How Meditation is Teaching Me to Give In, and Why That's a Good Thing

(Reading time: 9 minutes, 1800 words)

I have a friend who built a marketing company then sold it for a few million dollars. He’s a thin, long man, with bright lips that squeeze his green eyes into sparkling slits. The sun has bronzed his hair and skin. He sold his company because, as he put it, “I have problems with marketing ethics, and being at a computer all day estranges you.” Today he runs a meditation clinic. For free.

So I attended on a Wednesday afternoon, and for twenty minutes I tried to hold one thought in my mind: essence.[1]

I wasn’t focusing on the word "essence," but this particular idea of essence, as a kind of substance that inheres in everything, the substratum of existence. The embryo of “this.” Soul. The thing I feel toward.

Now, you might call this a mystical notion of essence. In fact, most modern philosophers say that essence isn’t a “thing” at all; it’s a feature of language. They believe we have confused a linguistic placeholder as some metaphysical existent. In the words of A.J. Ayer, metaphysicians have been "duped by grammar."

Psychologists also reject the idea that essences are metaphysical. Cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom suggests we "have a default assumption that things, people and events have invisible essences that make them what they are." In short, for the psychologist, our belief in essences doesn't result from language, it’s simply how we cognize; we’re born to think this way.

Psychologists and philosophers can have their way. I’m not religious about my notion of essence. It’s just an idea that brings me pleasure, a story I tell myself. And the moral of the story is “What if?”

So I sat, trying to keep my mind locked on this invisible concept (which is probably far too complex a thing to meditate on, but I like a challenge), and after twenty minutes I ate a raisin, because my guru friend, who was guiding the meditation, told me to do so. He also instructed me to pay attention.

I noticed, for the first time while eating a raisin, more than the taste of sugar and the scent of something like tobacco. I tasted not only the grape, but also the water that fed the grape, and the sun that cured it. I tongued every wrinkle of that dead piece of fruit, and all I tasted was life.

Then I smiled, opened my eyes, and exhaled.

I can’t say much about meditation or Zen Buddhism—despite following Sam Harris’s blog, despite having taken Philosophy of Buddhism 400R, despite noticing across the Interwebs what seems to be a Millennial exodus away from Christianity toward an American version of Eastern spirituality—but I can tell you this: concentrating on one idea for 20 minutes is not unlike smoking a joint. It brings personal insight, wider awareness, and psychological homeostasis. (If any of you diehard meditators are offended by this comparison, go meditate and chill. Or smoke a joint. Or both.)

What’s interesting, though, is that I didn’t gain any insight into this idea of essences—the thing I was concentrating on—no, quite the opposite. I gained insight into practical matters, namely, the things I resist. And the insight was this: stop resisting.

This isn't a profound realization by any means (I've seen at least a dozen memes kicking around the web in recent months that read "resist nothing"). But it's a profound feeling when you get a passing taste of it. And, for me, the taste is always passing, because my default mode is to attempt to control the world.

In a recent post I bemoaned the corporate life, social media, and the conflict I feel over my desire to "make it" as a writer. Meditation revealed these areas of my life as sources of conflict, but did so in an indirect way; the insights came in the calm wake after I opened my eyes. It was during this chill interlude that I came to see these aspects of my life not as hurdles, but as simply that—aspects of my life. Features of existence. And seeing them in that light gave me a new outlook on how to navigate them: with gratitude. For a moment I breathed lighter, saw clearer, felt stronger.

How can accepting the unsavory aspects of my life help me overcome them? I mean, in order to conquer those less favorable features of life don’t we need to resist them? Even fight them?

Now, I wish I could tell you that I've since taken up daily meditation. Given the dividends, that would be the obvious thing to do. But in the morning, the first most suitable time to meditate, I'm lured by a warm bath and a cup of green tea. Or I'm distracted by email, or tempted by what new Facebook likes I've acquired overnight, as if I could make bank deposits with them. Or I'll manage to read and write for a spell, or stretch out in my boxers on a blue yoga mat. But after that I'm aching to get out the door. And in the evening, the second most suitable time to meditate, I want to write and read, and listen to music, and pedal the streets in search of a story or a shot; I want to taste my dinner and take my children to the park; I want to argue and have sex with my wife; I want to waste time on the back porch, alone, with a beer and a dream in my head. And I do, right up until my body unfolds, belly up, on my knock-off Tempurpedic mattress. So another day goes by wherein I fail to meditate.

