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April 3, 2012

“I can’t teach you how to meditate.” – The Bad Lama

The bad lama defines addiction as “the inability to wait.” These days, we rarely have to wait for information.  Would you like to know the current weather in Madrid, the schedule for the Boulder Skyride or the name of the fifth President of the United States? A ten-year-old with internet access could find the answers to these questions in seconds.  Digital access makes information available almost immediately, so why wait? It’s easy to fall into an addiction to information.

But how could gathering information be a problem? More information is better, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we try to be as informed as possible? The problem is that while we’re busy gathering information, we may fail to take useful action.  We can become so busy learning about an activity that we never undertake the activity at all. This conflict – gathering information versus taking action – isn’t a modern problem (although technology exacerbates it); the Buddha himself told a story about it. In this story, a man has been wounded with an arrow smeared with poison.  A surgeon arrives to remove the arrow, but the wounded man declares that he won’t allow the operation to take place until he has gathered “pertinent” information. He has a list of questions: What was the caste of the person that shot the arrow?  What did that person look like? Where was he from? What kind of bow did he use? What was the bowstring made of?  What kinds of feathers were notched into the arrow? Of course, the patient dies before his questions are all answered. (You can find the full text to this story in the Culamalunkya Sutta, translated by Bikkhu Bodhi in his text In the Buddha’s Words, p 233)

There is a lot of information available about meditation. There are books, and blogs and lectures and workshops. We can spend a lot of time reading and talking and thinking about meditation.  We can develop a list of questions that we would like to have answered before we begin sitting. We can become so interested in learning about meditation that we fail to sit.

No doubt, a little information is useful: information may help lead us to sitting.  A traditional Buddhist analogy says that instructions are like a finger pointing at the moon. If we get addicted to gathering information, it’s like becoming so obsessed with the finger that we never look at the moon.

So remember to sit. Put it in your schedule. You can’t learn sitting by reading or discussing or listening to lectures.  You can only learn sitting by sitting. No one can teach you sitting; no one can sit for you; you just have to go ahead and sit.

Just sit.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Katharine permalink
    April 5, 2012 5:24 pm

    I like it a lot!!! I will sit.

  2. Nicholas Barth permalink
    April 9, 2012 9:22 pm

    I have often thought about the effects of the wikisphere. My adult development has mirrored the proliferation of information available on the internet. it seems like while there is knowledge and facts concerning everything imaginable, there is little understanding. I remember losing myself from my tiny dorm bed in college to the maze of hyperlinks weaving through wikipedia. Just type “idea” into its search engine and there are thousands of opportunities to follow a chain of associations. From “idea” to “Plato” and “reality” and finally “Rocky Mountains!” But while all this information is instantly apparent and fun, there is little to make sense of how it relates with other ideas.

    Where is the wisdom in the internet? While we have plenty of information at our hands, how make meaning from/with/through it seems to be slipping away. Unfortunately I am reminded of my high school education: in many classes we learned facts to recite later on a test. Rare teachers would introduce their own organic method or theory that stood out from the facts as a living matrix/schema of making sense.

    So with all this information, where is the sense in it?

    • April 9, 2012 9:29 pm

      Yes. Good point, Nicholas. We could say that there is an endless stream of data points available to us online, and little wisdom. Wisdom, I would assert, comes from the integration of information (or knowledge) and experience. Experience happens in the here and now, and that is what sitting acquaints us with.

  3. Jeff Shaw permalink
    April 23, 2012 12:21 am

    For a long time, I maintained the notion that the collective-neurosis of our species could be attributed largely to the proliferation of the mass media — particularly of the internet. I wrote a paper on it, once. It has undoubtedly made matters worse. But, as the story you bring up from the Buddha demonstrates, this is an ancient condition of the human conceptual mind.

    It’s easy to appreciate the simplicity and endurance of the treatment for the addiction to information. Throughout the centuries, throughout the immense changes in human culture, it has remained exactly the same: Just sit.

    I definitely have a recurring addiction to information. I can be lost for hours and hours online, amassing vast amounts of information and then never doing anything with it. This happens quite often, unfortunately. It would be one thing if I was gathering information on something that I had definite plans to have an experience with…but all to often, this is not the case. Just pure info-binging.

    I appreciate the advice you give about putting sitting into your schedule. It is so easy for me to say: “I’ll sit when I have time.” Or: “I’ll just sit when I feel like it.” All too often, this type of thinking results in no sitting at all. It’s time to amp up the discipline and pencil in some sitting time.

    -Jeff Shaw

    • April 24, 2012 2:39 pm

      I really like the term “info-binging.” It nicely describes the compulsion to devour just one more (wafer-thin?) fact. And I would say that the proliferation of mass-media is more of a result of our desire to amass information rather than a cause of it.

      Good luck putting sitting in your schedule!

  4. May 1, 2012 9:38 pm

    Bikkhu Bodhi makes a pertinent comment on this topic in his book The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering. In this quote, he’s talking about abstaining from idle chatter, which is part of the practice of right speech.

    The traditional exegesis of abstaining from idle chatter refers only to avoiding engagement in such talk oneself. But today it might be of value to give this factor a different slant, made imperative by certain developments peculiar to our own time, unknown in the days of the Buddha and the ancient commentators. This is avoiding exposure to the idle chatter constantly bombarding us through the new media of communication created by modern technology. An incredible array of devices — television, radio, newspapers, pulp journals, the cinema — turns out a continuous stream of needless information and distracting entertainment the net effect of which is to leave the mind passive, vacant, and sterile.

  5. November 8, 2012 5:21 pm

    I think this brings up a really great point that I’ve encountered many times. Great post.

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