Some Dharma Thoughts

Meditation is whatever happens when you meditate.

An Unglamorous Meditation Practice

Angry thoughts can be allowed to have their say in meditation. That’s because when expressions of anger aren’t cut off, other thoughts and feelings can come in that question anger’s monolithic facade. Perhaps along with fury a feeling of regret shows up:  you got embroiled in a fight even though you saw all the warning signs flashing. Or there might be a whisper that tells you not to defend the position you’re holding with quite so much passion. Or maybe you agree with the thinking that justifies your anger, but the  voice making the case sounds so overwrought you have to wonder.

An experience of anger that includes contradictions and complications reflects an honest way of relating to it. From the Buddhist perspective an experience of an emotion can’t be reliably distilled into any single element. Along with inconsistent feelings, an episode of anger can be influenced by a personal style of being angry, memories about similar situations, family and cultural norms about showing emotion, often hidden rules about gender and rank as well as conditions such as how rested you are,  worries that impinge on your state of mind, and your perception of the other person’s reactions. When seen as arising along with an array of factors, rather than alone,  emotions don’t call for a single, predetermined response. After all, anger that’s experienced as anger plain and simple demands action. But anger mixed with regret that reminds you of something your father might have done? It’s hard to lash out based on that.

It’s better not to interrupt thoughts and feelings that come up in sittings so a wide variety of conditions can be known. Chogyam Trungpa famously said “first thought, best thought.” But when only the first thought is allowed in (and quickly ushered out) meditators come to know experience as much less layered than they would if the first thought, second thought and many subsequent thoughts were allowed. (At any rate, Trungpa aimed his motto at artists, advising them to follow their inspirations without holding back.)  If regret, anger or resentment arise, if memories come, or if doubt about this or any way of meditating asserts itself, the Recollective Awareness approach is to acknowledge all of it.

Seated figure, Mali, 13th century, Met Museum

I never meet people who join sitting groups or go on retreats out of a wish for more struggle. People with an interest in Buddhist meditation almost always want more peace. That’s just as true of someone who has a practice to replace angry thoughts with thoughts of lovingkindness as it is with someone who sits open to whatever arises; just as true for someone who lets thoughts float away like clouds on an empty sky as it is for someone who attends to thinking. So let’s give ourselves some credit. We all meditate with a sincere aspiration to become kinder and more peaceful. But someone unfamiliar with this method will wonder how allowing angry thoughts can bring peace. What doesn’t get asked is how chasing away unwelcome thoughts can.

A practice that relies on periods of honest exploration into thoughts and feelings sounds unglamorous when compared to one that stresses oneness with all beings. It’s true. This is an unglamorous, workaday practice. Then what can be said about the pursuit of liberation if it’s not a quest for total liberation or total awareness or total anything? A practice that includes periods of reflection about what comes up in meditation can lead to freedom from being blindsided by conflict. Liberation would mean becoming less and less susceptible to the demands of strong emotions like anger because now they are seen in context and understood. Awakening then might be experienced as simply becoming less ignorant about our lives, which seems to be what unglamorous Gotoma was talking about anyway.

A Few Words on Allowing Thoughts in Meditation

Experience has shown me that awareness of thinking in meditation allows the anguish of difficult thoughts and feelings to lessen. It’s possible to receive thoughts with interest. Even raging thoughts. Even shaming ones. That’s crucial. The quality of interest. The opposite, to turn attention away from thoughts as a strategy, literally enacts aversion (the Latin root means to turn away). How can aversive tendencies subside by being aversive towards them? Instead we might become curious about how we experience aversion and the myriad states of mind that come with having a mind.

By looking back at where our minds go in sittings, our relationship with thinking can become calmer, more honest. We no longer have to police our thinking moment by moment. If the mind doesn’t require managing then in meditation we’re free to follow trains of thought and even get lost in them. When meditation includes periods of recollecting afterwards, stories, beliefs and views emerge. Over time, the parts they play in our lives can be investigated and understood. You could say that getting caught up in thinking is what leads to not getting caught up in thinking.

