There is a lovely human contradiction here.
Meditators are strung out between being primal primates and transcendent gurus.
The organic reality is that meditators sit in a complex system of nerves, juices and synapses. These biological essentials are hardwired into basic instincts for survival — for the individual and for the species. Sometimes these built-in nature drives can be bloody and harsh.
In the culture of traditional eastern meditation this is reflected in the classic Tibetan Buddhist mantra:
I am a sack of skin filled with unpleasant things.
Less harsh is the mantra:
I have a body, but I am not my body.
Softer and emotionally literate is the more modern version:
I have a body, but I am more than my body;
I have emotions, but I am more than my emotions;
I have thoughts, but I am more than my thoughts.
But these mantra pose a really interesting and substantial paradox. Who is the “I” who has all these things?
The “I” is obviously still a persona, an identity, a “me!” But this “I” is claiming to transcend and be detached from the sack of skin, the body, emotions and thoughts. This “I” is more than the flesh and blood identity.
In the Christian tradition we know only too well the problems associated with detaching from and condemning the physical body. The arising challenges range from a gentle dissociation that is harmless to others, to an uncontrollable flood of repressed, corrupt and abusive libido. This pathology of course is not restricted to Christianity, but may be found in any tradition that represses the body and its instincts.
But there is also a psychological challenge which is hardly acknowledged and requires more enlightenment. It is more subtle and has to do with status and survival. And is sometimes very destructive.
It is one of the most ordinary basic instincts in human beings. It is the survival drive that requires a stable sense of status. Where we sit in the social pecking order is a crucial element of psychological stability. We can see the politics of dominance hierarchies playing out all across the animal kingdom.
In the human species, status anxiety, and not knowing where one stands in the social hierarchy, can lead to mental illness and suicide. Moreover when someone’s status is threatened or disrespected, it can trigger powerful basic instincts of defensiveness, anger and aggression. This is the culture of gangs, bitchfests, prisons, mafiosi and dictators.
When a meditator, therefore, self-soothes and calmly observes the world around them, they transcend the usual dynamics of status and survival. In their consciousness the meditator is detached from, higher than, everyone else who is caught up in the noise, arousals and delusions. By virtue of being calm and watchful, the meditator has achieved – at least within their model of reality – a higher status.
This higher status gives them, as a biological creature, quite naturally, feelings of superiority. No wonder some meditators feel smug. At its worst the gentle smile of a meditator may be an expression of conceit.
And . . . perhaps they have genuinely achieved a higher status. Perhaps this is a positive evolutionary step onward for human beings.
If calm meditative watchfulness is a positive evolutionary step onward, then what matters now is whether the meditator has the reflective skills to understand the trickiness of the human psyche and whether they have insight into the hardwired drives of their sack of skin filled with unpleasant things. What matters too is whether they have an instinct for compassion.
Looking back at my own practice, I remember that in my twenties i was a smug meditator for a while. I did not know better and it was a stage before I developed a more insightful and loving temperament.
In fact, I now wave a flag and will assert that the experienced meditator has reached a higher stage of human evolution and development — has higher status!
But this higher status, in the context of the great ocean of cosmic consciousness, is meaningless. (Try competing with a galaxy!) As meditators experience over time, there are never-ending new and higher states of consciousness in our infinite enquiry into love, wisdom and the mystery.
Our plateau of calm awareness is but a starting point for ever more expanded states, more compassionate awareness and service.
So yes, I would have everyone on the planet able to practise the skills of calm awareness. But I would also want them to understand and appreciate the flesh and blood realities, the basic instincts of their biological creaturehood.
Meditation requires insight at all levels.
The image below is of St Simeon the Stylite who lived on top of a pillar for decades.