Meditation and the Flexible Mind

Close up of man with eyes closedThe fifth Paramita, or practice for attaining happiness, is Dhyana, or Meditation. As with all the other Paramitas, we develop this one through practice.

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.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jeremy.S

    Jeremy.S

    July 21st, 2011 at 2:06 PM

    “noise comes from inside your own mind”

    I have this problem so often when I try to sit down and meditate.There’s just too many thugs on my mind at any given time to get rid of them all and sit in peace and quiet.Even when there is no noise in the place I am at,my mind wanders and I can’t seem to control this :|

  • Ker

    Ker

    July 21st, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    Jeremy, that is just what happens when we meditate. So we practice coming back to the object of meditation (usually the breath) and not getting too hooked on the thoughts. Gradually it gets easier to just let the thoughts arise and dissolve without getting hung up in them and without elaborating or judging. They are just thoughts. After a while, this translates in our daily life as being able to relax in situations where we used to get pushed around by our thoughts. It’s worth it, so hang in there!

    By the way, one of my teachers, who has meditated for over thirty years and done a three year retreat etc. did an out loud narration for us once of how her mind still wanders and she still has lots of thoughts. What struck me was both how quickly she was able to catch herself thinking and how kindly she spoke to herself about it. So, my aim in sitting has become to emulate those elements, catching myself more quickly and returning to the breath, and being kind to myself when I do it. It’s much more useful than trying to empty the mind of thoughts, in my opinion, because thoughts always come back!

  • atria

    atria

    July 22nd, 2011 at 6:54 AM

    meditating has always eluded me.never had the composure to go on with it because i’m just so distracted by things and have so many things in my head.

    one of the aims of meditation itself is to let you get your mind away from things and attain bliss but the same things prevent me from real meditation.

  • benjiwills

    benjiwills

    July 24th, 2011 at 1:32 PM

    @Jeremy-That’s what makes it hard for me to focus on anything like meditation too. I know I can handle anything life decides to dump on my lap along with a bucket of cold water, but I can’t keep all the things I have to do out of my head. The thoughts never stop hurtling through my brain.

  • Amy

    Amy

    July 24th, 2011 at 10:18 PM

    Chakra meditation has been more my thing since about 1999…This type of meditation incorporates breath, energy in the chakra areas, and energy field consciousness. There are also meditations when the mind empties much like the meditation I am reading about in your blog. The feeling of the heart opening is Nirvana. Universal Love. Have found that the heart is open during work as a psychotherapist. Love is healing.

  • Ker

    Ker

    July 25th, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    There are so many forms of meditation, and so much information available out there, I hope those of you who are interested in the benefits of meditation don’t give up! Some of us find that counting breaths helps focus the mind; others like movement such as walking meditation (the focus or object of meditation is the feet as they touch the ground and lift again), sound meditation with chanting or just listening, looking at an object, or a practice such as tai chi which could be thought of as a moving meditation.

    There are so many benefits to practice, and it does get a little easier over time, so maybe try a method that feels easier to you and see what happens!

  • Vicky Judd

    Vicky Judd

    July 26th, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    @benjiwills: I have the same problems. I wish I could tell my brain “Shut up! I’ll deal with that in a minute! This is more important than something like that!”. Actually I do hehe but it keeps nagging at the back of my mind anyway.

    Ker, you have made me feel much better knowing that even thirty year veterans of meditation experience that. Thank you!

  • johnathan carrillo

    johnathan carrillo

    July 26th, 2011 at 9:13 PM

    @Atria-Meditation simply isn’t for everyone, but anyone can do it. How many times have you tried it? The first few times might be near impossible for you. Then again, so is everything different from what you’re used to on the first few tries. If you keep at it, you can eventually manage it. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

    Great article, Ker! Thank you.

  • Frank T. Groves

    Frank T. Groves

    July 29th, 2011 at 8:24 PM

    @Ker: Your teacher gave some very good advice, even though talking to yourself has its own connotations among modern society. ;) I find it easy to simply ignore them until they go away like you can do.

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