Delusions and Diversions

A direct experience of death speaks to the heart in a way that philosophical musings never can.

There was a time when I was struggling with my meditation during a stay at a forest monastery on the East Coast of the United States.

I was experimenting with a wide assortment of techniques to calm my mind, but they weren’t working. I was also reading many meditation books to see whether I could discover a way to think through the problems I had when I sat.

Eventually, I sought out advice from the abbot of monastery, one of my teachers.

“I’d just stay with something simple like the breath,” he said.

The advice seemed rather rudimentary, but I grudgingly followed it, and the mind began to settle down more easily when I sat down to meditate the next time.

He was right.

All I needed to do was focus on the breath and not waste my time looking for a technique that appeared more clever or interesting.

To paraphrase what another one of my teachers — the abbot of another monastery on the other side of country — once said: You shouldn’t dismiss a solution to a problem that seems mundane or crude. It can still be effective.

Many people find reflecting on death to be a crude as well as morbid practice, but it does serve the valuable purpose of making us think more deeply about life.

It forces us to step away from our daily concerns like figuring out what to eat for lunch.

It also forces us to step away from larger social concerns like determining what’s the most pressing social issue facing the world.

It even forces us to step away from larger questions that we might assume will give meaning to our lives like: What is free will? Or what is love?

Death doesn’t invalidate any of these concerns or questions.

It simply puts them into perspective in a direct and real way that can provide better solutions to life’s conundrums.

That same teacher who spoke of crude ways to solve problems also once noted that when people move farther away from the direct experience of life, they open up the possibility of greater self-delusion.

Vincent Lim is a writer, editor and educator with many years of experience working in higher education, technology and the public sector. He first encountered the teachings of Buddhism and experienced the benefits of meditation in his training to become a black belt in Matsubayashi-Ryū, a style of Okinawan karate. Today, his Buddhist practice is inspired by the teachings of the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism.

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