Bhavana, meaning to cultivate or develop but commonly used in Buddhism as a word for meditation, once again flashes before my mind’s eye. Despite researching the term, the exact sense of the word often escapes me. Does it simply mean to grow understanding? Are meditation and bhavana the same? I have not yet reached that place where my life experience and the word’s essence combine to flesh out the bones of meaning—not in its spiritual sense.
Cultivating takes time: crops grow over seasons, skills acquire over long-term practice and wisdom blooms in old age. Cultivated knowledge or understanding, perhaps expertise of the surgeon or chef, for instance, slowly widens and deepens after tons of reading, percolating and doing. Cultivation is an ongoing stretch at the end of which is the surprising arrival.
Like when I first tried vegetarianism back in the 90s. I ran marathons then and ate very little meat to keep light. Believing the natural evolution of eating lighter was a vegetarian diet, I took the leap but was unsuccessful. I craved something, felt a huge hole in my diet and so gave up. Fifteen years later, without much thought, I just stopped eating meat—and never missed it. I was ready then. Something in me had brewed long enough.
Or my struggle with yoga and meditation too. I made dozens of attempts over several decades to acquire a daily practice, and then one day it all made sense. Only then could I effortlessly form the habit. With full understanding, I felt that seeped knowledge in my muscles, that diffusely cultivated disposition towarsd bending not only body but behaviour, to flex a will to become, an unfolding. It was time. My body knew.
Sometimes conscious understanding needs time to catch up to that deeper knowledge, the stretch between knowing and understanding like the light bulb lit with the words, “So that was what he was trying to tell me,” or “now I get how to play fifth position on the fingerboard.” Before, it was flat mystery like a hollow idea.
Like the Big Bang, we humans expand (intellectually and educationally) over time and space, a life time, even as our bodies contract and wither. The mind expands and waits, forges ahead toggling between accumulated information bits (from school, work and love) and the lag time to comprehend that information. But the quest for understanding impels us forward.
Understanding is a process of contemplating and confronting mysteries. It’s like we have two selves, the observant and the enlightened. One ingests and absorbs while the other processes and simmers. Their timing is not always the same. Sometimes understanding arrives much later than input data. But it is our pricking drive of curiosity and our slow-cooking insight that comprises learning—and living.
Frank Conroy, writer and musician, writes in his essay, “Think About It,” that “Education doesn’t end until life ends, because you never know when you’re going to understand something you hadn’t understood before.” This elasticity of understanding, the distance between input and processing, is the expansive canvas of our lives; it covers the whole painting. As Conroy so aptly puts it, “The physical body exists in a constant state of tension as it maintains homeostasis, and so too does the active mind embrace the tension of never being certain, never being absolutely sure, never being done, as it engages the world. That is our special fate, our inexpressibly valuable condition.”
We doubt. We feel insecure in ignorance—some of us—and so we look for answers. Sometimes we find them in our immediate search, like when I ask my students to Google a word, “avuncular,” for instance, when that word turns up in their reading. The definition pops up on a helpful student’s smart phone and ignorance instantly transforms into information. Other times, we don’t find the answer or solution until much later—or never.
Sometimes the answer comes too late. I remember one ex-client explaining his divorce. Of his wife of 30 years, he said, “I did not hear what she said—or I did not understand her words.” He told me his wife complained that he didn’t work hard for the family, which baffled him since he often put in 12-hour days and weekends to sock away retirement and college money. He could not understand how that was not working for his family—until he did.
“Now I know she wanted me to look at her, to work hard at being there for her and our boys each day by spending more time and focus on them than on my work,” he confessed. He shuttered out simple words spoken to him before his experience allowed him to “see.”
The Buddhist explanation of bhavana as cultivating, producing or manifesting is commonly coupled with another term like kindness, consciousness, body or wisdom. The definition does not preoccupy itself particularly with the inherent human learning gap between exposure and knowledge. Rather, Buddhism teaches that meditation practice develops a mindset, a focus upon which to sow the seeds of virtue and behaviour according to Buddhist tenets. I realize my interpretation is a bit unorthodox.
In the Glossary of Buddhism, the root word bhava means “feeling, emotion, mood, becoming.” In the sense that we are all becoming what we are, unfolding like spring morning rose petals, the hunger for wisdom or knowledge is the catalyst or more aptly the engine that turns the cogs and wheels of the machine, getting us from here to there in the unending search for understanding.
To me, Bhavana is like a road trip uncharted and unknown at the start but so expected at the destination. As if you always knew where you were going after rolling back all the miles you travelled, thinking you had no idea where you were—an illusion—like your shadow catching up with you. Bhavana is meditation—an ongoing arrival.
image: dictionarydefinitionofthewordwisdom via Shutterstock