Educating the mind to be more serene and balanced is the first step for an effective practice even in a perspective of secular Dharma. As for the Buddha, it can start from the simple memory of when you were a child.

Meditation represents the heart of Buddhist teachings. It is even more so in the context of that secular Dharma that is emerging in the West and that seeks to provide a body of teachings and practices suited to the problems of our time. It is the ground on which awareness takes root and the foundation that helps to make appropriate choices in everyday life. It is the path by which we can achieve more balance, serenity and wisdom. Meditation reconnects us to ourselves and refines attention and clarity. The success of mindfulness protocols and their application to different areas tells us how much today the need to meditate is increasingly widespread and how pressing is the aspiration to a more authentic and less stressful life. Meditation is the “star” of the moment but for some it is still an object with unclear contours. Reducing it to a technique of well-being means diminishing it. Raising it to a spiritual ideal is another way to misrepresent it. So what language can a method of practice speak today that wants to be in tune with the secular character of our time? One thing is certain: to meditate one starts from the body, not from the mind, and here one returns. Because it is what roots us in experience and reality and reminds us who we are.

Meditating is an art

But first of all meditation is an art and, as such, it requires to be cultivated. Creativity plays an important role, as does inspiration. Because each of us is different and different approaches are needed. Learning to understand which are the right ones implies a good dose of imagination and experimentation. But without a clear method you risk going astray. In Buddhism there are two approaches to the meditative process: the first is concentration, traditionally called samatha. The second is introspection, that is, vipassana, deep vision. One does not exist without the other. Without a focused, attentive, lucid mind, which returns in this way thanks to concentration, it would be impossible to go deeper and begin an accurate examination of the human condition that introspection allows us to lead. The first step concerns more closely the functioning of the mind; while the second step broadens our gaze to everything that happens inside and outside of us. The field on which samatha works is an image or an object on which the mind directs its attention in a specific way and on which it is brought back, with kindness and constancy, every time it is distracted. A sort of training to learn how to steer the boat and equip it to set sail. Sailing is also an art to be learned step by step. But once instructed, the crew leaves the port and goes into the open sea of life with all its unknowns, its mystery and the sublime. During the crossing, when the waves swell up and keep the rudder straight, it won’t be easy, our minds will remember the training, they will come back focused and the body will work as an anchor to keep the boat steady and not let it drift.

Not a mystical experience!
Meditation has often been presented, and still is, as a mystical experience that would allow access to deeper states of consciousness to transcend the corporal dimension to access celestial levels beyond space and time. The most religious and traditional version of Buddhism lists a whole series of passages, the jhanas, that the mind would pass through the more the concentration becomes stable and the disturbances of the thoughts are distanced. Although this vision, a legacy of Indian asceticism, exerts a certain fascination and the mirage of a spirituality as pure as it is abstract may appear as the solution to all worldly problems, there is, in the method taught by Gotama, no ascetic taste or rejection of what is properly human. Nor is it a denial of the body and experience that characterizes every person as such. Not that the techniques of ascetic practice available at the time had not experienced them. Including the most extreme ones. But, in the end, they all turned out to be inadequate, especially those that mortified the body. This is confirmed in this passage of the Pali Canon, which does not admit, to be honest, any possibility of misunderstanding: “I told myself: these painful austerities have not led to any transcendent state, any knowledge or vision capable of ennobling. Could there be another way? Then I remembered that once, while my father was at work, I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose and apple tree. Freed from unhealthy desires or ideas, I entered the first level of meditation, which is accompanied by thought and reflection, kidnapping and well-being born of loneliness. Could this be so? Remembering this, I realized: yes, this is the way. Yet it is difficult to experience it with such an emaciated body. So I ate boiled rice. (Majjhima Nikāya 36)

Just a memory

Thought, reflection, well-being, rapture and loneliness: these are the elements that Gotama talks about, this is his way to awakening. Nothing super-human, but qualities that any of us possesses and can put into practice in our own experience and research. It is equally significant as well as poetic that the Buddha has come to this conclusion thanks to the sweetness of a memory. The return to that image has a profoundly human, existential, almost primordial flavor. The fragility and purity of a child who sees his father in a moment of real life and is kidnapped immediately inspires a sense of protection, warmth and love. Nothing to do with paradisiacal states but an experience in which anyone can identify and immediately experience. What moves him deep down speaks of normal life, of work, of rose and apple trees, of happiness and of a concrete, usable and concrete serenity. Even loneliness is not sadness or separation but, on the contrary, it is the state of a mind not agitated by useless distractions, a contemplative mind, present and in connection with the world. Well-being is the other word that resounds decisively and refers both to the care of the body and to that of the spirit that should not be humiliated with useless ascetic practices or abandoned. Here is the extraordinary and at the same time completely ordinary middle way. Simple as a bowl of rice, another element that is not random, that refers to simple flavors that even a child can enjoy. That the Buddha wanted to link his idea of awakening to this very memory gives us very clearly the dimension of his experience linked to joy and simplicity and the strength that comes from it.

A secular way to happiness

If this is the message, everyone can feel encouraged to take this path and find their own way with creativity, simplicity and immediacy. And taking care of it as you take care of a child who grows up and experiences life. Awakening for Gotama is not only possible, it is within everyone’s reach. Here and now. In the concreteness of a body and in a balanced, serene mind. The Buddha speaks to the people of today and teaches us that we must trust the human experience in its normality. We have the tools and they are within everyone’s reach. We just need to set out and experiment.

Stefano Bettera