Where’s the catch?

by Ramsey Margolis • onemindfulbreath.org.nz/ramsey-margolis

Someone who felt the need for a meditation practice recently got in touch with One Mindful Breath and, after taking part in a Monday evening online meditation session, the two of us had a good chat over a couple of long blacks in a cafe in Ngaio.

‘I’ve had a look through your website and its great,’ he told me. ‘Just what I’m looking for. So good I went through it all again looking for the catch. There has to be a catch, I thought. But I couldn’t find it. So where is the catch?’

That’s not such a silly question, and it’s one that a lot of people may well be pondering. After all, when I looked at how many people have expressed an interest in One Mindful Breath, it became clear that few engage with us, and even fewer go on to develop a regular meditation practise of their own. 

Empty chairs in a row

For the statistically-minded, here are some numbers. More than eight hundred people have joined our Meetup group, but I don’t believe we’ve actually met more than 40 of these. A smidgen under three hundred get our monthly newsletter, of whom perhaps 60 percent read it, and while we’ve probably met most of them somewhere between 25 to 35 people turn up to our Wednesday evening sessions, study groups and daylong retreats from time to time. Lastly, at any one Wednesday evening session we get between 8 and 15 people, depending on the weather and what else is going on in people’s lives.

So is there a catch? Yes, I think there is, and wonder if perhaps this could be it: of the four elements of the Buddha’s teachings that have been identified as uniquely his, i.e. not found in other Indian religious traditions of the time as well, one is the emphasis on becoming autonomous of others in our practice. Stephen Batchelor presents this proposition here:

‘[A] phrase you find in the early texts quite a lot: the person who has entered into the path has become independent of others in the Buddha’s teachings. And yet today so often we find this emphasis on finding a teacher, becoming devoted to the teacher, somehow almost surrendering your autonomy in order – as in the Tibetan schools would say – to receive the blessings of the lama or the guru, which to me is totally alien to the originality of what the Buddha first presented.’

Vice and immorality - Jim Champion

As well as not having gurus, for secular Buddhists there are no ten commandments, or 613 commandments, or five, eight or ten precepts, or 227 rules (for men) and 311 rules (for women). Rather than guide our behaviour with a legalistic set of ethics, we suggest to people that they develop an understanding of causality in which all phenomena arise in dependence with other phenomena: ‘if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist’. 

From this way of looking at things a kind of ethics known as situational ethics arises, and to fully get to grips with this we put in time developing a mindfulness practice in which we:

- embrace the difficulties and unavoidable aspects of the human condition
- let go of the dictates of reactivity
- stop, and experience the calm and clarity of spaciousness, and
- act, cultivating creative engagement as a way of being in the world.

Being autonomous of others and not having a guru at whose feet to sit and in whose presence to bask means we are not relying on some kind of authority to tell us what to do. For many people this is actually really hard to accept, it’s not what they want. It means that we take responsibility for our actions, how we relate to our thoughts, and our feelings. And that we don’t just read books about meditation but actually do the hard yards: practise it.

Could this be the catch he was on the lookout for?