In our western society, there is a popular misperception which leads people to view meditation as a kind of escapism… like you’re escaping from reality by “allowing your thoughts to drift away.”
But what exactly is it that you’re escaping INTO, when you stop holding on to your thoughts? Where do you go, when you leave the world of your mind?
From a meditative point of view, REALITY is what we perceive around us, with our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and body. When we are lost in our thoughts, we miss out on noticing it… the reality of EXISTENCE ITSELF. The existence of every rock and tree and creature… the existence of the air, the space, the energy around us… and the Fabric of Existence that underlies it all. It’s all right here in front of us, around us, inside us… an awesome miracle of Existence (as opposed to non-existence). And in those moments in which we are able to perceive it, the power of this simple and awe-inspiring realization knocks us on our asses and makes us go “WOW.” Some might call this “enlightenment,” or “a spiritual experience.”
But sometimes, the world scares us. Sometimes the REALITY of EXISTENCE ITSELF is unsettling. Everything is always CHANGING. The future is slowly but surely becoming the present… every time a moment passes. The clock is always ticking. And somehow we know, deep down inside, that we are only here for a limited time. So, to deal with this “mortality anxiety” that comes from perceiving the always-changing, always-flowing nature of reality, we ESCAPE INTO OUR THOUGHTS, where we have the illusion of stability and control. In our heads, we have plans, and strategies, and rules… our little ways of pretending that we can control the flow of nature. It makes us feel like we “know what we’re doing,” that we are stronger than the tides of change.
[Welcoming and making peace with the always-changing nature of reality is an integral part of Buddhist practice; impermanence (anichang) is one of the three “characteristics of existence” that Buddhists meditate upon. But that is a subject for another article.]
From a meditative point of view, THINKING is the true escapism. Thinking pulls the attention into the mind, an illusory world of images, thoughts, memories and fantasies. The things inside your head aren’t “reality;” they are, literally, figments of your imagination. You can use those thoughts and fantasies as tools to CONTROL reality, but believing them to BE reality itself is quite a mixed-up state of affairs.
The mind is the stuff of DREAMS. When you are awake, you can see through the dream just clearly enough to be able to watch where you are walking, navigate through city streets as you drive, and interact with other living beings. When you close your eyes at night, you shut all of those REAL things out, and all you’re left with is the dream of your mind (which we simply call “dreams”).
Through meditation, we practice using the breath as an “anchor” into the REAL WORLD. We use our attention to PEER THROUGH THE CLOUDS OF THOUGHT, and see outside of the dream of mind. In a way we are “waking up” into the reality of existence around us. It’s like trying to wake up from a dream. Even if you realize you’re dreaming, the more absorbed you are in the world of the dream, the harder it is to find the doorway back into reality. You’re not going to find a big wooden door labeled “Wake Up.” Because the doorway isn’t in the dream. The doorway lies in transcending the dream. The doorway lies in opening your eyes and seeing through the clouds of mind that — at night — we call “dream.”
This is what meditation does; it is the doorway into wakefulness (or “enlightenment”), from the dream of mind. It is a practice that allows us to get back into direct contact with reality.
I can’t think of anything that’s LESS like escapism than that.