The Reality I Want

January 18th, 2010

We were about three hours into the Buddha’s Enlightenment sitting–a retreat that starts at 8 PM and ends at 4 AM, commemorating Buddha’s awakening under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya–when I experienced my ironic reversal.

Beginning meditators sometimes think they’ll stop feeling resistance after a few months, maybe a few years. But it really never goes completely away. In the middle of a retreat, doing sitting periods of about 30 minutes with periodic breaks to stretch, I find myself getting expectedly sore and uncomfortable. Observing my thoughts arise and letting them go, I still find that one recurring thought is, “How soon until that bell rings? How soon until I get a break? Come on, like, now!”

But then every once in a while I have a sitting where I get into the zone, and when the bell rings, my mind goes “NO! Not yet! I was in the zone! I could totally do ten more minutes!” That’s what happened around 11 PM on Friday.

It led me to an insight, and I’m worried it will sound too pithy here. I examined my own relationship with preferences, and noticed: I assume that my preferences have some influence on reality. I assume that if reality doesn’t bend to my preferences, something must be wrong. And the insight is that reality has never bent to my preferences, will never bend to my preferences, really can’t be bothered with my preferences. In reality, 30 minutes is 30 minutes, regardless of whether I’d prefer it to be longer or shorter.

Our preferences might be the most immediate mental force we have, and so it stands to reason that we assume they have some power. Some people even sell trashy self-help books that suggest if you stick really hard to your preferences, if you really picture reality becoming exactly the reality you’d prefer, then it’s all going to line up.

There are big problems with this if you stop and look at it. Problem #1 is that despite being immediate and demanding, our preferences are also unstable. At 8 PM, I decided that I’d prefer being at a Buddhist retreat to being at a movie theater or a bar or at home. By 11 PM, I was thinking maybe I’d prefer something else. This problem is compounded when we meddle with our own hindsight. If in June you decide you’d prefer to be married then by October think you’d prefer to be single, you might talk yourself into believing that you never really wanted to be married in the first place. So we’re bound to be unsatisfied if we expect reality to bend on cue for us, especially when we keep changing the cues.

Problem #2 is that we think that preferring alone is enough to do the job, when sometimes preferring isn’t even enough to break through our own junk. If I strongly want to be a professional singer/artist/athlete/whatever, but that doesn’t motivate me to practice… how can my preference bend reality when it can’t even bend my own habits? If I’d prefer for a publisher to love my book enough to sell it in every Barnes & Noble in the country, then I have to believe in my book to get it to every publisher who might consider it. The strength of my preferences makes me think that preferring is enough–that my wishes will come true if I wish them hard enough.

Problem #3 is that we’re actually–at this time and place in history–more likely to have our preferences humored than any time before. If you have air conditioning and heating, you have something that bends to your preferences in the way that most humans throughout history could only dream of. But does that give us the illusion that our own ideal reality is attainable–that if it’s not here today, it will surely be here tomorrow?

We have preferences, and they exist, and we acknowledge them. We just know, through meditation, that we’re searching for reality. We can’t let preferences get in the way of that.

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