Not everyone who meditates can do this practice or will want to. Nor should they. But those drawn to it get the chance to know in a deep way how worry, for example, arises in our lives and keeps returning along with a familiar company of other difficult mind states. When we question the habit of seeing thoughts as the problem – as if the mind were like a dripping faucet that needs to be fixed – we can open to the world of our experience with all its pain and bright amazement.

Amazing!

Amazing!

Mindful Enough

I’m not that brave when it comes to taking physical risks. Sometimes I overestimate the danger. Once when I was a young teenager I watched a good part of a Saturday afternoon go by while I sat on the branch of a tree, afraid to jump off. I’d gotten up there easily enough but wouldn’t come down, even though I’d seen my friends do it without a care.  When they got bored with waiting for me they left me alone to work up some courage.

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Boy up a tree. Click on image to enlarge it.

Years later in New Zealand I faced the same kind of fear, but this time the danger was real. On my first day hiking the Hollyford Track in the southwest corner of the South Island I reached a gorge and a footbridge. The gorge dropped at least a hundred feet and while the bridge fit a technical definition of “bridge” it lacked some features I had always counted on. Stability. A structure.

Three steel cables stretched out across the gap. This was what they were passing off as a bridge. Two cables for hands to hold and one cable to walk on. And not thick cables, either. To my worried eyes they weren’t thicker than Tootsie Rolls. Unexpectedly I had found what could have been a learner’s tightrope. The handgrips would help, but even so every step would present a new opportunity for death. My backpack’s weight might make it hard for me to balance. On top of that, pre-internet, no one at home knew where I was. How long could I lie broken on the rocks before anyone found me? I would turn around.

Then it occurred to me that if New Zealand, a modern country with a court system that heard lawsuits, allowed a bridge like this to be offered to all comers, then I too could survive it.  Of all the people who had gotten across, likely very few of them had been trained acrobats. You just had to pay attention. I would go on.

And so I had a mindful walk over the gorge. I placed one foot on the cable. I consciously lifted the other foot and put it down. I did it again. And again. I made sure the back foot was secure before I moved the front one. I didn’t think about what a good story this would make. I didn’t think about how brave I was now that I was doing it. I only thought about how and where to place my feet. Focus drove out the fear. The familiar stream of anxious thoughts dried up. Then I was across and my walking no longer required extreme concentration.

Any feat, any dangerous situation, or any activity demanding acute attention can lead to a joyous mind state. There’s only the concentration. You just are. It’s why people seek out vertical rock walls that bighorn sheep avoid.

Another time when the driver lost control of a car I rode in, I watched the world outside unfold so slowly I thought I’d acquired the super power of time stretching.  While hurtling towards my death I was so mindful that if someone had put forward the dubious commentarial Buddhist idea that experience consists of infinitesimal atoms of time I would have said, “Yeah, I know.”

Even though in each event I was as mindful as I have ever been I can’t live like that. Yet some mindfulness teachers say that heightened attention should be brought to every waking moment. But nail clipping isn’t life threatening. Neither is sweeping the kitchen. To force myself into hyper-awareness with a broom in my hand would  feel contrived.

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Stimulating, yes, but not a great prescription for living.

And I think I’d miss things by doing that. I’ve had some good ideas come up while taking a shower with a wandering mind. Then again, I don’t always have good ideas in a shower. And I don’t make myself focus deliberately on the warmth, the pressure, the sound. Sometimes a shower is just a shower.  I’d rather live my everyday life without turning it into a mindfulness challenge.

Increased mindfulness, which has great value, can come from a practice that doesn’t rely on concentration exercises. Extreme mindfulness comes as a result of unusual conditions, in and out of meditation. But it’s our own ordinary experience that offers us the chance to become more wise. When efforts to be mindful seek to transform what’s mundane into something else we may lose the chance to know our ordinary lives.

