Because of its general content, I feel almost afraid to post this missive, and fear that I may regret it. Yet, being in a rather desperate state, I feel a need to have some feedback. To ask the question posed in the title of this posting may seem to be a stupid one to ask (on a Buddhist forum, at least), but I feel a need to ask it.
I am what is politely called an “elderly” man — i.e. I am old, and, though vigorous in mind and reasonably capable in body (in the home, anyway), I cannot be very far off the end of life. When I was a young man, I had struggled my way out of sectarian Christian beliefs, and eventually, I lost my faith that the “good book” was an inspired revelation from God (this took a very long time, and a great deal of work for my religiously-conditioned mind). By a course of much reading, searching and pondering, I had come into contact with Buddhists, who, for the first time in my life, seemed to know what they were talking about with regard to religion and the discussion of life as I had come to see it.
Gradually, I was introduced to a meditation class that the senior figure (the man with whom I discussed my problems) hosted. On one occasion, while sitting in this room, a mantle of deep peace seemed to fall upon me. Evidently, this man was an experienced meditator who, in some way unknown to me, could influence one’s being at a deep level. Despite my sceptical, intellectual nature, over several years, I had ample evidence that this person had extraordinary powers. One only needed to sit near to him, to feel his aura (as a fellow attendee once remarked to me).
Over the years that followed, under his guidance and with the support that his presence gave, I experienced many states and realisations that were far, far beyond my own development. I mean, even at that time, I would remark to myself that these states and realisations would arise, despite the fact that I was not religious or devout (which fact was a bit of a problem for me — I felt that I was a fraud). However, though I felt that I was the last person that anyone would think was following a “spiritual path”, my sceptical mind was won over entirely, and I believed —nay, I KNEW — that Buddhism was the way to go. This was after losing all the religious faith of my early years, and becoming an unhappy agnostic or even an atheist.
Many are the “things” that happened over the course of several years — events that were confirmed by others, when they were mentioned in the group. So, I knew that they could not have been private fantasies. Despite this, I was always keenly aware that there were things in my nature that were quite at variance with the concept of following a “holy path”. Though I felt ashamed of these personal traits, I could not eradicate them. In private, I counted myself as, in a real sense, a failed “Buddhist” and a fraud. Though this is to mention only a few of these problems, one of my perceived failures was that sexual activity continued within my marriage (a strong impression was created in me, by others, that this ought to cease). Another one was that I remained prone to showing impatience and anger. And, though I was always able to deal courteously with people in a general way, and though I was always willing to help someone in distress, in any way that was possible (even at my own cost), I never learned how to develop feelings of actual warmth of manner towards others – I remained distant, intellectual and not emotional in manner, and could not form close relationships. So, the wonderful happenings and realisations (which seemed to be almost accidental, and which were caused by my proximity to a very advanced teacher) did not change me in any thoroughgoing way. I remained the inhibited, distant and intellectualised being that I had always been.
Circumstances change, and, after several years, I ceased to associate with this teacher and with the group. I count this as being a piece of very unfortunate luck (or, perhaps, it was my karma). I resumed the life of a rather reclusive “home bird”. After all, in the limited free time after my work and my domestic duties had ended, where was there to go? To whom could one talk, in a meaningful way? I came to realise the truth of Emerson’s words, when he said that, for some individuals, there was nothing for it but to stay home, and to have oneself for companionship. I had no friends, and what family my wife and I had were a million miles from me in outlook (since they all belonged to the sects that I had left in my younger days; in leaving “the Truth”, I had committed the unforgivable sin). At my place of work, it was even worse, since the best enjoyment that my workmates could imagine was to go out and drink (or watch football matches).
All of the former realisations ceased, and life became as meaningless, and as lonely, as it had been before meeting the Buddhists. Years of unremitting work on the dilapidated house that we bought, followed. I despaired, and only the busy-ness saved me, I think, from going insane.
After a few years of this, I started, once again, to practice meditation. My practice was to sit as upright as possible and to observe the rise and fall of the abdomen in breathing, for about half an hour a day. Nothing ever happened; however, I realised that one ought not to look for any result, so the practice carried on. The only result that I could see was that, through “navel gazing”, there were some uncomfortable feelings within the region of the solar plexus (a feeling of “heartburn” and a feeling of blockage. Also, pains in the spine —where, I think, there must be a plexus of nerves). These pains were very unpleasant indeed, and made a fairly miserable life even worse.
At no time has there been any sense of deep peace, or even great relaxation, as a result of the practice. Though (to the best of my ability and according my lights) I try to live as decently as possible, I certainly don’t feel that I would be a good example of a practicing Buddhist. Any attempts at developing “metta”, by visualising a greatly loved person, fail. I know of no person that stimulates such a feeling of warmth. Besides, I am not good at visualisation. Yet, there are rare occasions when, on the television (say), I see a programme about (say) a philanthropist, and my heart is moved in a way that seems altogether disproportionate. This is of brief duration, however, and my usual unfeeling self is resumed. I try to support what charities I can, but this does not change anything — it is merely a matter of working out, intellectually, whether it would be prudent (or even possible) to support such and such a charity, or to send a one-off donation to one.
So, the metta bhavana seems to have failed. What about insight? From what I have read, I understand that to follow the breath, as I have described above, can develop insight. This may be the case. (It is surprising how many times one can pick up on a phrase that is commonly-used by people, and see the absurdity of it. Sometimes, it is possible to trace the origin of the phrase, and to see how the passage of time has turned it into an absurdity. This is a form of insight, I am sure.) However, insight is a two-edged sword: one thing that this practice certainly seems to have done is to make me see the world with different eyes. I see the meaninglessness and unsatisfactoriness of things and interests that many people almost live to enjoy. And, seeing life with the tinsel and artificiality stripped away, with the suffering and unsatisfactoriness of it all too plain, I have come to feel that the writer of the Biblical Ecclesiastes was right, when he said that the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. (When I was young, I would not have thought it possible that I should come to this view of things.)
A few days ago, I asked myself, “Is there ANYTHING in life that would provide a huge burst of personal pleasure?” I thought of the remote possibility of winning the Lottery. No — though there certainly would be pleasure in disbursing chunks of money to people that I know who could use some, after that was done, life would be just the same. I don't want more money. What about a free holiday, in some exotic place? No, I do not want to be walking in the sun, anywhere on earth, and a fancy hotel would hold no attractions for me (free drinks, at the bar? — ugh!) There would be no energy for many holiday activities; also, I should hate even to lie in the sun.
The idea of unlimited sensual pleasure, of any kind, leaves me cold. So, I don’t think that there is anything that could provide a huge burst of pleasure of any kind.
Finally, there was the imagined prospect of going into a beautiful state of relaxation, leading to an absolutely beautiful sleep that would never end. Ah, that idea certainly has some attraction!
I wonder if all this is the result of meditation practice. I really do not know. Perhaps this is where meditation does lead one. After all, peace is peace, whatever the circumstances, and my earliest memory of meditation was that a mantle of peace descended upon me, in that meditation room, long ago. The trouble is, now, that meditation does not bring that peace. Yet, I feel that, if one could indeed reach the “ground of one’s being”, then life would be transformed in a positive way. Why have things turned out in the way that they have?
After all this, my question to forum readers is this: why do you meditate? And, by doing so have you found any positive benefit? Do things have to be as I have described them? I desperately need to hear what you may have to say.