I have a new student who is a bit of a meditation junkie. He tried transcendental meditation for a while. Then he got into Zen. Then he was into Tibetan meditation. When he came across Refuah Tikun Chai, he must’ve been happy as a puppy. A new toy! (Seriously, I was happy too. I find it when people come to me from other meditative traditions, there is generally a fruitful discussion about the similarities and differences that give both of us a little extra insight.)
Anyway, I was showing him the basics of the RTC approach, helping guide him through a particular meditation, and at one point I used the word “meaning.” Afterwards he told me he was really surprised.
“Meditation is supposed to get us beyond things like meaning, isn’t it?”
“Where did you get that idea?” I said.
“Like, in eastern meditation, everybody is always talking about emptiness. Everything is empty, you know? Nothing really exists. There is no self. And since nothing really exists, there’s nothing to get stressed about! You just, like, go with the flow, you know?”
Well, in Refuah Tikun Chai, we do talk about meaning. We do that partly because we like to work with human nature rather than go against it. And it simply human nature to find things meaningful. Everyone has things they care about. Everyone feels that certain things are right and other things wrong. Meditation helps you to clarify whether that’s really the case, whether you’re correct to care about those things. It can help you ascertain whether the things you think are right or wrong truly are right or wrong. Mind you, Refuah Tikun Chai doesn’t impose values on students; rather, it aims to evoke a more serious search for values on the part of students. To be truly meaningful to an individual, that meaning must be truly individual to them. When it is, it’s often life-enhancing, too. I believe we live more fully, more richly, and even longer, when we have a strong reason to live.
But this is not to disrespect Eastern meditative traditions. On the contrary, I think the harmony between RTC and those traditions needs to be better understood.
Eastern meditators often make a point of distinguishing “emptiness” – shunyata – from nothingness. Things are considered “empty” not because they don’t exist, but because they don’t exist in total independentce from other things. The reason you exist now is because you had a mother and father. You exist because you have air to breathe. You are alive because gravity is holding you to the earth. Eastern meditation holds that all these things and many more have to come together to allow you to be, to enable you to be you; and when enough of the things that support you and help you be what you are now no longer do so, then you change and fade away. (At least for the time being – like many religious traditions, Eastern meditators generally hold that we return again, whether in a higher realm or in this one.)
Eastern meditation suggests that many of our psychological and spiritual problems come from mistakenly separating ourselves and our wishes from that interdependence. We want to be young forever, but we become older. We want things to be one way, but they turn out another way. We want things to be perfect, fixed, and eternal, but what we see all around us is change and difference and decay; and so we hurt, trying to hold onto things that can only slip away.
But what we fail to see is how closely this is tied in with the arrival of the new. The “good old days” pass away, but the good new days are right around the corner, waiting. We remember the past, but unfortunately weren’t designed to remember the future. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t coming, or that it isn’t bringing good and meaningful things with it. And this is the real key to understanding the Eastern concept of “emptiness” – it isn’t about nonexistence and passing away; it’s about potentiality and coming to be. “Emptiness” is not dead. It’s alive, like a wintry landscape waiting to burst into grass and flowers and summer.
That is why a proper awareness of our dependence fosters not resentment but gratitude. It’s why our awareness of all that such support has given us inspires us to support others. It’s why Eastern meditation naturally tends towards compassion – a feeling and a practice that Refuah Tikun Chai finds very meaningful indeed.