The Art of Meditation by Matthieu Ricard, Part 1
One has to start somewhere as a beginner, and I’ve decided to start here. I ordered Matthieu Ricard’s book, Why Meditate?, but while waiting for its arrival I found this video by him: The Art of Meditation. I realized if I’m going to try and explore connections between writing and meditating, I need to learn quite a bit more about meditation. The 29 minute video is geared toward a beginner audience, like me–someone who might be considering meditation but wants to understand more about it before diving in.
Why Matthieu Ricard? His new book, Why Meditate?, showed up on a search, and everything I’ve learned about him since has given me confidence in him as a teacher. He strikes me as one of those experts who’s able to translate and explain his ideas to a beginner–but without condescension. He’s a former biologist, French, who became a Buddhist monk at the age of 30, and has, in recent years, worked with the Mind and Life Institute, a collaboration between scientists and Buddhist scholars. TED, where he’s given a talk on the habits of happiness, describes his attitude toward happiness in this way: “Achieving happiness, he has come to believe, requires the same kind of effort and mind training that any other serious pursuit involves.” I’m attracted to this notion of a mental state requiring training. I’ve always known that writing required training, and, more and more, I’ve come to think the same about healing. These are processes that require effort—they don’t just happen.
Robert Chalmer, writing in The Independent in 2007, describes Ricard this way:
Matthieu Ricard, French translator and right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, has been the subject of intensive clinical tests at the University of Wisconsin, as a result of which he is frequently described as the happiest man in the world. It’s a somewhat flattering title, he says, given the tiny percentage of the global population who have had their brain patterns monitored by the same state-of-the-art technology, which involves attaching 256 sensors to the skull, and three hours’ continuous MRI scanning. The fact remains that, out of hundreds of volunteers whose scores ranged from +0.3 (what you might call the Morrissey zone) to -0.3 (beatific) the Frenchman scored -0.45. He shows me the chart of volunteers’ results, on his laptop. To find Ricard, you have to keep scrolling left, away from the main curve, until you eventually find him – a remote dot at the beginning of the x-axis.
I don’t know much about these happiness scans—or what his scan might have looked like, say, when he was twenty-five, before he became a monk—but certainly this is intriguing.
Chalmers also writes this, one of the reasons I rather like and have a tendency to trust the article:
In the foreword to Happiness, the psychologist Dr Daniel Goleman describes how a three-hour wait at an airport “sped by in minutes, due to the sheer pleasure of Matthieu’s orbit” – a phrase which had made me faintly nauseous when I first read it. Now, it seems to make perfect sense. Ricard exudes a sense of tranquillity, kindness and – surprisingly enough – humour.
Skeptical journalist won over by tranquility, kindness, and humor.
I like that Matthieu Ricard opens the video with a very basic question. This occurs after a few preliminaries, three minutes in: “Why should we bother? What’s the point of doing anything remotely like meditation?” His answer seems especially appropriate in the wake of the Winter Olympics:
You are not born knowing how to read and write, to ride a bicycle, to play chess, to play tennis, and play Mozart. That’s clear. There has been a huge amount of training, effort, sustained discipline in acquiring those skills. We absolutely agree on that. Nobody minds [going] to school for a number of years, getting professional training, and if we are interested in playing a musical instrument or becoming an athlete, to spend the necessary effort. We do that because we see ahead the potential benefit. For our health, for our pleasure, for our flourishing. And therefore we say this is worth doing.
It’s kind of strange that we assume that basic human qualities like peace of mind, loving-kindness, compassion, resilience, emotional balance, that they will be at the optimal state just like that, because we wish it so. They will be sort of the normal state, like someone who has never trained playing the piano, who has never run systematically so that they could eventually run a marathon. Yes, we know how to walk, we can run a little bit, but this is far from expressing the whole potential we have. Maybe it’s ten per cent of that potential. So would it be true exactly the same for the mind? Possibly one of our [drama?] is that we vastly under-estimate the power of the transformation of the mind.
It’s a useful analogy for beginning, I think—to compare the training of the mind with the training done by musicians and athletes. And to consider that we might have this vast untapped potential for peace of mind and resilience and emotional balance–and perhaps happiness.
And now, because my thoughts are still fresh from the Winter Olympics, I’m finding myself thinking about snowboarding on the half-pipe. The conditions this year were apparently not so great for the men’s event—bumpy and slow at the bottom, even after several men came out with hoses and sprayed down the course, aiming to smooth it out. Though I believe several athletes lodged complaints—thus the hoses appearing—a fair amount of the course conditions were out of their control. The only things they could control were how much they’d practiced going in, and what kinds of conditions they’d practiced under, and (maybe) how steady they were able to keep their mind under difficult circumstances.
Meditation as happiness training for days when the course (whatever our particular course looks like) is less than ideal?
The Independent article is here.
The video, The Art of Meditation, is here.
Ricard’s newest book, Why Meditate?, is at Amazon where I learned that: “All of the author’s proceeds from the sale of this book go to Karuna-Shechen, a humanitarian organization that he founded to provide primary health care and education for the under-served populations of the Himalayan region.”
The Mind and Life Institute has a wealth of resources at their site. They describe themselves this way: Building a scientific understanding of the mind to decrease suffering and promote well-being.
Photo is from the video.