Saturday, July 26, 2008

Is Meditation Good? Part 1

On Wednesday nights, I go to a program at the Zen Center, in which we do some chanting and sitting, followed by talks and Q&A with Zen Master Bon Soeng (ZMBS). One of these days, I ought to film one of these talks, and post it here and on YouTube. (Even though I'm middle-aged, maybe I can learn how to use new technology like the kids.) At the moment, I'll just have to use old-fashioned "language" to talk about it.

In the most recent such talk, ZMBS spoke about the capture of Radovan Karadzic. For those who don't follow the news... Karadzic was a fugitive, charged with war crimes for supervising the murder of thousands of Muslims during the 1990s Bosnian conflict. When he was finally captured, it turned out that he'd been living under the alias Dr Dragan Dabic, and acting as a meditation teacher and New Age health guru.

There are lots of articles about Karadzic's double-life (follow this link e.g.):
In the past week, the two lives he managed to keep separate for 12 years have been brought together – the Beast of Bosnia, one of Europe's most wanted men, and the mystic healer and zealous Christian, Dr Dragan Dabic.

For those who knew Dr Dabic, one question has dominated the past five days: was Karadzic's career as a New Age health guru just an act, or had he become a true believer in the meditation and healing techniques that he wrote and lectured about so passionately?
I don't think that Karadzic underwent a conversion experience, changing himself from Butcher to Guru. Rather, I think that both somehow coexisted in this man: the fascination with meditation etc, and the brutal killer. The article linked-to above muses, "Crucially, his new profession gave Karadzic a taste of the God-like power over people's lives which he had been able to wield during his years as a warmonger."

ZMBS brought up the matter to warn of the dangers of charisma, how we need to be very careful about "following" any teacher, based on his/her skill in talking about meditation. Even a great teacher is like someone with a flashlight. We can make use of what the light reveals, but it's best to avoid faith in the guy who happens to be holding the flashlight.

If Zaradzic could be a successful meditation teacher, and simultaneously be seriously lacking in compassion... it leads me to wonder whether we can consider the simple practice of meditating, per se, as a necessarily beneficial thing. Perhaps the practice itself is not good and not bad; it's a tool, with the effects dependent on the intention we bring to it.

Today while visiting the Guruphiac blog, I followed one of those Google ads on the page to the "Bliss Music" storefront, where they sell CDs touted to bring quick enlightenment:
...after a great spiritual awakening and many years of research into spiritual enlightenment, I found something that can make it easy for you to experience incredible states of peace and bliss, helping you move very quickly into enlightened states of awareness.
In my youth, I pursued meditation to get special states and blissful feelings, and may have been part of the target audience for Bliss Music. Now, any sort of meditation practice like this (which feeds "I want to get something" while ignoring doubt and inquiry) feels like an incorrect path.

But I dunno. Maybe even the most dull-witted stab at meditation can be better than nothing. Maybe any attempt to still the mind for any reason is a necessary first step, and stuff like contemplating "What am I? Why am I alive?" can be left to arise in due time. That's how it seemed to work in my own life, anyway.

In short, how important is the technique one uses in meditation, and how much is it all about intention? I'll ramble some more about this next time.


GreenSkink said...

Is it possible for "good" intentions to lead to undesirable results? Does anyone hold intentions they recognize to be "bad"?

It seems that contemplation (meditation, whatever you want to call it) can help one see more clearly, which can help one achieve one's goals more efficiently. But it seems like moral assessments are made at a different level. Simply seeing clearly the consequences of a given action doesn't tell whether those consequences are "good" or "bad".

Doug said...

I'm reminded of a movie I saw recently, "Amazing Grace", directed by Michael Apted. It's a historical drama about the abolition movement in England in the early 1800's.

There is a minor character in this movie, a friend of the protagonist William Wilberforce, who is an elderly, blind, Franciscan-style monk. You learn part way through the movie that for much of his life, he was a slaver and slave ship owner. His accounts of the horrors of slavery provide much of the motivation for Mr. Wilberforce's actions on the abolition front.

The comparison to Mr. Karadzic isn't perfect, but the character was a touching one, nonetheless. At one point he is overcome by the guilt of his past actions, as he tries to recall for Mr. W. the explicit details. It seems his vows of poverty and devotional practice are his way of trying to make amends for the suffering he has inflicted, though he feels that he could never do enough to earn forgiveness.

Certainly people are capable of doing evil things. Assuming a person isn't mentally ill, it's a matter of choosing to ignore one's conscience. On an very far end of the spectrum you have monsters like Slobodan Milosevic & company, Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, who inflict immense suffering and seem not to bat an eyelash.

But on the opposite end of that spectrum are the little day to day occurrences in the lives of most every individual. Who can really say that they've never done something less than saintly, "consequences be damned." I know that I do. And I know that one of the things that keeps me coming back to zazen after years of practice is that the more regularly I sit, the more aware I am of my own frame of mind throughout the rest of the day, and the more likely I am to recognize and let go that little voice that says "just do it!"