A meditation practise can sometimes feel a little isolated and even at times a little insular. This is an activity that can seem like a retreat from the world or at least from the demands and distractions of others. For some people this can be one of its attractions and there is a lot to be said for bringing a little bit of attention back to our own quiet experience in the midst of a chaotic world. For all that we might want our practise to take us away from too much distraction and noise, we are social creatures and in our interdependent existence we still need to relate and cooperate with our fellow humans.
How then can we make our meditation part of our social lives? What is at the heart of our contemplative endeavours that brings us into greater connection with those around us? The answer to these questions is in some ways the most interesting part of the path of self enquiry. Most traditions that have emphasised contemplation have also made a strong case for social engagement. The Quakers, a christian sect formed in the 17th century were often called ‘active mystics’ because, although they practised quietude and silent worship, they were also some of the more radical social reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Sufis, a mystical sect within Islam, although believing a non-materialistic view of reality, see charity as one of the three pillars of their faith and have a string of organisations to help the poor around the world.
In Buddhism, in which there is an immensely sophisticated matrix of meditational activities, we still find a great emphasis on matters of the world and how we might best engage with others. The noble eightfold path, which is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, creates a relationship between meditation, action and ethics . In fact, in explaining this noble path when teaching his followers, the Buddha used a very worldly metaphor as an illustration. As recorded in the Nagara Sutta in the early Pali scriptures he talks of a lost city with an overgrown path leading to it. This path he likens to the noble eight fold path which a person could follow – he continues…
‘Following it, they would see an ancient city, an ancient capital inhabited by people of former times, complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. They would go to address the king or the king’s minister, saying, ‘Sire, you should know that while traveling along a wilderness track I saw an ancient path… I followed it… I saw an ancient city, an ancient capital… complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. Sire, rebuild that city!’
In this imagery, the path to awakening is seen as something to be cleared of obstacles, a path that others have traveled in the past but now must be re-instated. Most unusually the Buddha uses the image of a city as the fruit of travelling this path. The city, although neglected, is already there, it just needs to be revived and maintained. In this teaching the Buddha gives a simple model of human flourishing. It is a social vision as powerful as any by Marx or Mahatma Ghandi. It asks us to see the eight spokes of the dharma wheel; our beliefs, our intentions, our actions, our speech, our livelihoods, our efforts, our mindfulness and our focus as the grounding for a new society.
This puts meditation at the heart of what it means to be civilised and a key component in creating a culture of awakening.
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