The Day I Didn’t Have to Be Right

A friend of mine came over to help me transplant a big thorny Madagascar palm that had grown too large for its clay pot. When I say “help” I mean that he did all the work while I mostly stayed out of his way. A few times I left my desk to see how the project was going and once when I did he told me he was having trouble getting the plant out of its container.

Madagascar palms aren't palms. They're succulents.

Madagascar palms are thorny succulents, not palms.

A thought came into my head and I let  it out. “Maybe you could wet it,” I said. I didn’t really know if this was a good idea or not. I knew water would soften the dirt, but whether that amounted to a helpful plan, I didn’t know. My friend spends hours every day in the garden, I don’t.

He said he wouldn’t because it would make a mess. He was doing all the work and I had made a suggestion which aside from wanting to help I didn’t really care about, but still I noticed an urge take form. The urge was to defend my suggestion. A part of me knew that I had been opposed and it needed to assert itself.

This was a wonderful event.

The impulse came up in slow motion without a lot force, largely because my friend was so neutral in his disagreement: He spoke so matter-of-factly that I couldn’t find anybody to fight. So instead of having to act I could watch the emergence of a tangible need to argue, to take up a position and hold it. I got to understand something more about why people get into fights.

How strange that once this flimsy sentence came out of my mouth it turned into my delightful idea that needed to be protected. With that as a condition, as soon as my friend disagreed, some part of me felt under attack. The I-need-to-be-right pattern became activated and I got to see it for what it is.

Wonderful.

Cowboys and Ignorance

I encounter many people who, once they hear that I am a meditation teacher, tell me that they can’t meditate because they think too much. Some of them are professors, scientists, and psychologists, who use their thinking in their work and have developed as human beings through using their minds. Because they have gotten a picture of meditation as requiring a quiet, thought-free mind, they feel they can’t do it. That is a real loss, a true shame. Jason Siff, Unlearning Meditation, p. x

All over the world, millions who meditate deploy a tactic that could have been lifted from a Hollywood Western. Whenever thoughts arise, meditators on metaphorical palominos head ‘em off at the pass. Like movie cowboys – or screenwriters – they use the tactic reflexively and too often. Still, cowboys have to do something about cattle rustlers and meditators have been persuaded that thinking has to be dealt with too. But what danger does thinking pose?

After they receive  instructions to follow, many who sit reasonably conclude that meditation has to be done correctly to get results. It’s a logical but not always helpful conclusion. With meditation widely believed to be a synonym for inner silence, the eruption of mental conversation might be taken as a hindrance to obtaining good outcomes. Others who want to become “good meditators” may rate progress based on how many quiet periods they go through. For them, persistent thinking not only disturbs the peace, it challenges identity.

Others don’t just seek peace, they seek the highest peace, the perfection of peace. This is nirvana conceived of as the ultimate achievement. The Buddha’s biography includes details about him developing the ability to enter into states of deep absence,  but he  distinguished those states from what he meant by liberation, directing followers away from the notion that nirvana and unbounded stillness are the same. Still, ideas of unbudging perfection show up in Buddhist schools and assume various names. Pure Mind, The Unconditioned, The Deathless, Emptiness, The Void, Original Mind, Absolute Truth, True Self, No Self. Sometimes when it’s talked about, no self amounts to no thinking. (No self, no nothing, might be another way of putting it.) For someone devoted to inhabiting starkly quiet mind states, the return of thinking must sometimes come robed in disappointment.

Still, it never occurs to some people to seek a void, let alone The Void.  Aware that Buddhist teachings describe effective ways of relating to life’s shocks, demands, stress and loss, people look to meditation for relief. With this in mind, techniques that might have been developed to generate quiet states in monasteries, now are often prescribed to alleviate various mental and somatic disturbances. In some contemporary models of Buddhism and psychotherapy, when thinking is allowed to bound off without heightened moment-to-moment scrutiny, the development of well-being is threatened. Unregulated thinking emerges as both a symptom and the root cause of maladies.

