A Meditation Math Problem.

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Out beyond positivity and negativity, there is fidelity. I’ll meet you there. You may recognize the play on words of Rumi’s poem. Defying all expectations, I decided to do an article and live session on a math problem. Let’s sharpen our pencils and crunch the numbers on positivity and negativity in practice, and the delicate task of being faithful to goodness in this moment.

Not long ago, the anti-negativity sentiment in the spiritual zeitgeist peaked and has now seemed to recede somewhat. The thought seemed to be that acknowledging the negative would manifest the negative in life. Some backlash to this was justified, and at the same time, it’s wise to be careful not to overcompensate. On every side (and every angle), overripe self-righteousness is a good indicator that the argument is not about the Truth, but rather some kind of self-edification (see my article about the Tower). I was reminded recently that questions are often a better tool than declarations.

As I attempted to sneakily allude to in the title, it misses the point to over-concern ourselves with the value of positive and negative conceptions until we’ve examined another point concerning applied practice- the fidelity of the signals we’re receiving and transmitting. Good signal fidelity is what makes the contents of our minds more manifestly significant in the realm of cause and effect. A brutal tyrant with good signal fidelity will be a successful brutal tyrant; likewise, a wise king, a parent, a lover who learns to faithfully tune to the signal of his intention (whether good or bad) will be more likely to find success in his pursuits.

The term concentration, a translation of the word samadhi, is associated with stabilization. A relative of samadhi is samatha, or tranquility, and this is often portrayed as complementary to vipassana- clear seeing, or insight. I have heard an analogy of putting a telescope on a waterbed. The waterbed represents lack of concentration or tranquility. It doesn’t matter much what is coming through the glass, even if it’s crystal clear, because the base is far too unstable. And if the telescope is on firm ground but the lens is filthy, you won’t get a true picture. At this point, positivity and negativity, or even good and bad, are beyond reckoning, because the signal is no good. This is part of the reason we meditate- so that we don’t go out into the world half-cocked and righteous, having never tuned our subtle equipment.

The most quoted section of Rumi’s poem is the first two lines. Let’s look at the whole poem:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”

This feels a little like a pointing out instruction from Tibetan Buddhism, or perhaps something like a description of a samadhi state. I love the repetition of the phrase, “don’t go back to sleep.” To bring the telescope analogy back: we have stable ground, a clean lens, and a consciousness alluded to by Rumi that is consistent and awake. Although the beginning of Rumi’s poem seems to suggest a place beyond right and wrong, I wonder if this is pointing to a state of mind rather than a metaphysical truth. Consider the lines, “Don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want”. This begs the question, what do we really want? In my mind, this nullifies the subjectivity of good and evil, because don’t we all really want the good, at least on paper? Though, perhaps if the consciousness behind the lens is truly awake, goodness becomes be the obvious choice- an ongoing inquiry.

In the mindfulness instructions of Theravada Buddhism, alertness, mindfulness and ardency are applied to cultivate concentration through focus on meditation objects like the breath and body, or good will. This stabilizes the mind, and with increased lucidity the mind dispassionately discerns positive, negative, and neutral manifestations; however, ultimately what is for the good and what is not becomes a guiding principle. From the suttas: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term well-beingand happiness?” Thanissaro Bhikkhu comments: This is a heartfelt question, motivated by the desire behind all action: to attain levels of pleasure worthy of the effort that goes into them”.

To circle back to the positivity movement, goodness is not achieved by pretending wrongness doesn’t exist. In fact, at times we act in direct defiance of evil. I spoke a bit about fabrication in my last article, and I mentioned that one of the reasons we “exert a fabrication”- which basically means to do something on purpose- is to counteract inclinations of greed, hatred, and delusion. One way this is represented in Buddhist thought is through a fiend called Mara, who represents the impulses that essentially lie to us (you might say, they obscure the clarity of our lens). The lie is that fulfilling our sensual pleasure, operating through ill will, and being generally careless (ie doing things without purpose) will lead to happiness. It’s true that we can experience a temporary feeling of fulfillment when we hang with Mara. Ill will, for instance, can feel good, righteous, and provide adrenaline and dopamine aplenty; sensual pleasure has its obvious short-term appeal; and delusion is a wet sponge on the blackboard of our problem (our a math problem). The proposed truth of the path is that these things will not lead to long-term well-being, but to long-term pain and suffering.

In case you’re sensing a paradox, we don’t need to have aversion to Mara. We just need to see him clearly and intend otherwise. A poignant quote from the suttas comes when Mara is attempting to weave his webs of illusion to throw the Buddha off his game and the Buddha declares simply: “I see you Mara.” This represents the Buddha being wide awake and seeing clearly- signal fidelity. In other places in the writings, it’s said that when you’re on the path, Mara can’t see you. As far as intending outside of Mara’s weavings, what is the underlying signal that we are being faithful to? One answer is perhaps my most common phrase in my Insight Timer live sessions: the wish for well-being- a goal worthy of the effort that goes into it. For my present practice, if Rumi’s field is composed of anything, it’s this level of consciousness where the wish for well-being is the obvious choice. While there are many techniques, angles, lines of inquiry, and relinquishments in the practice, I haven’t found a better phrase yet for the through line of practice.

What brought me to spiritual life? What makes me work on my relationships, gets me sitting in meditation and contemplation? You could say, the Truth, and that would appeal to me. But if the truth was that pain was the defining characteristic of existence, would it actually appeal? While arriving at what is true may be painful at times, it’s not the underlying truth of existence, as the misconstrued phrase “life is suffering,” might suggest. The Buddha saw that everyone desired happiness, but that they were rather inept at finding it due to mistaking sensual pleasure, aversion, and delusion for a truer, deeper well-being. The “as yet unattained” is part of the goal of the practice, and by it’s nature, we don’t know it yet. It is purported to be a state beyond the truth of suffering- a suffering that is dependent on the truth of craving, which due to ignorance. As it is “yet to be attained” by me as well, I try to remain faithful to well-being as a consistent part of the equation, and I try to keep asking questions. May you all find independent happiness and well-being.

I hope you enjoyed the contemplation. Please join one of our InsightTimer Live sessions, check out some of my guided meditations on InsightTimer, YouTube or direct download from my website, markzelinsky.com, which links back to all of these things. As always, please leave feedback and questions- I love reading your input- it often inspires me for future subjects. until next time

Image by Michaela

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