While it can be hard to keep a regular practice going, regularity is a salient feature of meditation. It is less important how long you sit or which technique you use or how clear your mind seems to be during practice. (Truth: your experience during sitting meditation is not necessarily an indicator of how well or poorly you are doing. How does your relationship with your own mind change over time? That is the question.) What really counts is that you come back to it, over and over, every day. Why is this? Well, it is a practice, so we must practice it. Just as we can’t gain proficiency with a musical instrument by playing it once in a while, so we can’t gain familiarity with our own minds by only checking in now and then, when we feel like it.
One element of regular practice is that we sit whether we feel like it or not. This brings us some sense of confidence and flexibility. We gain confidence when we experience our mind as it is, every day, and see how it changes and how (paradoxically) habitual it is. When we sit daily, we eventually encounter all manner of thoughts and mental formations that we wouldn’t otherwise notice. In meditation, we sit with these ideas, impulses and urges to action without doing anything about them. We become less enslaved to the urgency of our thoughts and notions, and more able to tolerate discomfort, craving and aversion. This eventually brings us a natural, deep-seated confidence that we can, in fact, handle our lives.
Flexibility arises, interestingly, through sitting still. As we resist the urge to reject our own minds/thoughts/feelings and resist the urge to jump up and do something about them, and resist the urge to ignore them, we begin to develop a stretchiness in our minds. We begin to have other options than the knee-jerk response, the habitual thoughts and stories about a situation. We begin to see the space available to us in every moment. We become pliable. We begin to relax.
In the West, we seem to believe that we can only meditate in peaceful surroundings, with everything arrange beautifully around us, without barking dogs or noisy children in the background. That might be a nice place to start, but you will notice pretty quickly that the noise comes from inside your own mind, and the loveliest, quietest, most perfect meditation space cannot change that! In fact, we can spend an awful lot of time and energy trying to get our situation to conform to our idea of what will make us happy, and very little time actually feeling happy. This is demonstrated in rampant consumerism and trying to surround ourselves with things we think we need and that will bring us peace and joy, whether it a flat screen TV or a special thangka painting of the Buddha from Nepal. We are deeply disappointed when it doesn’t pan out.
It can be so easy to lose sight of what truly brings happiness when our desire for something outside ourselves is sparked. I have both witnessed and displayed the dissatisfaction and craving that arises so easily within each of us. Watching a person in a store test each of several meditation bells in turn, never finding one she liked, I noted to myself that any bell can sound beautiful one day and harsh the next. The other day I remarked to my beloved that I was coveting the beautiful green leather bag a woman nearby was carrying. She said, “Yeah, I bet if you had that, you’d be happy for the rest of your life!” We both laughed, for underneath my desire for that bag lay the desire for that Something to Make It All Perfect. This is the desire underlying all craving, and it can never be satisfied.
What actually brings happiness is the ability to see what is true in any given moment, and to be free of the need to follow every impulse of the mind. This capacity is nurtured through regular meditation practice.
I try to use experiences like being in traffic or in line at the grocery store – two frequent, ordinary opportunities to feel frustrated, stymied and otherwise bothered – for meditation practice. It might seem odd, but if you think about it, having something stimulating our habitual thoughts and stories is an excellent time to practice. If we only meditate when things are peaceful, it is like strength training without lifting any weight. When there is some resistance, something pushing against our peace of mind that is when we really strengthen our concentration, our compassion, and our generosity. Observe yourself (gently and kindly) the next time someone cuts ahead of you in line or in traffic. Use the slow line at the store to practice patience. Use anything that disrupts your plans or the way you want things to be – the person slowly counting out a handful of pennies at the register, the person who didn’t signal their turn – and observe the story you tell yourself in an attempt to put things right again. Do you find yourself thinking that person is wrong somehow, or irresponsible, or bad, or stupid? Or are they just a person doing something different than you want them to do? Are they maybe just like you when you forgot your turn signal or had to bring change to the store because you couldn’t find your wallet and your spouse had the checkbook? As long as we are making up stories about each other – and we always will – then they may as well be stories of compassion. The flexible, confident mind of the meditator has the ability to slow things down so we can catch our assumptions and replace them with something open-hearted if we choose.
One breath meditation: Bring your full awareness to your breath as you inhale, keep it there as you exhale, and then relax. You may have your eyes open or closed. Repeat several times a day. You may also do this several times in a row if you wish, or for several minutes at a time. Enjoy. For more on the one breath meditation, see The Joy Of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Other useful books on meditation are Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham and Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron.
© Copyright 2011 by Ker Cleary, LPC, therapist in Eugene, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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