Basic teachings say that ignorance about what perpetuates suffering is the very condition that keeps suffering going. Instructions that imply freedom comes from controlling or ending thoughts mistake thinking for ignorance. They’re not the same. Wholesome development depends on understanding ignorance. This is the work of a lifetime. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say that I’ve eluded the grip of my own ignorance, but even so, I know that I’ll never get anywhere by not thinking. Frankly, not thinking is what led me to some miserable places.

The Buddha presented a path of liberation from ignorance. This means that realms of experience conditioned by greed, hate and pervasive misunderstanding are also accessible to wisdom. How could our thoughts and the process of thinking itself be exempt? Why would we want them to be?

We think because we’re alive. What we experience in thinking has to do with the kinds of lives we’ve led and continue to lead.  It depends on what we do, what we say and who we encounter; what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste; what we believe about big things and little things too.

Thoughts threaten, cajole, clarify and confuse. They confine us and they free us. The variety and incongruity of the thoughts that each of us has known says how inadequate this one label “thinking” is for an immensity of experience. An often noisy chorus of thinkings carries us along throughout our lives. Over time meditation becomes about learning to pick out different voices in the multiplicity so we can finally hear what they have to say.

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Maybe Thoughts Aren’t Like Clouds

This post picks up where the the last one left off.

In the land of meditation, thinking is not always regarded as similar to a pack of delinquent monkeys bent on torment and malfeasance. There’s also a popular metaphor that as far as I can tell comes from Zen that says the mind is like sky and thoughts are like clouds that trail off and disappear.

In Zen the image means that people are endowed with Buddha nature, empty, vast and sky-like, which is always present even when hidden by clouds. This disagrees or doesn’t disagree with early Buddhist teachings about impermanence, depending on who you ask. At the very least the premise behind the imagery illustrates that the metaphor was carefully chosen to impart this particular philosophical belief.

Today the same imagery is offered as an instruction to those learning meditation. Watch your mind and let the clouds pass by. Frequently the emphasis is on the contrast between the unchanging clarity of a still mind and the  supposedly constantly changing nature of thoughts. (But for many people bothered by thoughts, the problem is they don’t seem to change at all.) Therapists will sometimes tell clients to see the clouds not as thoughts but as gauzy envelopes to put their thoughts into and let them be carried off into the beyond. Perhaps this allows clients to feel agency in what otherwise is presented as an entirely passive act of observing. But the idea is the same. Thoughts come and go. No need to hang onto any of them.

Clouds constantly disappearing in an empty sky. What about thoughts that don’t skitter away? Are they hopeless thoughts that won’t get with the program? Or perhaps they have the misfortune to have appeared in a defective sky, one that doesn’t conduce to rapid thought dissipation.

Instead, let’s imagine that thoughts are not like clouds. They may be as different from clouds as shooting stars are from Chicklets. I offer some new metaphors that allow for different possibilities.

  • Thoughts are like a soaking drizzle.
  • Thoughts are like someone climbing the slopes of Denali riding backwards on a caribou.
  • Thoughts are like a spoonful of cottage cheese left over in a plastic tub.
  • Thoughts are like a 600 year-old oak tree with expressive, twisted limbs, hemmed in by a suburban housing subdivision called Noble Oaks.
  • Thoughts are like a pair of life-sized chess pieces, a devious black queen and a sly white queen, playing a game of chess with pawns, knights, bishops and rooks that walk off the chessboard to snatch morsels from a peanut bowl when no one is looking.
  • Thoughts are like a friendly body builder who gives hugs that last a little too long and make recipients feel self-conscious.
  • Thoughts are like an old dog that repeatedly nudges a napping owner with her nose.
  • Thoughts are like a message written on a mirror in crayon that’s hard to erase.
  • Thoughts are like a UPS guy stepping onto the field during the world pogo stick championship games intent on making a delivery to a bouncing contestant.
  • Thoughts are like the voice of a narrator from a 1930s newsreel which leaves listeners wondering whether it was meant to be ironic or not.
  • Thoughts are like clouds, ones drawn by Saul Steinberg, including a cloud that looks like bread dough floating in the sky, which supports a ladder featuring an ascending Abraham Lincoln and a pair of skyscrapers nestled above.
  • Thoughts are like a chef picking the best green pepper from a pile.
  • Thoughts are like a man who grew a beard for a prank, kept it for eighteen years and then shaved it off by whim, discovering the face he thought was underneath had disappeared.
  • Thoughts are like ants striding up the arm of someone lying in the grass, down her collar, onto her shoulder and up her neck all the way to the cavity of her ear.

