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Something to believe

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Jun. 26th, 2013 | 06:59 am

When I met last week with the engineering student who wanted to ask me about meditation, he said that he had not been raised in a religion, and he wondered what he had been missing. He said that his father is an Italian-American Catholic who abandoned religion after he finished school. I'm not sure what tradition his mother may have come from.

In his email, this student said that he wanted to discuss Buddhism and meditation with me. I explained to him that, while I have been a spiritual seeker for a number of years, I have not been drawn to Buddhism (although I attended a few sessions at a Zen center and a Tibetan Buddhist center quite a few years ago). I told him that, in my opinion, a number of Westeners seem to be interested in Buddhism because they believe it to be rational and non-theistic. No God, no guilt, perhaps.But even without "God," people find reasons to get hung up. "Am I sitting correctly? Is my mind sufficiently free of thoughts?," etc.

When I thought back on when I was starting out as a spiritual seeker, and on what I wish someone had told me then, the thing that stands out is just how crazy the whole thing can be. One starts out by trying to just chill out and feel better, or to satisfy a curiosity, and before one knows it there is trouble with organizations, conflicts about teachings, crazy spiritual-seeker friends, and a sense that one is losing control over one's life. I gave him my copy of the first edition of Feuerstein's Holy Madness, since I'm more interested in the second edition, where he discusses Adi Da in more depth. He followed Adi Da for a while, and ultimately found that path to be unsustainable.

The student said that he went through a phase of brooding thought in high school. He was frustrated in his attempts to understand it, and talking to his parents didn't help much, either, but once he switched his major in college from business to electrical engineering and computer science, he understood that what he had been thinking about in high school was ultimately mathematics. I shared with him some of what I know about historically important mathematicians who had been mystically inclined.

Ultimately, if there was any "advice" that I gave, it was that, if one is interested in meditation, it is best to keep it simple, to sit more frequently for shorter periods of time rather than to build up dramas about trying to sit for longer periods and then not getting around to it. To take a skeptical perspective, maybe it's helpful to one's nervous system to take breaks from intellectual work now and then. Maybe it's simply good to sit still and to slow down one's breath temporarily. Maybe strenuous physical activity and partying aren't the only, or the best, ways to relieve work-related stress.

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