In meditation, every time you let go of an emotion or a thought, you are removing from yourself, going against yourself.
You believe these are your feelings, your thoughts, your ideas. Part of yourself. It is as if every time you have to cut and emotion or a thought, you have to accept to allow a tiny part of yourself to fall away and die.
So how can you drop your own feelings, your own thoughts, if you don’t have faith: faith in the teacher who has taught you how to meditate, faith in the practice itself, and faith that what you are looking for is indeed truth?
In the work of meditation, we have to learn to become detached from even every idea we have, every opinion, every view. Detached, not in the sense of being without any opinions, ideas or views, but not being sticky to any of them, not being hurt if they are criticised, not thinking of them as a fixed and permanent part of ourselves.
Without faith, however, it’s almost impossible to let go of your own idea. We’re all so sticky to our ideas, we have such a tendency to make a fixed thing, a self and an ego with them, and whatever philosophy we have carried around with us for a while, we see the whole world through the filter of this philosophy.
Detaching oneself from it is harder to do than it is to say. If you are living in modern Western society and somebody tells you something like “feminism is shit,” or if you hear somebody say something against the LGBTQ+ community, or something like “environmentalism is the new fashion, nothing more,” what does it do inside you? (My point here is not to start an argument about any of these issues, but to point out what the stickiness to ideas does to us. You feel immediately tense, irritated and you feel the immediate urge to defend your idea.)
You have to believe in something all the time, in some thought that dictates what action you do. Most of the time you believe in whatever idea comes into your head. And being trained in the habit of believing whatever idea comes into your head, you don’t give up an attachment, something you are really sticky to, without having a strong reason for doing so. You need faith in something else, something bigger, or somebody that you know is wiser than you.
This is a problem for us Occidentals, because in this western society we have a lot of trouble putting our faith in anything that goes beyond what is familiar to us and what we have already experienced.
How far does faith in the practice go?
I deliberately use the word “faith” here, a stronger word than “trust.” “I trust you,’ means only that you believe somebody is not telling you complete bullshit. Trust is indeed a good starting point; a base for building up faith. Trust is what allows you to try and follow a map around a village. Faith is when you will declare to anyone confidently that the whole map is correct, even the parts you haven’t seen.
Faith in the practice of meditation, or in somebody wise, goes further than mere trust.
To have faith in the practice is also to have faith in those who have practiced longer than you, if they have practiced properly; or who have seen more than you. If I have faith in the wise, it means that I trust the wise person more than I trust myself. If my own idea is different to his, I will drop it and follow his idea instead. Even if at first I don’t understand why; I trust I will understand later. A bit like if I’m learning mathematics and I am told to use a particular equation to solve some problem: in the beginning, I’m just blindly using the equation like a formula, without understanding how it works. But when I use it continually, I see again and again and again that it works every time I use it, and I can also start to understand why it works. I have to have some faith to try it, to practice it, to use it long enough and trust that this deeper understanding will come at some point.
Faith in the practice also means to have faith in oneself, in the possibility of changing oneself. If you understand how meditation works, how the practice works and you have strong faith in it, it means that there is no excuse for it to not work for you. You are not some kind of special case for whom the practice cannot work, there is no such thing. If you practice properly, it will work – that’s it. If it’s not working, it simply means that you are not practicing properly.
The difficulty with having faith
Why is it so hard for us, this having faith? To put one’s faith in anything bigger outside of oneself: there is a shakiness, a feeling of being unsettled, almost a fear that comes at the idea. What are we afraid of? Why are we afraid to put our faith in something beyond our own tiny bird-brain’s understanding?
We are so afraid of being wrong. Of being brainwashed. Of changing our mind, changing our ideas. We’re so sticky to our own way of viewing the world as it is now, we cannot imagine that we might see it differently. So convinced our current ideas are RIGHT, that we cannot imagine thinking differently – therefore if we end up thinking differently it’s surely because we have been hypnotised and brainwashed into it.