Metaphors for thinking, even venerable ones like those of monkey mind and floating clouds, should be taken lightly. Whenever the use of a metaphor too predictably corrals experience, it needs to be questioned, whatever it is. Otherwise you may end up on the back of a caribou surrounded by bouncing pogo sticks with nothing to eat but a green pepper.

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Thoughts are like clouds drawn by Saul Steinberg.

Monkeys, Do Your Thing

In my practice I ordinarily sit with an attitude of interest towards thinking. Since the fantasy that my thinking will suddenly disappear doesn’t captivate me anymore,  I might as well let in my thoughts to find out what they have to say.

Less welcoming views of thinking tend to dominate the culture of meditation. A popular one compares thinking to rebellious monkeys cavorting in our brains or as one self-help teacher prefers “King Kong crashing through the jungle on amphetamines.” There’s a blogger who disturbingly casts most thinking as pathology, diagnosing monkey mind as “a debilitating disease.” A famous writer defines the condition as “thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” They want us to know, it’s a jungle in there.

I get this. Noisy beasts have probably run freely in the minds of almost everyone who has meditated. It’s not just the dissonance. Thoughts come entwined with impatience, irritation, shame, regret, anger, bitterness, envy, grief, humiliation, boredom. Logically, if meditation is about inner peace, then strategies to cope with unsettled thinking need to be learned and applied. Or so the party line goes. I say we might begin by looking more closely at the language that’s used. Intolerance of thinking arises with the idea that mental activity is just “random shit that irritates me.”  That, after all, is the message the term “monkey mind” carries.

Still, many people want meditation to give them the ability to get their minds to obey. But the concurrent notion that an array of meditation techniques will lead to an abiding stillness needn’t be accepted as gospel. If someone has guilty memories about the care he was able to give his mother when she was dying, he can order his mind to hush for decades without finding out anything about why accusing thoughts keep returning. Eventually he might become skilled at keeping the troubling thoughts at bay, thereby depriving himself of the chance of feeling what needs to be felt and knowing what needs to be known.

It’s not monkey mind. It’s you telling you something urgent.

A meditator might object, “I’m perfectly willing to sit with grief, shame or anything significant when it comes up in sitting. What doesn’t seem useful at all is the chattering that goes on about nothing important.”

A period of thinking about deadlines, shopping lists and commuter schedules often seems like chatter because the rules say that those concerns don’t belong in meditation. It’s rules that make some thoughts or all thoughts unacceptable, not some higher truth that a few minutes of “celery, nuts, eggs, baking soda, and Bulgarian feta” marks a mind as inferior.  Even when thinking truly seems too trivial to put up with, the phenomenon itself may be a diversion that keeps a meditator away from more difficult thinking.  Someone spending most of a retreat listening to all the songs on the Thriller album playing in her mind may be pushed in this direction because she’s mad at her kids. The content of the self-singing may be trivial and undoubtedly hard to endure but what it’s about isn’t at all trivial.

Meditation students who faithfully follow instructions to get the mind quiet can also miss out on an interesting eventuality. Thinking usually changes on its own when not interfered with. Strategies to calm the mind aren’t even needed.

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Gentle Transitions

We are not used to things changing by being gentle and kind, thinking that we must take decisive action or discipline ourselves with harsh methods. Jason Siff, Unlearning Meditation, p.11.

I think Recollective Awareness meditation is beautiful.

