If meditation is supposed to be a training, a few questions arise. What are we training, what is the objective, and how do we go about training?
Meditation is a training of the mind. The reason for training the mind is because here is where the roots of our experience, our behaviour, our communication and the way we see ourselves are cultivated. The objective is to understand the openness and flexibility within the mind, and train it to become more useful, less problematic, freer and especially more beneficial. And the method is one of patience, small steps that accumulate over time bringing surprising results, felt clearly in our internal and external environment.
The training is quick to point out that our nature is very much centred on the self. This translates into our constant preoccupation in dealing with our own problems. We worry about creating the very best conditions to fulfil our needs. We try and make sure not to be lonely. We try and keep healthy. We entertain ourselves. We try to create reasons to appreciate ourselves through our work, through our opinions and through our lifestyle.
A selfish attitude is not necessarily one of greed, but a more common, all pervasive obsession in our minds with the self, the “I”. Most of everyone’s mind’s energy is focused on the needs of the self. When we look closely and honestly, it is difficult to find a truly selfless concern. It is difficult to find a single thought that has the same level of concern for someone else as we would have for ourselves.
Occasionally, we care about our loved ones, people close to us, friends and family in the same way we would care for ourselves. But we do not get the same level of satisfaction, and perhaps there is some doubt about how far we should go to be helpful. And if we think about people that aren’t so present in our lives, it seems impossible to have any sort of true concern for them. It is difficult to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is hard to use our minds for others.
We have been trained this way for a long time – to focus solely and completely on ourselves, what we can gain, what we can develop, who we will be, what others will think of us, what we are capable of, what we can show the world. We would like everyone to know our very own most original view, our most brand new opinion, our uniquely individual personality. We also want to make sure we are safe, secure, smart and cheerful all the time. We want to completely understand ourselves, make sure our lives are totally meaningful and make sure there is no space for regret in anything we do. We want to find a way to be totally free. This, we have been taught, is our mission in life.
Buddhist teachers have suggested for many centuries that this is probably not a healthy way to function in the world, and have gone to great lengths to create and develop methods of counteracting our obsession with the self, by gradually exchanging it for a deep concern for others.
The simple beginning for this training is to realize how much we have been focused on ourselves, how much we have used our intelligence, energy, wisdom, how much we have used our minds almost exclusively to work for ourselves.
Altruism begins with an awareness that our minds are capable of being trained in a more selfless way. This does not have to be a radical change, but starts with a simple thought about how you could be useful to someone else without asking for anything in exchange.