How can you tell what’s genuine and what you really want? Sometimes we want things from a rather superficial place, or the part of ourselves that wants them doesn’t seem to have our best interests at heart. The question “What do I want?” goes to the core of meditation practice.
What Do You Want?
A Talk by John Tarrant
How can you tell what’s genuine and what you really want? Sometimes we want things from a rather superficial place, or the part of ourselves that wants them doesn’t seem to have our best interests at heart. The question “What do I want?” goes to the core of meditation practice. How we navigate, how we do course corrections, all depend on what we want. Everyone develops her own criteria for choosing what to do and where to go, such as, Is my heart opened? Is it fun? Is it alive? An operation like this is a kind of divination; we go inside knowing that the answer is in there somewhere and our attention will lead us to it. The Zen attitude is that if you find out what you really, really want, it will lead you to enlightenment. And here’s a poem by Marie Howe about the way she does it:
My Dead Friends
I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question
to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.
Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?
They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling – whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,
to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were—
it’s green in there, a green vase,
and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy’s already gone through the frightening door,
whatever he says I’ll do.
Her sense is that you can find out what you want by talking to the ancestors, the ones who have gone before us into the dark. This is one of the reasons we use koans.
Koans are gates to a particular awareness. In their world, the past and future are here and so are the ancestors. A koan always leads us into the darkness where things get interesting. This has a way of opening us up to something that we would otherwise miss. The paradox is that in order to find out what you want, you have to let go of what you think you want, and of what you think about life and who you are. The Chinese who invented the koan system often used poems as koans and we do too; you will find koans lying around all over the place. Here is a poem that could be a koan and gestures towards the stripping down process. It’s by the Polish poet, Anna Swir.
A Double Rapture
Because there is no me,
and because I feel how much there is no me.
Sometimes the self we’ve assembled, that small and difficult self, begins to lose its solidity. We get bored with its propaganda—the excuses we’re always making to ourselves, and the conversations in our head about whether we’re worthy or not, or whether somebody’s treated us well or not.
As far as I can tell, everybody has such thoughts. You walk up to a stranger and wonder what she’s thinking of you or what you think of her. You decide she’s wonderful or that she’s frightening and repulsive, and your decision depends on whether she smiled or upon a trick of the light. A person told me about walking along in meditation behind a strange man and deciding that he couldn’t stand him. Just the way the man walked was all wrong. When our schemes appear in such a simple and blatant form, it can be good, because then you can tell that what you are thinking is not real. And it’s always fun to notice that you are ridiculous.
At that moment it’s as though a wind starts to blow and it blows through that self of yours. One way to read Swir’s poem is to see it as about the moment when the wind of emptiness first comes up the valley and brushes your cheek. “Because there is no me,” might be a time of joy. There is something buoyant about seeing through your own strategies, schemes, bullshit, nonsense.
So you can come to enjoy your own nonsense, and even be exhilarated by it, and by the way you try to cover for yourself, like a kid trying to get her parents to believe that she didn’t just make that mistake. Of course you made that mistake. Being alive is the mistake in the first place, that’s its point. And it’s a valuable thing to notice that you’re still alive, that you survived making a mistake, and that being an idiot can be a good thing and that you are laughing. These things are hard to learn if you’re an expert, because an expert already knows. The self likes to be an expert and babble away on its talk show because expertise closes the world around that small self. But without all that you can be open to learning from the world.
What if you went a whole day, and you didn’t assess the worth of yourself or anyone else—what might that be like? What about a whole day where you didn’t make excuses for anything, for yourself or for other people? All those categories of worthy or unworthy, superior or inferior, aren’t relevant to the monstrousness and beauty of being human. Being human can’t be justified or explained away. When that small and difficult self starts to fall apart, the practice of meditation becomes real; it steps out of sitting, silence and the illusion of safety. It steps into the world: the office, the phone, the school. That’s the inheritance we got from the ancestors.
It is liberating to admit that though you think and believe many things that doesn’t make them true. And sometimes it’s really painful to admit their untruth. It can be hard letting go of an idea, for example that you’re not worth very much. You’d think that would be an easy one to get rid of, or even to flee. But actually we cling to it, because after all it’s an identity. My toxic thoughts keep me informed about who I am. I suffer, therefore I am.
We can notice our thoughts, and can use criteria to choose among them. And if you ask such questions as, Is it alive? Is it generous? Does it feel true? If I take it away am I different? then you are choosing among the worlds that go with the thoughts. And if you say, I’m worthless, you might notice that it’s just one of those categorical statements that is not testable in any way and can’t be true. Worthlessness might be some sort of poetic expression of pain perhaps, and the pain might feel true, but it has no value as an explanation. So some thoughts just aren’t true, and can’t be true, and other thoughts are ungenerous; they don’t open paths for us.
So I think it’s helpful to notice how much of what is going on in our heads is nonsense. It’s just spin control to create an identity that we think we need to survive, and to get approval, usually from someone who doesn’t exist. When you see through those thoughts, what you want will appear and it will look very like the Bodhisattva path, the path in which you want good things for yourself and other beings and the best good thing of all which is a genuine life, enlightenment.