Monday, May 17, 2004

Dieting with Buster Keaton

I don't know if I could have experimented with my diet this way without my experience of meditation. Without being accustomed to watch what my mind was doing, but not be swept away by it. A valuable skill even in worldly terms.

My untrained mind knew only two things to do with a craving: 1) to focus on its object -- where might I find that perfect chocolate? How should I eat it? How much can I get away with eating? What will it taste like? Will I need a glass of milk to make the chocolate experience complete? -- or 2) to focus on what the craving meant about me. Am I gluttonous? Weak-willed? Self-indulgent? Whose fault is it if I am? How can I change?

What I didn't know how to do was just watch it, without either running with it or trying to fight it. Just see it, as accurately as possible. It doesn't have to be acted upon, or resisted. It's just a thought, one more mental phenomenon bubbling up the the surface of my mind. I was so superstitious about my mind, before I meditated much. Seems comical to me now, that people think of meditators as people who ascribe too much reality to the inner life. It was before I meditated that I did that. I took my thoughts terribly seriously. I couldn't really tell the difference between the thoughts and their objects; and I took my thoughts as solid evidence about the exact character of my immortal soul. (No, I didn't believe I had an immortal soul, but that didn't stop me from anxiously trying to determine its characteristics.)

I still do those things, of course. I'll treat a thought as if it was identical to the thing thought about -- a thought about West Sudan will arise, say, and I'll think "Oh, the situation in West Sudan needs to be taken seriously. That means this thought about West Sudan also needs to be taken seriously." And then I'll go on to "This means I'm a serious, responsible citizen of the world. Or maybe it means I'm a vain intellectual who thinks about problems but never does anything about them?"

But I've also acquired a pretty established habit of laughing at myself. When I was first learning to sit shamatha, I would sometimes just burst out laughing. The antics of my mind as it wriggled about, trying to escape observation and dash back into its comfortable warren of habitual thoughts, were endlessly entertaining. Still are. I suppose sitting shamatha is serene sometimes, a door into the peace that passeth understanding. But generally it's more like watching a Buster Keaton movie.

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