When meditators don’t have to begin sittings by doing something to manage the flow of thinking, a gentle transition into meditation can take place. Meditators can allow the conditions that are present determine the pace of moving from pre-meditation states of mind into more deeply meditative ones. As meditators offer less resistance to their thinking, they have less sense of being somebody who has to make something happen.

People understand the beauty in patience. A rush to get to “real meditation” can be driven by a view that meditation must stand apart from the rest of daily experience.  An intention to rapidly leave behind worldly cares makes a patient transition not only unlikely, but unwanted. It’s not difficult to see the irony of hurrying to reach a good state of mind.

Because gentleness is a quality that doesn’t need to have its way, during meditation disagreeable inner experiences can be allowed to go on; conflicts don’t have to be smoothed over or sidestepped. Someone who sits this way can be a little more gentle with experiences that don’t themselves exhibit that quality. This might mean just noticing how tightly a thought is held or what it actually feels like to defend a position. It’s not giving yourself a strong suggestion to let go, it’s learning to have sympathy for yourself as you go through unwanted experience. Gentleness comes along with listening to yourself without judgment or being kind when you hear the judging in your thinking.

When a sitting ends we move back into the sphere of ordinary concerns and responsibilities. A period of recollection after the sitting allows for a gentle transition in that direction. The sitting is over and our eyes are open; to suddenly get up might mean that ongoing processes that would benefit from attention instead get abandoned. Some meditations can leave us feeling exposed and unready to instantly resume life. Others are so interesting it feels natural to make notes to remember what happened. Others may have serious elements that deserve consideration before we move on. It can turn out we know very little of what we went through until we reflect on it.

When eventually I realized that my teacher was describing how meditation weaves itself through life’s fabric and that Recollective Awareness by design attunes itself to this process, I thought, “Of course. How could it be otherwise.” Still, I can’t name another approach to meditation that accounts for its dependently arisen nature. This understanding allows us to see sitting practice as coherently related to what we do off the cushion. It’s the consistent way that practice joins theory that I find beautiful.

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The Job of Meditation

You don’t need to manage your mind when you sit.  You can give up control. Chances are, your consciousness hasn’t issued a call for you to step in. You’ll be fine. Your mind will be fine.  You can leave it alone for a while.

Perhaps this seems like “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”, minus the sitar, but actually I’m proposing something  more easygoing than that. You don’t even have to turn off your mind. You don’t have to float. You don’t have to do anything to meditate other than sit still.

People tend to welcome this permission. It feels right because it addresses a particular aspect of suffering that almost everyone knows: There’s always something that has to be done. It’s not just having more to do than there’s time for;  it’s that we’re creatures that almost never stop doing something, regardless of whether there’s time or not. The information that sitting might be different comes as a big relief.

But then the gentle suggestion to relinquish control meets the more authoritative, mainstream view that meditation means training the mind to behave. Someone who welcomes the invitation to sit without a to-do list can still find it hard to recognize that his ordinary meditative practices keep managing going.  When you notice you’re thinking about an ex-spouse and you follow an instruction to bring your thoughts back to your breath,  you’re managing your experience. When you start with your attention at the top of your head and you methodically spiral it down through your body, you’re managing. When you label thoughts, feelings and sensations: managing. Follow a guided meditation: managing by delegating the chore to a professional. Repeating metta slogans is a form of managing, too. Lovely, but managing.

Surely I can’t mean that all someone has to do to meditate is sit still. But I do mean that. Calm states and other mental processes different from ordinary thinking may develop in a sit, but you don’t have to do anything special to bring them on.  Beginners tend to accept this statement because it sounds inviting and they don’t have a history of practice to uphold.  Periods of investigation into memories or aspects of dharma teaching can come up, without them feeling like obligatory tasks. Meditation isn’t a second job.

Before I learned Recollective Awareness I did a practice that relied on a lot of technique. including procedures to apply when facing different eventualities. It felt secure to have a roadmap for each sit and to some extent, for my practice itself.  I could look forward to getting good at the techniques and someday gaining mastery over my mind.

