Saturday, September 24, 2011


I'm sitting in a patisserie in Brighton. The morning sun floods a white light into the wide street. Some people are reading, some talking, some chatting. In a little while, I'll walk up the hill and join the others, to sit in peace and learn a little.

Sometimes I imagine the mind as a little democracy inside a person. When things are going well, when we are busy but not too stressed, then every element works together without too much disharmony. But when something goes wrong - maybe there is not enough food, or an internal imbalance - then the parts of ourselves start to argue and work against each other. This can also happen when things are very quiet - just as too much peace can make a democracy mischievous, so quiet conditions can make parts of the mind start to work against each other. Instead of viewing ourselves as a single individual, perhaps we can view ourselves as a little population of hundreds of different motivations. When there is something to do or achieve, they all work together. When there is nothing to do, they can start to argue a little.

Meditation is a quietening of the mind. So we shouldn't be surprised if, when we are quiet, the different elements of the mind start to talk and argue between one another.

Many meditative traditions focus on discipline. I was reading about some Buddhist methodologies last night, and was surprised at how intricate and detailed some of the systematic approaches were. They all had strange-sounding names, lots of different levels and paths, and a recommended 'order of events' to make sure people developed in the right way. I was puzzled by the dogma, by how prescriptive it seemed to be. I asked a monk, a teacher, why there was so much of it. He suggested that I thought of it, not as a required way, but as a suggested structure.

"A mental model, you mean?"
"Yes, if you like, a mental model."

This I can relate to. We have a lot of models in the scientific tradition - ways to approach truth, but none of them being the truth itself. They are just ways of disciplining ourselves so that we can develop.

I guess that's why some system is helpful in meditation. Without it, we are left to our own resources, and can easily end up in a battle with ourselves, with nothing to keep the internal chatter in harmony. Perhaps the disciplines of meditative traditions are like the rules of a peaceful society - not primarily there to control us, but to enable our parts, our 'inner population', to work together constructively.

I suppose that's why meditation is good for you. It enables you to be at peace when you are quiet. It gives you a way to keep all the elements of your 'internal population' in harmony, even when there is no external need to bind them together. A peaceful integrity.