By John Pendall
Meditation is a safe space to get all the crazy out in the open.
A lot of people are surprised by how un-meditative meditation can be. We’re used to seeing all these images of smiling Buddhas and tranquil Yogis; it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to criticize ourselves and, in some cases, wind up more unstable and unhappy than we were before.
All these images of peaceful meditators only show a tiny moment of that person’s practice. They don’t show all the screw ups, setbacks and sidetracks; they don’t reveal all the struggles had with aching joints, scattered thoughts and spacing out. They don’t show the fleeting furrowed brow as a painful, rarely thought about memory comes bubbling into consciousness. They don’t convey the giggles and the tears; they don’t convey the boredom and the urge to get up and watch TV.
The meditative mind is just like the IKEA bookcase you bought. It may have a nice picture of a bookcase on it, but don’t be fooled, you still have to put it together yourself. It’s always there, even in our most non-meditative moments; it’s just there as potential. Our task as meditators is to put all the pieces together and transform that potential into something immanent.
The very first time we sit down to meditate, we already have everything we need to be a Buddha. It’s just that Buddhahood comes with the tagline, “Some assembly required.” It isn’t hard work. If it’s hard or you’re trying hard, then that means you’re approaching it from a screwy angle. Kinda like trying to bang in a nail by hammering the opposite side of the board.
Meditation is easy—it’s the easiest thing in the world. We aren’t doing anything different than we do all day long: paying attention. We’re almost always paying attention to something, whether it’s these words or a fleeting desire for ice cream. Meditation just has us paying attention to very specific things.
When meditation is hard, it’s because we’re being hard on ourselves. We want to be perfect, we want to be infallible. No one comes to the cushion empty-handed. We carry trucks loads of self-concepts, goals, habits, and preferences with us. We take all the mind wandering and afflicted thinking personally. We blame ourselves, we blame the method, and we make up stories about why we aren’t progressing.
Meditation gets easier when you understand one vital point: it’s this truckload of self-concepts, preferences, beliefs, stories, and habits that we’re supposed to sit with.
Whomever you are when you plant your buns on the zafu, that’s your meditation object, regardless of what it is you’re anchoring yourself with. Whether you’re anchoring yourself with the breath, the body, a mantra, an image, a chakra, etc., these objects aren’t your real focus. Their job is to place a mirror in your mind. This mirror reflects everything that isn’t you; it reflects everything that isn’t calm, still, and skillful.
We’re asked to latch our unwavering focus on something so that we can see how much everything wavers. We’re asked to focus on just one thing so that we can see how one thing leads to another. If we focus on stillness, then we’re gonna notice each tiny little move the mind makes. If we’re focused on love, then ill-will is gonna stand out like a sore thumb.
Meditation techniques create a contrast that reveals the truth of the moment, the same way a mirror reflects everything around it.
This mirror pops up the second you start using any meditation technique. Mindfulness involves getting familiar with this mirror and using it build your Buddhahood. If not that, it at least helps us to get a handle on our craziness. This mirror doesn’t help us to prevent wandering thoughts; that happens naturally over time (and if it doesn’t, it’s not really a big deal). It reflects our habitual responses to things like wandering thoughts, unpleasantness, frustration, etc.
Momentary frustration and mind-wandering isn’t too problematic. It’s the chains and narratives we build off these instances that cause us real harm. Only illusions linger, reality never does. Our minds don’t just wander when we sit, they wander and then we get frustrated with ourselves. This frustration turns into doubt, doubt into hopelessness, hopelessness into sadness, and sadness into maladaptive coping mechanisms which then lower esteem even further.
We build these chains and then tie ourselves up with them, and we tie up the world with ourselves.
When we see these links of conditioning, we can break these chains. In fact, we start to break the chains just by being aware that they’re there. When these chains come undone, that’s when our IKEA bookcase looks like the one in the picture. So don’t be hard on yourself, you already have all the tools and skills you need. Just get to work, and be patient.
It takes a whole lot of doing nothing to undo all the things we’ve done, but we do undo them; one link at a time.
Editor: Dana Gornall