When I discovered Recollective Awareness, much of what I heard was so different that I couldn’t even take it in. What I did take in left me feeling conflicted. Then my future teacher told me that conflict wasn’t forbidden. That got my attention, mostly because it sounded so strange. It dawned on me that until then when internal conflict came up I had one overwhelming response: I want this to go away now. The notion that I could follow the Buddhist path and still have real emotions helped me understand the path depended on my being honest with myself. A practice that relied on transforming emotions rather than seeing into them became less interesting.

Transforming emotions means making an effort to change experience into something “better.” It’s controlling. But this post isn’t presenting  a new meditation instruction, one that says don’t control. If anything I’d like to subvert obedience to instructions. And to pose the question, Did you come to meditation because you needed more tasks to do?

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Comden and Green on Intentionality in Buddhism

“Long Before I Knew You” is a romantic song from the musical, The Bells are Ringing, which originally ran on Broadway in 1956 and became a movie in 1960.

Long Before I Knew You

Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adoph Green

Dearest, dearest, one thing I know, everything I feel for you, started many ages ago.

Long before I knew you,
Long before I met you.
I was sure I’d find you someday somehow.
I pictured someone who’d walk and talk
And smile as you do,
And make me feel as you do right now.
All that was long before I held you,
Long before I kissed you,
Long before I touched you and felt this glow.
But now you really are here and now at last I know
That long before I knew you I loved you so.

Here’s Barbara Cook singing it on YouTube.

What seems like a pretty song with a sentimental lyric upon examination turns out to be a pretty song that raises philosophical issues having to do with what we know and how we know it. How do we know our experience? What gives it its flavor, its solidity? Why does experience feel as if it’s happening to me?

The singer tells us she “pictured someone who’d walk and talk and smile” just the way the one she’s in love with walks, talks and smiles. She sings about a wish fulfilled. The feeling that when something new happens that there’s an aspect of familiarity about it, that it’s not really new, because it was experienced in such full detail in the imagination. It might feel uncanny. Destiny has made it all happen. Or perhaps the singer made it happen by the power of her dreaming.

“Everything I feel for you I felt ages ago,” the first line in the song, could also be the title of a dharma talk on how intention is seen in early Buddhism.

In Buddhist philosophy intention includes the same process that we conventionally regard as intention: thinking about performing an act before doing it. Juries debate premeditation in deciding whether a defendant should serve time or not..

But the early Buddhists saw intention as including a broader range of actions and mental behaviors. They  also regarded the daydreaming typified in the song as intention. When the sweetheart in the song appeared, the stage had already been set. Their relationship didn’t begin with their first meeting, its history includes the protagonist preparing for it in her imagination. Fantasy is intention. But that wasn’t the beginning either. The conditions that led her to conjure up those traits in him go back even earlier. Did she identify with a couple in love that she saw on a movie screen when she was younger? Did she think, I want to be in love just like them?

When you admire a character in a novel, imagine a career, leaf through a catalog of bathroom fixtures, consult with an investment strategist about retirement, do an online search for baby names even while thinking I’ll never have children, then you’re adding some intentional energy to processes already in motion. The song catches the idea that there can be a long gap between these intentions and some kind of fruition. You find yourself living in Alaska, making eye contact with a caribou  one day and wonder how you got there, forgetting that as a small child your happiest moments included bright mornings in winter building snow forts with your friends.

When people hear that the Buddha defined karma as intention they may think if they can’t find premeditation before an action they took then they’re off the hook, like a defendant hearing a not-guilty verdict. But then they hear that the Buddha defined intention so broadly that having a fantasy is karma. Back on the hook. But karma isn’t about punishment for doing bad deeds. Teachings about intention allow us to learn more about how our thoughts resemble acts that we take rather than insignificant airy nothings.

The protagonist in the song didn’t  make her lover appear by imagining him. But when someone shows up who reminds her of her daydreams, she’s hooked. Her prior fantasizing created an ideal object of love; she’s already in love with that. When she sings that she knew him before she met him she signals that she’s fallen in love with an idea of a person, more than the person in front of her.

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