Everybody has a movie, starring me, directed by me, produced by me, written by me… it’s all about me –
Larry Rosenberg, Cambridge Insight Meditation Center
Everybody has a story and we like to spend our time and energy telling and adding to that story. But ultimately, Buddhist practice is about doing an end run around the story. The story goes from being in the foreground to being in the background, what one Zen teacher called “the scenery of your life.”
I went to a retreat some years ago with Larry Rosenberg. About halfway through the retreat he said that in the personal interviews half the people reported that they were in relationships and wanted to be out of them, and the other half of the people were out of relationships and wanted to be in one. (I always tell that to people who are suffering from relationship angst.)
He went on to tell this story. Jack Kornfield was running a retreat, and in one of his talks he said something like, “All of you have a story. But I can tell you that everyone one of us who teaches this stuff (meditation), we don’t care.”
This, of course, elicited a laugh, but it is a point worth making.
Meditation is often used as a way to make our story better, or at least more comfortable. We have a job we don’t like, a bad marriage, trouble with our kids or parents, whatever it might be. That’s the story. And we don’t want to feel quite so stressed out about it. That’s understandable. So we take up meditation.
This makes meditation a form of psychotherapy. As has been noted many times, the purpose of therapy is to take people who are dys-functionally neurotic and make them functionally neurotic. Now there is nothing wrong with that. If you are not functioning, becoming functionally neurotic probably looks pretty good.
But the purpose of the Buddhist path is to become free from suffering altogether. In that sense it does an end run around the story. And by “end run” I don’t mean avoiding the story. The story is where you start, and everything in your story has to be at ease. That is the main intention of the precepts, to get your moral house in order. But in meditation ultimately you are not trying to make a better story; you are trying to end it.
It is like an old house that has a crooked roof and sagging walls. You can straighten out the roof and the walls after a fashion, but the real problem is in the foundation. What you really need to do is jack up the house, straighten out the foundation, and then put the house back down. You don’t have to straighten out the walls; that will happen on its own.
Now a lot of people – and I am one of them – start out in practice just trying to find a little more peace in their lives. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. The Buddha himself used to give advice to people in all walks of life to help them find a little more peace and happiness. He had advice for kings, merchants, husbands and wives, and it was all to help them lead happier, more skillful lives.
However, it is very helpful if at a certain point you can leave that motivation behind and set your sight on a new prize. Even before you feel you can do that, it is helpful to keep in mind that there is something much better than learning how to create more frequent instances of conditioned happiness. The end game in the Buddhist path is unconditioned happiness.
The story, of course, does get better along the way, but not because you are trying to make it better. It happens because that is a side affect of straightening the foundation.
I know of at least one very prominent Buddhist teacher who says that in the West Buddhism has found its voice (my words, not his) in psychotherapy. In his view the obvious path for Buddhism to take in the West is by forming an alliance with Western psychotherapy.
I think that would be unfortunate. It is certainly fine if therapists find some useful tools in Buddhist meditation. But there is a much greater path out there. It is the path of complete freedom.