“I come to see it for what it is: a ceaseless swirl of mental flotsam and jetsam outside my willful control.”
“All of humanity’s problems stem from one’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal
When I sit quietly in a room alone—something I do each day as part of my meditation practice—something odd happens: I peer into my own madness.
My madness consists of all the thoughts and feelings that flit unceasingly through my head; all the images and ideas, memories and emotional sturm und drang (storm and stress) that congeal to form the self I present to myself and the world. Put simply: My madness is me.
When I watch this madness, I come to see it for what it is: a ceaseless swirl of mental flotsam and jetsam outside my willful control. I have no idea why some idea pops into my head, and no idea why it fades away as another idea takes its place.
I’d like to say I choose what to think and how to feel, but the fact is I only know what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling after I’ve already thought and felt it. For all the spiritual talk of being present, my experience of myself reveals that the self I call myself is a product of the past. In fact, in those rare moments when “be here now” is a reality, there is no “I” to know it.
As I observe the madness of self I begin to wonder: “Who is observing all this?” If what I am observing is “me,” who is the not-me observing it?
There was a time when I would have identified this not-me as the Atman or True Self, but I’ve come to realize that this observer is simply a more subtle projection of the mad me. Who realizes this? An even more subtle projection of the mad me. The observer and the observed are always of one piece.
But is there something beyond observer/observed? If I say “yes” or if I say “no” I am still locked into self. So, without reference to “yes” and “no,” without taking the position of mad self or True Self, what is the answer?
To answer this, all I-centered thought must cease, and when it does all language gives way to silence: There is awareness but nothing to be aware of and no one to be aware of it. There is knowing without knower or known. Even saying this implies a subject, however subtle, but that is the limitation of language and not the phenomenon itself.
What does all this have to do with Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity’s problems stem from one’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”? Just this: All our problems are a projection of the madness of self. Sitting alone and becoming aware of this madness frees us from investing the projection of this madness with the label “true.”
We see all our biases, all our bigotry, all our loves and all our hates as ephemera to which we no longer cling. We don’t seek to defend our madness or free ourselves from it. It simply no longer matters and no longer influences our behavior. And if you sit long enough, you become ephemera as well, and when you do there are no longer any problems at all.
More from Rabbi Rami on meditation, from the print issue of Spirituality & Health.
I know that meditation is good for me, but I can’t sit still for five minutes, let alone 20. Is there an alternative to meditation?
Meditation is waking to God in, with, and as all reality. If sitting still aids in this awakening, sit; if not, don’t sit. Try hatha yoga, tai chi, qigong, dancing, swimming, walking, aikido, knitting, gardening. Meditation isn’t about movement or stillness but about knowing God manifesting as Self and other.