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Sitting Won’t Make You Any Better (And That’s OK)

March 22, 2012

“What do you learn in meditation? Nothing!  What do you do in meditation?  Just sit.” — The Bad Lama

The Bad Lama told his meditation class about a flyer that he found in a teashop in Nepal. The flyer said: “What’s good about God?  He can create everything. What’s good about Hanuman? He can destroy everything. What’s good about Buddha?  He can sit.”

When I first heard about this flyer, it sounded to me like God got the best superpower, Hanuman got the second best superpower, and Buddha got the worst. Does it sound that way to you, too?

Our first reaction to anything we encounter – a thought, a person, a social situation —  reveals our habitual patterns of thought.  That habitual first reaction is often not particularly wise, but it is very familiar — so familiar that we feel that it must be right. But if we think deeply – if we contemplate – we can begin to understand how limited that habitual first reaction is, and we can learn to develop a wiser response.  My own first reaction to the flyer shows that I habitually give more value to creation and destruction than I do to sitting.

So let’s contemplate together.  Let’s assert that the power of unlimited creation is the best superpower. Let’s imagine that you got to pick one of the superpowers, and you picked Unlimited Creation. What would you create? Do you know the exact thing that would bring you happiness? Perhaps you should stop and consider what it is that you should create.  No fair!  Stopping and considering belongs to the power of sitting, and you’ve rejected that in favor of the Unlimited Creation.  So no considering for you — just start creating.  Go ahead and create something that seems roughly in the ballpark of what would bring you happiness.  If that’s not exactly right, you can always create something new.

But there’s the rub. You go ahead and create something and it turns out that it’s not exactly right: it could be improved. So you create something new. Maybe you manage to create something that’s pleasing for a while, but after a while you grow bored with it. You need to keep creating and creating. Your living room starts filling up with all of your creations. You have to create another room; a bigger house; a storage unit; a warehouse; an inventory system to keep track of everything you’ve created. You create so many things that you begin to feel like you’re running out of time and space. Now, you have to hire a Hanuman to destroy the vexatious creations that are cluttering up your life.

The problem isn’t that your creations won’t leave you in peace.   The problem is that you won’t leave your situation in peace. The Bad Lama defines addiction as “the inability to wait.” Addiction demands what it wants RIGHT NOW. When you become addicted to creation, you try to create immediately whatever you believe you need to be happy. When you become addicted to destruction, you try to destroy immediately whatever you believe makes you unhappy. In meditation, you can learn to drop the addiction to creation and the addiction to destruction. You can learn to sit and wait. Waiting is the antidote to addiction.

When you drop the speedy cycle of addiction, things have a chance to heal, all by themselves. Then your meditation practice will become your medicine, and you will learn why the Buddha was called “the omniscient physician.” Through sitting, situations that seemed intolerable can become bearable and even enjoyable.

Here’s a story that the Bad Lama tells:

In the time of the Buddha, there were a young man and a young woman who were deeply in love and who got married.  The young man was enraptured with his wife.  He found her beautiful.  After a couple of years, though, something changed. He noticed that her nose seemed larger than before. He found that disturbing. The more he looked at her, the larger and more repulsive her nose seemed to become.  Soon he couldn’t see anything but her nose. He began to avoid looking at her.

The wife noticed his change in behavior, and asked the husband what was wrong. He blurted out that her nose had grown so hideously large that he couldn’t bear to look at it. She had never noticed any problem with her nose.  Nobody else had mentioned a problem with her nose. But now, when she looked in the mirror, she wondered, “Could he be right?  Maybe my nose has grown huge!”

The nose crisis got worse and worse.  The husband couldn’t even be in the same room as his wife’s nose (and therefore, with the rest of her, since she was attached to her nose) and the wife felt more and more self-conscious and ashamed.  Luckily, this was in the days before plastic surgery, so rather than having recourse to rhinoplasty, they decided to ask the Buddha for a miracle.

“Please, Lord Buddha, grant us a miracle: make my wife’s nose beautiful again.”  The Buddha replied, “I don’t perform miracles.” The couple begged and begged, so the Buddha said, “I’ll help you. First, sit in meditation looking at each other for ten days, then come back to me.”

The couple returned home, and sat together gazing at one another.  They both found this very painful.  In fact, for the first few days, their discomfort got worse.  Then little by little, the husband began to see the beauty of his wife again. The wife’s feeling of shame receded, and she felt, instead compassion for her husband. At the end of ten days, they felt deep love for each other, and the nose, whatever its size, was no longer a problem.

The couple ran back to the Buddha. “Oh master,” they cried, “thank you for the miracle.” The Buddha replied, “I didn’t perform any miracle.”

When you drop your addiction to creation and destruction, situations can unknot all by themselves.  Through the practice of sitting, you realize that your discomfort is not really caused by external objects, but rather in how you are relating to them. When you realize this, you might decide that you do not need to change those external objects, and instead, you really need to change yourself! Oh, no! Watch out! If that’s your intent, you will create a new addiction to creation and destruction within your sitting practice: you will attempt to destroy your old, unsatisfactory self and create a newer, better self!

The Bad Lama warns, “If someone practices meditation in order to become a better person, that person will inevitably fail.” From the Buddhist point of view, nobody is a “bad person;” people only commit bad actions because they are confused and overwhelmed by their addictions. If you’re an addict, you don’t need to be punished or improved; you need help in kicking your addiction. You need the time and space to heal.

As a result of this healing, you can engage in your life with a mind less distorted by addictions. When your mind is less distorted, your actions tend to be more skillful, and as a result you experience less suffering, and more happiness. Improvements in your life will happen as a result of sitting, but these improvements arise because you have allowed the space and time for healing to take place, not because you became a better person.

Drop the addiction to creation and destruction, and just sit. You can learn to be comfortable and even happy in uncomfortable situations, and you can let creation and destruction take place naturally.  You don’t have to be God and you don’t have to be Hanuman.  You can let God be God, let Hanuman be Hanuman, and just sit like a Buddha, appreciating the beautiful display of creation and destruction.

Here’s one more story that the Bad Lama likes to tell:

A student comes to his teacher and says, “I have a question.”  The teacher replies, “Just sit.”  The student comes back later and says, “”I have a problem.”  The teacher replies, “Just sit.” The student returns and says, “I want to share something with you.” The teacher replies, “Just sit.”   The student doesn’t come back for a long time after that. Eventually the teacher gets concerned (he is, after all, a compassionate teacher). So he goes to check up on the student, and asks, “Do you need any help?”  The student replies, “No, sitting is enough.”

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