Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To Meditate

A colleague who learned that I meditate regularly asked me about it the other day. It turns out that some years ago she had struggled mightily to "get" meditation, and was rather wistful about the fact that she hadn't made it work for her. It was, she felt, a rather serious failure in her life. In listening to her words, it was obvious that she had been anticipating dramatic changes, had wanted them badly, and was disappointed with herself at failing with something she wanted so much.

I'm always somewhat matter-of-fact when describing what meditation can and will do for you. In truth, expecting dramatic, mystical results is one of the surest ways to hinder yourself in a mediation practice (or in any spiritual endeavor, for that matter), so I surely don't really play up this aspect of the practice.

One of the best definitions of meditation I ever heard came from a Tibetan Rinpoche, Chogam Trungpa, who said that mediation practice was really nothing more than "making friends with your own mind."

A similarly useful and reassuring definition came from a teacher of basic insight practice, who said that meditation was really nothing more than "experimenting with letting things be exactly as they are, with no pushing or pulling."

(The movement from "concentration" to "insight" meditation comes about naturally. At the point where you are truly letting go and letting things be as they are, insight arises automatically.)

Such definitions might quietly disappoint you, if you're looking for something more earth-shattering. It's not until you're well into practice, perhaps for many years, when you finally realize that these simple definitions have a quiet, earth-shattering quality after all.

When you start a meditation practice, it's essentially not much more than setting aside 30 or 40 minutes a few times a week, or perhaps each day, to just let the mind fall quiet, to see what might happen, to see what it feels like. It's not uncommon at first for this to feel like a slightly guilty pleasure, since the luxury of letting the mind go quiet is so very alien to us.

This is because our normal status for being in the world is one of incessant, never-ending willfulness. Virtually all our energy is spent in pulling or pushing against things as they are, in an effort to transform them into something that suits our liking. So to take a break, even for a few minutes, may seem like an utter waste of time, a luxury that delays our accomplishment of goals. I, for one, fiercely defended my willfulness, seeing it as the engine that allowed me to accomplish things in life.

Very gradually, though, as the mind begins to settle just a little, a quiet insight starts to take shape. There is another way of being in the world, and that is simply to act logically and naturally based on circumstances as they happen to be at any given moment. You begin to see that you can "be" in the world by just responding to things as they are. All the mental pushing and pulling --the desire and aversion–-have absolutely no impact on changing things. The experience of wanting or rejecting, in fact, are entirely unpleasant, when examined directly.

No amount of wanting will cause a dirty sink to miraculously become clean and neat.

Washing the dishes, however, does the trick.

"Hold on a second," you might say. "If you don't hate a dirty sink, or want a clean kitchen, then the place will never get cleaned." The common belief is that desire and aversion are the fuel that makes the engine of accomplishment turn.

But I'd suggest to you that this isn't so. A decision to wash the dishes can well arise simply because the kitchen is chaotic, and the natural thing to do with chaos is to create order. Wanting and hating are symptoms of having failed to act intelligently, not a fuel that causes us to act.

Willfulness-- pushing and pulling, desire and aversion--need not enter into the equation. Without willfulness, the world begins to act through you, and you begin to have a sense of experiencing things as they are, not as an affront to the way you'd like them to be.

In the early days (perhaps the early months, or years) of a meditation practice, the meditation session itself is a novelty, is something far different than the way you lead your life off the mat. Gradually, though, you find that the outlook you have while meditating begins to carry over into the rest of your life. Eventually, you start to live a meditative life, and everything that happens becomes a part of your on-going practice. "Hmm," you think when your tire blows out on the freeway. "How interesting the way my heart pounds during fear," even while you matter-of-factly slow the car with precision and pull safely over to the shoulder, rather than panicking.

So what I told my colleague was this, as she expressed her disappointment in herself over her expectations for meditation. "The feeling of disappointment....Are you experiencing it? Right now?"

She paused for a moment, then nodded.

"That's mediation," I said.


Jerri said...

A settled mind is a fine thing to have. So is insight. If only it didn't take so darn long....

Michelle O'Neil said...

One moment at a time, right?

Buddhist question...why is everyone "Rinpoche?" Is this a title, or is it just a common name? What up with that?