But just because I haven't meditated in the pure sense of the word doesn't mean I haven't meditated on the lesson I learned in those twenty short minutes. (I'm sure at this point Zen practitioners are balking at my suggesting that I learned something of meditation in twenty minutes. And they should. My experience doesn't even qualify as initiatory. But I'ma continue this train of thought anyway.) And here's what I've been meditating on: How can accepting the unsavory aspects of my life help me overcome them? I mean, in order to conquer those less favorable features of life don't we need to resist them? Even fight them? What does it look like to "resist nothing" when it comes to global warming, homelessness, and gross consumerism? How does resistancelessness work in the case of racism, sexism, or any of those -isms that aim for a right but leave an aftermath of wrong?

I'm not gonna attempt to answer these questions, because I don't know whether we're best to approach these problems in the style of Muhammad Ali or Mahatma Gandhi. What I'm interested in though, intrigued by, even fractured by, is the seeming paradox of conquest through surrender.

When I was about nine I remember visiting my grandmother and seeing on her shelf a cheap ceramic knickknack—two hands pressed together in prayer—with the inscription:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

At the time the quote registered nothing. It seemed a vain and meaningless utterance, which tends to be the destiny of any oft-chanted or ritualized profundity.

Years later, when I was hurting for release from heroin addiction, I walked into an assembly hall or church of sorts and sat on a folding chair. And there amidst the flannel shirts and missing teeth and cups of coffee I read from a poster, in unison with two dozen other ragged souls, the 12 steps of AA, the first being, "We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction."

I walked out.

"What a bunch of bullshit," I thought to myself. "How can I conquer anything that I profess to be powerless against?" Years later, with police and creditors hunting me, my wife one foot out the door with our children in arms, I returned to those rooms, because I felt I had no other choice. And this time I didn't try to make sense of it all. I just sat and listened.

Ironically, at the close of those meetings, us junkies would circle up hand-in-hand and recite what is commonly called the Serenity Prayer:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Now, I'm not a believer in god, and I didn't stick with AA. In fact, I'd stutter if you asked me to cite any of the steps beyond Step 1. But I stayed long enough to come to believe, to know, there are aspects of life I'm powerless against. So I let go, and somehow I fell into sobriety.

Meditating that day reminded me of this relationship between courage and acceptance, and it exposed how I've been mustering a less effective kind of courage, a fighting kind. I've been looking at the world with disdain, and I've felt tied up as a result. Now, instead of hating the world, I'm working on my perspective. Oddly, that feels like courage and acceptance at the same time. But can I maintain this approach?

Today I savor the Serenity Prayer. It has taken on new and deeper meaning, which tends to be the destiny of any oft-chanted or ritualized profundity. I reflect on it as a close-but-not-quite guiding principle. (I also tend to see every guiding principle as close but not quite, because that seems to be how the world works; it doesn't conform to absolutes.) And though the Prayer loosely guides my way of being, I'm still angry with the world. Only now I'm trying to respond to my anger differently.

Christians warn of a day of doom, when the earth will be purged with fire. From my view, though, the world is already burning. Every day that we drive our congested freeways, cast a vote, finance a dream, or seek permission, we pour on fuel, endorsing our corruption and folly from any and every side. Part of me wants to run away, to cower from the seething heat, become the mountain hermit or street bum. Part of me wants to bucket our evaporating water onto the flames, rage and fight, like those engaged in a good cause. And part of me, what I consider to be the best part of me, wants to dance on the hot coals, make art and love, while my body is slowly sifted into smoke and ash.

That's the kind of courage I'm struggling for. That's the kind of acceptance, the kind of giving in, I want to exemplify. But I'm not sure whether any amount of wisdom will help me distinguish the two, which is why I say the Serenity Prayer is close, but not quite. Maybe, if I would just discipline myself to sit and meditate, I could make sense of this paradox. Maybe, given enough time, I will one day have the courage to fight more graciously, surrender more supinely.

What about you? What do you make of this relationship between courage and acceptance? Comment below, or start a conversation with your friends.

  1. It is suggested that nascent meditators try to focus on one thing rather than clear their mind of all thought, as this is easier yet still effective.