The Meaning of Meaning (2)

It would be one thing if our unmet need for existential closure meant only that we had occasional unsettling attacks of meaninglessness, or a vague cloud of doubt hanging over our heads as we went about our daily lives. But unfortunately this nagging psychic unease also interferes with us just getting done our day-to-day business as normal human beings, as if we were lugging around a 20-pound sack of potatoes everywhere we went. For all the design flaws in the whole homo sapiens mind-body system that the messy evolutionary process has bequeathed to us, we basically work remarkably well. We’re endowed with well-functioning instincts and behaviors. We’re lithe. But the bag of potatoes bogs us down, gets in our way, disrupts our rhythm, saps our mojo, puts us off our game.

Then there’s a second order effect which is that our inability to find the big pattern we crave saps our confidence. We can’t find it–so maybe there’s something wrong with us! Maybe there’s other patterns we’re missing! Maybe other people have found the pattern and we’re inferior to them! This fear, this complex is yet more sand in the gears. If the basic existential pain is not sufficient motivation for us to try to do something about the problem, this negative effect on our basic functioning certainly is.

So let’s say that you buy in to this model I’m proposing. Well, a model is merely another name for pattern. So congratulations, you’ve now got a pattern which describes your inability to find patterns. We’re used to patterns leading to “solutions” or “answers” or at least “workarounds”. So just “getting” this meta-pattern will bring us to closure, right? Unfortunately not. No more than a schizophrenic’s detailed understanding of their own problem—often much more incisive than that of the professional treating them– allows them to solve it. We need to deal with the problem or addiction at its root, which cannot be done at the level of intellectual understanding, which is just another word for patternizing. A pattern cannot help us understand why we cannot find a pattern.

Essentially what Dogen or the Zen guys discovered or inherited is a physical process to treat the addiction to finding meaning. It’s a very particular type of therapy, the precise working of which is unknown to us, although there has been quite a lot of interesting research. The therapy involves sitting in a particular position with body aligned just so and guiding your “thoughts” in a particular fashion, where by thoughts we primarily mean the mental processes that are oriented towards pattern-finding and pattern-matching. Like any therapy, progress is gradual, and may pause, or occur in spurts. The end result is freedom from the compulsion to find meaning, via a particular transformation in brain chemistry or process of neurogenesis which has not yet been elucidated.

God forbid that this therapy would interfere with the patterning abilities that are critical for our basic functioning as human beings. But it can, of course, and does, so that at some points during intensive self-therapy the practitioner may temporarily lose the ability to discern patterns such as those that are needed to, say, drive a car, or even recognize a cat. But the therapy is immensely self-correcting, so that we quickly re-learn the basic patterning abilities we need, while losing the obsessive need to pattern.

Dogen provides an excellent introduction in Bendowa. Until you’ve reached an advanced state of practice, you don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, read anything else. Any urge you feel to read another book which you hope is going to provide you with another intellectual pattern fix, you should act on by just sitting instead. In one excellent translation, Dogen could not be clearer (although most translators manage to make an incomprehensible muddle out of this), “The enlightened ones bring us a simple message about a precious truth: the sublime, unique, natural technique for reaching ultimate awareness. Offered to each seeker in turn, its unadulterated essence is the self-fulfilling meditative state called samadhi. The most immediate way to start enjoying this state is to sit, erect, in the form of meditation known as zazen. This practice is the only way to bring out the intrinsic truth overflowing in all of us, to validate that truth and thus make it our own.”

Here it is again, sitting erect. We don’t know the exact physiological basis for this, but it most likely has something to do with an alignment of the spine and the brain stem. The sitting posture, if done properly, also removes distracting external and internal physical stimuli. When you’re sitting in the zendo (meditation hall) at a Zen dojo, someone is likely to come along and either whack you on the shoulder with a stick to remind you to sit up straight, or even grab you and physically adjust your posture, such as moving the position of your head or chin. Dogen provides further guidance on posture, including things like the position of the tongue in your mouth, in Fukan Zazengi.

Buddhism, then, at least in its Zen incarnation, has nothing to do with religion as we commonly think of it. Zen is at least as far removed from the Buddhism practiced in Thailand, let’s say, as Scientology, it is essentially a form of mental/physical therapy. We should probably not even call it Buddhism. It might even be better not to call it Zen. “Sitting therapy” would be more accurate.

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