We have been framing the conversation over the past weeks in terms of freedom. A sense of freedom is one of the many benefits of a regular practice of meditation. But I am aware that talking about these freedoms could easily set up expectation about what we should be feeling when we meditate or how our lives should be because we meditate. It is not my intention to ‘sell’ anyone on meditation by promising a multitude of benefits. Instead I want to keep reminding my students, my blog followers and myself to simply stay present with our own experience as it arises with an open embrace.
Have you noticed how when you try to be a ‘really good’ meditator, you end up miserable and disappointed? We create terrible stories about ourselves and our situation that make a simple practice of sitting and being aware that we are sitting into a Herculean struggle. The struggle locks the door on accessing the spaciousness of mind that can arise from being here and now. It is like those Chinese woven straw finger puzzles that the harder you try to pull your fingers out, the more stuck you become. With the puzzle, as with meditation, calming down and relaxing releases us from the struggle.
These terrible stories we tell ourselves have many variation. One is that we have hopeless ‘monkey mind,’ as a friend of mine recently told me she had.
This idea that the mind should be thought-free sets us up for struggle. We tell our minds to be quiet and we get frustrated because the thoughts continue. It is not the thoughts that are causing the problem. It is the belief that the thoughts are unacceptable. It is believing that we, of all mediators, are the only ones whose mind wants to think.
I remember attending a daylong retreat at Spirit Rock years ago, and at one point at the end of the day the meditators were invited to comment and question the teachers. One meditator said that she was a psychic and she noted that there certainly was a lot of chatter going on in the gathered meditating minds. She said it as an accusation, like the iconic old schoolmarm scolding us bad children with our naughty thinking. I don’t remember the teachers particularly responding to her other than to nod sagely as teachers do. Yes, the thinking mind. Quite a lot of chatter, it’s true.
Does it help to know that a whole roomful of practiced meditators had chattering minds, according to our resident psychic? Yes, I think it does. We like to be normal. Thinking is normal. How could thinking not be normal? It’s what our brains were created to do!
But most of us see thinking during meditation as naughty, just as that woman did who sat in judgment of the rest of us. She might have held us all in tenderness and compassion, but instead she felt that we were the obstacle that kept her from being able to meditate, with our chattering minds. It was all our fault. How would her experience have been different if she had taken the opportunity to send metta (loving kindness) out to her fellow meditators. How would our experience of meditation be different if we sent a little compassion to that part of ourselves that sits in judgment? (Sending metta is a wonderful way to deal with any source of irritation or anything we deem as ‘other.’ It is usually our judgments that are our problem, not the ones being judged, so shifting into metta mode changes the whole experience. Try it and see if it doesn’t help the next time you find yourself impatient or irritated by someone’s behavior.)
Insight meditation is not about shutting down the mind, but opening as much as possible to whatever is arising in the moment. We open our field of awareness to be spacious enough for thoughts to come through without our attention getting carried away by them, getting lost in them. We are ever expanding the field of our awareness so even with thoughts floating through we are still fully present, fully aware of all the sensations in our body, our breath, the temperature on our skin, the sounds we hear – everything! – including these threads of thought and emotion that pass through the field. If we discover we have been caught up in a thought, that we have lost awareness of this moment, it’s not time to attack but to celebrate our sudden awareness of the moment. After all, not everyone has access to even this much awareness in their lives. So even this little bit of awareness is a rich gift to feel thankful for. And then, before we get caught up in self-congratulatory thinking or remembering, we simply check in with our bodies, releasing any tension, softening and expand our awareness so that we can make room for the thoughts that arise.
You know how when you see a cyclist straining excessively up a hill, you want to call out ‘Change gears! You don’t need to work that hard!’ Well, it’s the same with meditation and anything else in life really. If we notice we are struggling, striving, exerting painful amounts of energy to do whatever we are doing, we might consider whether there is another gear that might be more efficient and effective.
In meditation ‘switching gears’ is sensing in to the body, noticing that tense jaw, for example, and then breathing into it and letting go. The gears will shift. It is that simple.
The Buddha called this kind of noticing Wise Effort, which we discussed back when we studied the Noble Eightfold Path.
Ultimately, in the deepest awareness of this present moment, we come to know that there is nothing to struggle against, that just as with the finger puzzle, instead of struggling, relaxing into the truth of whatever is happening in this moment is what frees us. We let go of this idea of perfection and achievement, and dance with the one that brought us: This life, this body, this mind, this moment.