Or What Stars Wars taught me about meditation
My previous article, Why Meditation is so hard had one comment that resonated with a lot of people:
We are stuck in the space between hell and heaven. The Light has come, so we can’t go back to the old ways. But the monkey is also still there, so we don’t feel peaceful either.
This is the worst state to be, because you feel you have lost the material world, but not yet gained the spiritual.
My Own Struggle
At one point, I loved video games. I could easily spend hours stuck in a game.
Then I grew bored with them– I felt they were exactly like real life, exactly like work, in fact. You do a lot of pointless actions that lead to pointless results. Kill zombie, move to 2nd floor, kill bad guys, get key, rinse and repeat. I felt the games were like life– a lot of routine and mechanical grinding work for no real benefit. Soon, I had dozens of games I had paid, but never finished.
I also was writing books, novels and trying to build a business, but all these things started feeling hollow to me. I was like, why am I doing this? I had started all of it to make money, become famous, to Be The Man™, but it all felt fake and meaningless.
The Dissolution of the Ego, and it’s Attempt to Recreate Itself
Meditation leads to a weakening (and eventual dissolution) of the ego– and by ego I mean the attachment to our routine thinking mind. The mind starts thinking it is the boss, and starts bullying the body and other thoughts around, which leads to most of our problems.
In my own example, I used to think I was this Stud Muffin Writer / Programmer / Soon to be Millionaire Businessman™. I couldn’t sit quietly for 2 minutes- I always had to be doing something. And boy was my productivity high. I was writing novels, a popular blog, selling online courses. I could do anything…
… except sit quiet for 2 fucking minutes. Anytime I tried to meditate, I would get angry. As in, mouth frothing mad dog angry. I tried to power through it, but now realise this is a horrible way. A better way (if meditation makes you angry) is to practice compassion and self-love, but that is another topic.
So recently, when I started losing my interest in all things I did, I felt I was going mad. As I told my wife, if I am not a writer / business guy, what am I?
And so I felt lost and hopeless. I had lost all my interests, but had not gained any spiritual benefits. I still felt fucking miserable.
And this is a big problem– meditation weakens the ego, it’s hold on the body/mind, but the ego fights back. It has been the boss for so long, it ain’t gonna give up just cause you chanted Om shanti shanti a few times.
And this is another problem many meditators face. Marketing tells them meditation should make them feel all lubby dubby, floating the in the air giving hugs to strangers. In practice, they feel shit. This is because there is a huge gap between marketing and the hard truth on the street. Meditation is a not a pill you can pop to cure your depression, no matter what all those best selling books say!
And so the ego tries to trick you:
- It makes you feel hopeless and lost
- You might feel you are going crazy
- You might feel everything is an illusion, that nothing matters anyway (which if true, why do you feel so miserable? The ego has no answer, only doubts)
Many people give up. I have given up too. Giving up is ok, because your inner self will not let you quit that easy; it will always bring you back, gently and slowly.
The Battle Between Passions and Peace
And so we come back to our original problem. What do we do when we lose the material world, but haven’t gained the spiritual world?
As I said, meditation, over time, leads to a weakening of the ego. The ego is our identification to the non-stop stream of thinking.
The problem is— the mind wants something to “identify” with, something external. So it will keep trying to create an identity for you, and feel depressed. The hopelessness and groundlessness you feel is not you, it is the mind. The mind feels out of control and helpless.
The mind wants something to grab on to, something to hold, something to give it stability. That is why it is so scared all the time, because ultimately, there is nothing to hold on to. The ego, like I’ve written before, is like a soap bubble floating in the sun. It has no existence, it can pop anytime, and worst of all (from the ego’s viewpoint), it knows this.
And so the ego is scared all the time. It fights your meditation, it throws a tantrum anytime you make any progress, it makes you think you are crazy, or losing it, or wasting your time.
And we haven’t even talked about passions.
What Stars Wars taught me about meditation
Go on, Luke, give in to your passions. Give in to the hate, and you will be with the Dark side — a dude called Palpatine
For a long time, I couldn’t understand why the Emperor walked Luke to give in to his passions.
Nowadays, passion means good things. Silicon Valley wants you to be “passionate” about your job, by which they mean be willing to work overtime without extra pay. We are expected to “follow our passions”, and you are screwed if your passion is something that doesn’t make money, like collecting stamps or writing poetry. No, your passion has to be about something the market wants, like Jabbascript programming or accounting or family law. Yawn.
But passion originally meant suffering. Check the dictionary. The “Passion of the Christ” is not a story about how Jesus built a Web 2.0 blog using FaceTube.
Passions, if you read the original Greek Stoic texts, are run away emotions that take over us. They happen most commonly during meditation— if you have felt really angry or depressed or emotional during meditation, those are passions. We usually keep them suppressed by distracting ourselves, but they jump up and take over the mind anytime we are vulnerable, like hungry or tired, or when we try to sit quietly.
So the Emperor wasn’t asking Luke to work on his passion to build a WordPress blog; he was telling him to let his wild emotions, raw anger and fear, take over, and let them rule his life.
We have all heard of examples of this. Anytime you hear of someone killing another person in a road rage incident, they gave in to their passions. Their emotions went out of control and took over the mind. The rational mind became a passenger at this point. It could complain, but it wasn’t the one driving.
You have felt the passions too– anytime you have screamed at a loved one, spouse, parents or children, and almost or completely destroyed your relationship. You may have later felt ashamed, feeling like you had been possessed by a demon.
And you were. This demon is the monkey, plus all the pent up rage and emotions you have been suppressing your whole life. At some point, all that shit just blows up.
And that is the 2nd reason meditation is so hard. We have been suppressing our emotions, suppressing the monkey within us so long, he waits when we are weak and vulnerable and strikes back.
Like I said in the previous post, you have to make peace with the monkey, not fight him.
One way to control passions is to practice compassion and self-love. All real spiritual paths have compassion or service as a core tenet. Buddhists have metta, Hindus have kshama/seva, while Christianity was based on forgiveness (no comment on how well these religions do this in practice).
Compassion and forgiveness is what brings the monkey under control, because they are the things he cannot fake; the monkey (or ego) can pretend to be a great enlightened guru, he can give inspiring speeches, and be all spiritual; but he can never show compassion or forgiveness. And hence never feel peace.
Compassion is the Key to Fast Meditation
The mind is like a hot stove, red hot with heat. It burns you, causes you discomfort, but you can’t turn off the heat.
Meditation is the key to cooling the mind– meditation is what turns the heat off.
Compassion is like sprinkling cold water with your fingers on the stove. It speeds up the cooling process. You don’t need compassion, but without it the journey will take a lot longer.
Which is why meditation can’t be something you “do” for an hour each day, then go about your normal life. Meditation is something that must be done throughout the day (to the best of your ability, remembering that self shaming is a weapon of the ego, and self-compassion is the best form of compassion).
Once you stop putting in heat into the mind (in the form of angry / hateful thoughts), the mind will eventually cool down, giving you the peace you want. It just takes time.
Read more in the Series on Meditation