“How are we supposed to practice meditation and feel peaceful when there is so much violence and suffering?” That was a question sent to me from a meditation student right after this week’s Las Vegas massacre. Part of my role as a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen is to sometimes answer questions that students from around the world send to our website.
The student wrote that he felt very angry and sad after what happened. He said all these stories of people causing pain for others are becoming more frequent and that each time he felt more pain and suffering of his own. He said his friends responded to the news by arguing about politics and guns or got very depressed or just tried to ignore the news. But none of those reactions seemed right or helpful.
He wanted to know: How does one sit with this? How are we supposed to maintain any equanimity in these times? What is the “proper” response to the suffering we see?
His questions made me wonder: How does one practice meditation properly in the face of such horrors? And when you consider that meditation is really a daily experiment in a way of leading our whole lives, asking how to meditate properly actually begs this question: What does it mean to live properly? More specifically, what does it mean to live properly when horrible things happen in the world and we see that so many people suffer?
Sometimes people think that to practice meditation properly means to find a way to stop thinking and feeling. How can I make the noise in my head go away? How can I make this pain stop? But even if we can achieve that kind of peace, then what? Do we just sit around feeling peaceful?
Wanting peace for its own sake is a little like wanting a parking spot for its own sake. Once you get a parking spot, then what? Do you just sit in your car in your parking spot? Or was the purpose for getting the parking spot to accomplish something else?
Similarly, is there a larger reason to find a peaceful place in our minds?
This is related to a question that constantly niggles most of us, over and over: “What do I do now? What do I do now?” When you add up all the moments of asking “What do I do now?” it points to another bigger question: What is the direction of my life?
The purpose of Zen meditation is to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. When we ask, what does it mean to live properly, we are really asking: What am I? What is my relationship to the world? What is my life for? What can I do? What is the meaning of living properly?
When a big event like the Las Vegas massacre occurs, our minds cope by generating lots of stories about the world on top of the stories we already generate about ourselves and our lives. Some of the stories cause pain, and so we compensate by coming up with less painful ones. The problem is that none of the stories are true, in an absolute sense. So using so much energy trying to find the comfortable stories that make us feel better, we are really trying to find the best delusion.
Underneath all the delusions is this: the not-knowing mind. It’s like a shiny ball that simply reflects things as they are, before judgments and opinions arise. It is the mind that does not react to the stories built on stories built on more stories that we tell ourselves. Instead, it is the clear mind that simply sees suffering and responds by asking, “How can I help?”
When we consider the “terrible” people that perpetrate all the wrongs, lots of thoughts about them come. That sets up a cycle of storytelling because we know, deep inside, that none of the stories are quite true. So we keep looking for a better story. It never ends. Worse, we fight for the truth of those stories, doing battle with illusions, whirling around in the face of the specters and firing the weapons of fear and anger. In doing so, we injure the real world and still more suffering for ourselves and others.
The practice of meditation is to cut through the cycle of delusion by continually returning to the not-knowing mind, the place before stories, often by using tool of awareness of breath. The not-knowing mind is the mind that does not suppress our worried thoughts but sees them for what they are—only thoughts, not knowing.
So to meditate properly with the pain of the world might mean not grabbing on to storytelling about the pain of the world, and not pushing the pain away either. Instead, it might mean over and over returning to: What is my relationship to the world? What is my relationship to all the suffering? A meditator’s practice in the face of these questions is to return to not knowing—over and over.
Experienced meditators share a faith, borne of experience, that slowly, with practice, the deep pain you feel over the stories you have told yourself about the world will begin to dissolve and beneath those stories will be revealed your Big Love and your Big Compassion. And if we can sit with all this—not clinging to our stories and returning to not knowing—sometimes, without even knowing how, we find a way to relate lovingly and helpfully to the suffering we see around us.
Through meditation we learn to see clearly. Seeing clearly, acting clearly arises by itself.
So here is a meditation teacher’s answer to “how are we supposed to practice meditation and feel peaceful when there is so much violence and suffering?” Allow yourself to not know, to see and hear the world’s suffering, to be with all of it without clinging to stories that obscure it. At that point, the function of inner peace becomes perfectly clear: How can I help?
Colin Beavan wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Colin helps people and organizations to live and operate in ways that have a meaningful impact on the world. His most recent book is “How To Be Alive,” and he blogs at ColinBeavan.com. Besides YES! Magazine, his articles have appeared in Esquire, Atlantic, and the New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.