by Michael W. Taft
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The lines of the famous Serenity Prayer (written by Reinhold Niebuhr) suggest that there are two types of situations in life: those we can change and those we cannot. If we look carefully into the practice of meditation, we’ll see that it can be applied to both of these types of situations. (I won’t comment on the role or non-role of a deity in any of this, despite one being featured in the original prayer.)
Some forms or orientations of meditation are meant to improve something about your life, such as your concentration, your creativity, your connection with others. Other orientations are about the second situation—working with the difficult things in life that cannot be improved.
Changing the Things that Can Be Changed
Even though both of these situations can be addressed with meditation, the funny thing is that they require an almost opposite way of approaching your practice. In the first version, there is more of a “coaching” or “therapy” relationship with meditation. You come to the practice with various goals, such as wanting to improve your ability to cope with intense emotions, and you choose a technique which will help specifically with that aspect of life.
As the weeks, months, and years of meditating unfold, you check periodically to determine whether your practice is or is not actually helping you to achieve that goal. It’s part of a plan to make your life better in various ways, and actually giving you good tools to do just that. In this case, meditation is working like therapy or life-coaching to improve what can be improved. It’s a legitimate and powerful use of meditation that can be super effective.
Although this relationship to meditation is very useful, I’d like to suggest that it’s nothing compared to the second type.
Awakening to Life
This second orientation towards your practice is all about understanding that there are some situations that cannot be fixed, improved, or solved. You will age and grow old, and nothing can change that. People you love will die, sometimes horribly, and nothing can change that. You will make awful mistakes, and you cannot turn back time, and nothing can change that. You know, the human condition. Meditation, at its best, is for working with these types of issues. And by “working,” I mean, coping with them. Learning to deal with the flaming pile of wreckage and despair we call our lives.
Meditating with this emphasis doesn’t actually improve your life, or make you better at anything. Well, those things might happen as side effects, but they are not the point of this way of working. To go down this path, you have to let go of the idea that you are improving anything at all.
Instead, you are slowly coming into relationship with what is called the “mystery”—which is just one way of talking about that unknown edge of the present moment. When you go in this direction, you must become completely hopeless, because nothing can actually solve the deep problems in life. This is what Pema Chödrön calls the “wisdom of no escape.”
Hopelessness in this sense is a kind of total acceptance of the reality of life. You have to let go of any fantasies of being saved by Heaven, or Nirvana, or the Buddha nature. None of that is probably going to happen. Nothing at all can save you. You have to let go of hopes of light and super consciousness and bliss. Renounce such fantasies forever. Believe nothing.
Meditation is a powerful way to engage the mystery, but don’t think of it as a path.
You also have to let go of any fears of how pointless or meaningless everything is. Let go of your hiding in the darkness. The darkness is a great antidote to illusions, but it can itself become just another illusion. A kind of mirror image of the light—an inverse heaven—and is equally a dream.
So you embrace the darkness, but don’t become attached to it. Instead, when you become hopeless, you become fearless. Another way to say this is that you when you renounce nihilism you also renounce eternalism; when you forgo Hell you also forgo Heaven. Instead, you stand within the mystery of existence, totally naked and totally open to whatever comes next. And you don’t know what comes next. You are just awake and alive to the present moment. This is the real meaning of awakening, of liberation. It won’t improve your life in any way. It won’t fix anything. It won’t save you. And yet it is utterly unavoidable if you’re paying attention, staying open, feeling your way into being.
Getting The Cosmic Joke
Meditation is a powerful way to engage the mystery, but don’t think of it as a path. There is no reliable path to such deep acceptance of life, because it is different for each person. It is even different each day for each person. If it were predictable or definable, it wouldn’t be the real thing. Instead you must find it anew for yourself every single day, every naked second. Your meditation simply opens you up to the possibility of the moment. It is wild, it is fresh, and it cannot be gamed, or played, or tricked. In the end, the joke is always on you.
It’s the Cosmic Joke, and the secret is to laugh; to truly laugh from a place of freedom from hope and fear. If you fake it, you are dead on the spot. If it’s real, the laughter itself is life and liberation. Being truly alive in the moment.
laughing buddha photo by Sabrina Ariana
leonard cohen portrait by Bill Strain
laughing woman by Nathan Siemers