Mull them over. And finally decide what to do with them.                

Let me try to illustrate some of this by listing a few of the cravings that I suspect might be familiar to my readers.  In no particular order, and with no pretense that I have discovered the best, most important list:                                         

Craving External Validation

We may have a strong need to be recognized as a “good person.”  A successful career person. A good contributor to society. A good spouse, parent and/or grandparent, friend.  It’s not always  enough that we should attempt to be, however imperfectly, these things. We can all too often crave public recognition for it. We boomers, at or nearing the end of our traditional career achievements, may find this craving for validation more daunting than younger folks. 

During meditation, I have occasionally (far too infrequently) been aware of the difference between being good and being acknowledged for being good. The former is under my control, and it is right that I attempt to be and do good. The latter is not under my control, and is therefore rarely achievable. I once asked my wife if she had noticed any change in my behavior after an intensive period of meditating.  Was I more relaxed, forgiving, patient, loving?  Not particularly, that she had noticed.  I was saddened and hurt by her response until I stopped to recognize that, craving recognition by her, I was bound to be disappointed.  It is enough that I have become somewhat more aware and less reactive.  Whether or not anyone else praises me for it.                               

Craving Sensory Pleasure

We may crave a comfortable home, exciting travel, a plethora of creature comforts, a glass of nice wine (or several), a few puffs of marijuana. These sensory cravings can make us susceptible to tobacco addiction (that I have “cured”). They can make us consume alcohol far too regularly. (No comment!) They can make us far too depressed during this pandemic because of the resultant restrictions on entertainment and travel (in my case, sometimes a craving to visit far-flung children and grandchildren and exotic foreign destinations).

Again, my meditation practice occasionally has made me aware of these usually appropriate feelings and desires. “Hmmm,” I can think during meditation, “it’s interesting that I’m aware of a feeling of desire for good wine.  It’s a nice feeling, but it is not ME, it doesn’t own me.” I can choose to act upon it or not as seems appropriate. At least this, far too fleeting awareness of the distinction between desiring and craving comes occasionally.                          

Craving a Pain-Free Life and an Easy Death

Having successfully navigated 74 years on the planet, I am aware that, facing inevitable physical decline and death, I find myself wishing the decline will be easy and the death painless.  Buddhism warns us of the impermanence of life; death and suffering come to all of us. It’s not surprising that we would want our life and death to be easy and pain-free, but to crave it is a problem. Because it does no good. How many of us die in our sleep, afterall? We are bound to be disappointed because we have no control over the pain and suffering that inevitably accompany life and death.

One of the most impressive uses of mindfulness meditation, perfected by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The process of mindfulness meditation can contribute to one’s ability to re-focus the mind away from stress or pain or fear of death that seem at times to be overwhelming and all-encompassing. MBSR doesn’t eliminate stress or pain, but rather reminds the meditator that the pain is not ME. It is a part of me, and does not have to own me.  In life and in death, pain may well be unavoidable, but mindful awareness that it doesn’t own one’s mind, but simply occupies a part of it for a time, can free the meditator from enslavement, from fear, and from decisions to avoid the pain at any and all costs.      

Some Meditation Resources

I am attaching 3 sample guided meditations for anyone who would like.

  1. Will Kabat-Zinn, the leader of the Berkeley California Sangha that we sometimes attend.  Will led daily morning meditations through the first 6 months of the Pandemic.  Here is one.  It is about 25 minutes.

2. Jon Kabat-Zinn. A leading proponent of Mindfulness Meditation to reduce Stress.  This meditation is about 10 minutes.

3. Ram Dass. Radiating Love guided meditation from 2015.  About 12 minutes.

 

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