By David Jones
Have you ever wondered what meditation is for?
If you ask three people you’ll probably end up with eight answers, because like any tool it can be used in many different ways (some more skillful than others).
Meditation is used for centering your mind, handling anxiety, achieving moments of clarity and enlightenment, dealing with the ego, achieving inner peace, finding balance, examining the self with all of its beautiful hangups, plus so much more.
But first, meditation is a tool to teach yourself how to be compassionate.
Long before your first insight, calm moment, or decent blood pressure number, you’re probably going to hit a wall as you try to quiet your mind and find it won’t cooperate. That’s when you encounter your first big step forward on the meditative path.
I’ve lost track of how many folks I’ve talked with who say they can’t meditate for one reason: they can’t keep their mind empty, quiet, and still. Within seconds of sitting down their brains get distracted and before they know it they’ve got a tsunami of thoughts sweeping over them and their $80 designer zabuton.
Our minds will wander and get distracted. They just will, it’s what brains do.
It’s how they’re wired; this biological highway doesn’t have only one lane but millions. So being mad at our brain—and ourselves—for losing focus isn’t compassion. If we get down on ourselves and angrily drag our mind back on track, the ol’ mind might become frustrated and resentful like a stubborn child.
The brain can be like a dog charging out the back door the moment it’s open wide enough. We spend so much time being more or less oblivious of all the cross-traffic going on in our noggin. That’s why our minds race when we try to sit quietly or lie down to sleep. All the thoughts we’ve ignored or shoved away rush in because we’re finally giving them time, room, and opportunity to do so.
When the mind wanders, that’s when we look at the distraction and allow it to pass, then gently move our mind back to the center again. Perhaps the goal isn’t in quieting or defeating the rambunctious mind but in learning how better to deal with it. That’s a kind, loving, forgiving way of responding.
If we don’t know how to show true compassion to ourselves, how could we have a good enough understanding to show it to others? Meditation is a self-learning course in recognizing what bothers you as well as how to choose responses instead of reactions to those things.
Here are some ways we can use meditation to build compassion within ourselves, for the benefit of all.
Deep listening. We know it’s good to listen closely and without judgment to others, but what about our own internal monologue? It’s good to sit with what we tell ourselves rather than dismiss or criticize it.
Self-empathy. It’s amazing how little we seem to know ourselves, seeing as how that’s who we’re around all the time. Do we really know what it’s like to walk a mile in our own shoes, or do we walk through life without mindful intent and awareness, ignoring or dismissing our authentic experiences?
Forgiving failure. We might take our own failings way harder than someone else’s. While some folks only see the shortcomings of others and never their own, others punish their own failures harshly. Both could benefit from a Middle Way approach of truly examining the self, whether or not we believe in something called the self.
Forgiving transgression. Oh boy, somebody done us wrong. A new country or blues song is about to be born. For some, forgiving others is first nature, and for others it’s entirely unnatural. But how about when we’re face to face with our own offenses? The weight of guilt we cart around with us can be debilitating. Learning to forgive ourselves goes a long way toward defeating that guilt.
Building patience. If we’re impatient it can be murder to force ourselves to just sit there. So much needs to be done, so much time’s going to be wasted while we sit staring at a wall or the insides of our eyelids. The impatient mind might be the hardest to wrangle for meditation, but it might be the one thing best served by a personal practice.
We see all these things as elements of compassion. By developing these and other skilful qualities in ourselves, we learn how to put them to use for others.
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