This is something, mind you, that applies much more to the Western world, western society, and not so much in the East. In most Eastern society it is a normal, honourable thing to have a strong faith in gods, spirits or gurus; often several at once; there is no shame or fear in having a strong faith in someone or something. It’s bizarre rather if you don’t.
Not here. In the West, the mere word “faith” conjures up images related to one particular religion that has now been rejected completely by the majority of people. After having been under its strict control for so long, this little part of the world (and really it is little) is like a rebellious teenager, not interested in anything that looks vaguely similar to the rules of its parents.
Here is a funny thing about it, though – while you have so much doubt in new ideas that go against your own, you are so reluctant to trust someone who challenges you, this doubt does not extend to things like your own mind and your own prejudices.
Who do you believe all the time?
You are perfectly happy to believe the first thought that comes into your mind, even when it causes you suffering. Let’s say your mind tells you as you are leaving your house in the car “Oh, no need to put on the seatbelt, I’m just going around the corner,” and you follow this idea. But around the corner there is a police car waiting. Now your mind says “You STUPID IDIOT! How could you have been so careless? Now I’ll get a ticket, I’ll get a fine, I’ll have problems, why didn’t I just put on the stupid seatbelt?!” And you believe this too, and you feel stupid and angry with yourself, even though it was that same mind that cheated you into not wearing the seatbelt in the first place. You continue to trust your own mind, even when it is proved to you again and again that your mind is not your friend.
You’ll trust all sorts of people who have given you no good reason whatsoever to trust them. You’ll trust enough to get into a car with a perfect stranger, or even into bed with a perfect stranger. You’ll trust the guy who tells you you’re pretty and offers to buy you a beer, you’ll trust the drug dealer that what he’s selling you is pure and not dangerous, you trust the publicity that tells you their product will make you lose weight in ten days, you’ll trust the one who acts like your friend, without testing them, without ever looking to find out who they really are.
You are quite prepared to have faith in something when it is for something that you want, something that you like, something that brings you pleasure and enjoyment. It’s only when you are brought face to face with your own demons and that you have to go against your own selfishness, your own desires, go out of your ease and comfort zone, that suddenly you are so full of doubt and questions, and unwilling to have faith. What’s that about?
Also interesting is the question of whether you know you will die.
Do you know you will die?
In theory, everybody “knows” that they will die and the life will end, but in practice, looking deep inside, do you really know it? Do you really believe it? Do you understand that no matter what you do, no matter how many more years you live and how many more things you get to do, you have to die anyway?
We are all such marvellous liars that we manage to cheat ourselves about even this, the most basic, evident fact of life. We don’t want to believe we will die.
As we do not want to believe we will die, it is natural that we have difficulty having faith in the teaching of the Buddha. After all, the entire teaching of the Buddha is based on this, which is not a view, not a philosophy, not an idea; but just a simple fact. You die, and everyone you know, everything you know, your whole universe dies with you.
Do you see the contradictory thing here? How twisted we make things? We are so reluctant to have faith in a teaching that is based on the one reality that nobody can escape, and the one reality that nobody can really believe.
We prefer to believe in the lies we tell ourselves: that we are permanent, that the things we love will always be here, that death is still always a long, long, way off, that car accidents happen only to others… rather than believing the truth. We prefer to remain ignorant of reality rather than searching for wisdom. We will trust anyone but the one who tells us the truth that we do not like to hear.
When we choose where to put our faith, where and what to believe, it should be on the base of wisdom; not the base of what pleases our ego or what is most in line with our own comfort zone.
It’s not wrong to question and test something before deciding to believe in it, it’s not wrong to be wary of entirely blind faith. But if you don’t want to have blind faith in somebody who gives you advice or in the practice of meditation, you should also decide not to have blind faith in all your own notions and ideas that you’ve been carrying with you for so long. Where did you get them? Are they all really tried and tested and true? When you cannot believe that you will die, how can you declare that the rest of what you believe is truth?