Putting Buddhist Practice Under a Microscope

Disclaimer: This method is how I approach my practice, and is not necessarily the views of other Secular Buddhist. That said, these methods fit well within the context of the secular Buddhist practices.

Occasionally I am accused of being a reductionist. So I admit here and now, I do indeed take a reductionist approach to the areas of life where I can, and I find it enriches my understanding of whatever I am reducing. I view this method as a practical rather than a philosophical view of life.


Microscopic view of salt

Last Christmas I bought my grandson Michael a microscope. We sat at the kitchen table, got out one of the empty slides, and I sprinkled a few grains of salt onto the slide. As I put the slide in place, I asked Michael what he expected to see. Very confidently, he said, “Little, white, round things.”

I focused the microscope on the salt grains, then moved aside so he could look. “Wow!” he exclaimed. “They’re  cubes, not round, and they’re gray and clear!” And so we entered the fun discussion about crystallization. We had taken something Michael had considered ordinary and entered a much more fascinating world by reducing salt to what it really is, by putting it under a microscope and seeing these little beauties individually rather than the conglomerate whole of white things.

Putting our Buddhist practice under the metaphorical microscope reveals similar wonders. We go from looking at ourselves as a whole person being a this or a that, to seeing we are really complex beings with millions of processes going on. We go from viewing an entire story that has made us angry, to seeing how individual, fleeting thoughts go into building a story, and how that story causes emotional reactions. Hence, our suffering!

The act of sitting to meditate is synonymous with putting yourself under the microscope. Focusing on the breath is similar to turning the focusing knob. As you pay attention to each breath, thoughts slow down enough so that story reveals the individual thoughts. We go back to the breath each time, and it’s like putting different slides out for view. We reduce our experiences to all the parts that make up an impression of a whole.

Recently I’ve been revisiting other Buddhist traditional teachings. Zen was once a mystery to me. I found the language confusing, to say the least, and often felt they were intentionally being obscure. But now after years of practice, I go back and by looking at the individual phrases, I realize, Ah that’s what they mean. I get it now. I get it because I’ve had myself under the Buddhist microscope long enough that I’ve reduced my experiences to these tiny bits that now make sense in Zen speak.

As Michael and I went through the prepared slides, we found insect antennae, wings, and feet, each on different slides. There is much to be gained by appreciating the whole of an insect, and Michael has done this on his own. By reducing the insects to their individual parts, we gained an entirely new perspective of how complex these itty-bitty creatures are.

We have a macro view of our lives, which is valuable and important, but putting our experiences under the microscope and taking the time to view the individual processes and parts reveals much more about what is going on, how we create so much of our own suffering, how we create an illusory self, and how very fragile and impermanent everything is.

When I read the suttas, I perceive a teacher who put everything under the microscope. Gotama taught how we can look past the overall view and into the parts that make up that who we think we are. The suttas themselves can be reduced as well, revealing contradictions, perhaps errors, distractions, etc, as well as the beauty and eloquence of the practice. And if you can squeeze yourself under the microscope with the stories, you can see your own attachments to THE BUDDHA, the stories, the dogma.

I find reductionism teaches me to be more objective about the world around me, and the world within me. I have developed greater appreciation for nature, and for the Buddhist teachings that I practice and learn from. Knowing that rainbows are an illusion of water and light helps me appreciate it all the more when it happens, even though I know the rainbow is empty and isn’t really out there. It’s an amazing and stunningly beautiful illusion. And knowing it’s an illusion I don’t get attached to it. I take the same approach to my Buddhist practice.