Why does a person meditate? What does that mean, to meditate? When someone sits for meditation, on a given occasion or as a practice, what expectations are in the picture?
The purpose of meditation is to cultivate inner stillness. To quiet the mind, to observe thought without becoming lost in its content. To meditate is to tune in to immediate physical reality — sensory input, breath, body feelings, the sensation of aliveness. Meditation enables the mind-made impression of time to unwind, so the underlying timelessness can be felt. It opens the door to presence, allowing consciousness itself to be primary.
As a practice, meditation is thought to move along the spiritual life. The hope is that its benefits will extend to improve the experience of daily existence, deepening insights into how the ego functions, bringing spaciousness and well-being into ordinary activities.
Meditation is apart from “regular life.” You sit in a quiet place, back straight, eyes closed. You take time for it, setting aside whatever else your day holds. Maybe you take fifteen minutes, maybe an hour. There are countless methods. You may focus on a mantra, a prayer. Perhaps the emphasis is on posture, on the breath, or on sensation in discrete parts of the body. The focus may be on the reception of sounds and other sensations in their raw, unfiltered form, without label or judgment. The orientation to thought may be a primary meditation practice.
The real benefit of a meditation practice is not figuring out how to extend its peacefulness past the ringing of the gong. It’s about learning to discover the peace anew — freshly, in this moment, in the middle of the busy day.
Devoted meditators sometimes go on retreats, days or weeks or months away from the usual routine and setting of life. Typically on retreat there are long periods of meditation. Re-entry into one’s normal circumstances can be challenging, the return to family and work being an invitation to slip back into familiar limiting patterns. The retreat itself can stir up enormous discomfort: the sustained silence and inner focus may bring a practitioner to confront difficult truths about the self. Even if a retreat is the setting for painful revelation, the time there feels authentic and essential in a way ordinary life may not.
Like meditation done at home, a retreat usually feels conspicuously different from daily life. This apartness has a lot to do with its appeal. A retreat is a respite, an opportunity to regroup, to be restored. It’s a way to be with kindred spirits, away (maybe) from people at home who can be challenging to inner well-being, people for whom the spiritual life may not be central.
A line is drawn between retreat and life, between meditation and ordinary daily experience. A gong sounds, indicating beginning or end. You get in your car and head to the retreat, then back home. There’s a transition, the perception that meditation is one thing and life another.
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This is not about trying to talk you out of meditating. For goodness’ sake, if you’re moved to formal meditation, at home or elsewhere, do it. What this is about is noticing the distinction you may make between meditation and life. It’s about discovering what can be learned by exploring the apparent difference between the two. It’s about finding doors where you thought there were only walls. It’s about life becoming a joy, not a burden. Not something to survive until you can get back on your cushion, back to the retreat center. Or maybe you see life as a dulling but comfortable refuge from the constraints of what meditation is “supposed” to be.
This is about ceasing to see life and meditation as distinct from one another.
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When the gong rings (or the timer on your smartphone), signaling the end of meditation, what happens inside you? See what you notice about your muscles, your breath. Does your body shift? relax? tense? What goes on in your mind? Do you become self-conscious? There may be a feeling of relief, of letting down your guard. The release of some kind of subtle effort or tension, the welcome sense that now something (anything!) different can happen. The familiar machinery of the self can start up, the resumption of the comforting patter in your head. You can get up and go to the bathroom. You can encounter other people. Whew.
If you feel peaceful coming out of meditation, you may try to “make it last,” to extend the equanimity into ordinary activity (and then feel defeated when that effort fails).
During meditation, do you find yourself wondering how much time is left? Perhaps there’s a sense of whether you’re “doing it right.” Do you feel restless, itchy to return to the comfort of the familiar momentum? When it’s over, maybe you secretly welcome the return to the self you’re used to being, even as the spiritual adept in you knows that very self to be the source of suffering.
Is meditation a break from life, an escape? Maybe you wish it would save you from yourself, from life. Some people meditate to cultivate blissful experiences, preferring mystical states to ordinary experience, imagining some greater reality is being touched. But the vast majority of life is not spent in meditation or on retreat. Whether you’re still bound to the ego or blessedly free of it, life consists largely of ordinary experience. Life is lived with your eyes open, with your body in motion, with things to do, a steady stream of things coming at you (only some of them pleasant).
When you’re on your way home from a retreat, do you dread getting pulled back into patterns of negativity? Is there relief at the prospect of return to the comforting setting and routine, to the numbing lullaby of unconsciousness?
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None of this is “bad.” If that’s where you go with it — to feeling guilty, embarrassed, inadequate — don’t bother lingering there. It’s a waste of your precious life (and anyhow, it’s the ego that feels these things). Instead, use those inner twinges to go deeper, to look at beliefs underlying them. Unobserved, those ideas create a prison. But when you lift them into conscious awareness and explore their ramifications, a door opens to your next adventure in self-discovery. Whereas those unquestioned beliefs have kept you repeating useless patterns, now that you’re looking at them, they lose substance. A new freedom becomes possible.
When you consider what your ordinary life is like — what you feel like when engaged in work, communicating, relating, focused on projects, during down time — does it appear that the You in regular-life mode is different from who you are during meditation? Does the difference seem inevitable? If you tell yourself (consciously or unconsciously) that inner stillness is inconsistent with the motion, outer focus, and busyness of ordinary life, examine this belief. See how it traps you in familiar patterns and actually encourages unconsciousness (because “why bother?”).
Perhaps you believe that being engaged and productive inevitably negates presence, putting you at the mercy of the mind-driven ego. See how these ideas limit you. Notice how they exaggerate the significance of meditation and retreats, as a necessary refuge, a counter-balance to the overwhelming forces of life.
If you tell yourself that regular life and equanimity are at odds, something in you registers it’s natural (maybe even unavoidable) that you’ll become constricted during “regular life.” This supports the ongoing illusion that you need to change into some other sort of person, before you can know your true nature. The cycle of useless effort continues, getting you nowhere.
Do your times of meditation seem more “spiritual” than your time at work, engaging with your partner or family members, cleaning your living space? Can you imagine that you could, in effect, be “meditating” all day, even at work, in encounter with someone?
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What do you suppose it’s like to be completely friendly with daily existence? Even as you know things will keep coming from out of left field, that there will be difficulties, that you are not in charge. Imagine life not being contrary to the inner stillness sought in meditation. In-motion, eyes-open life! What would it be to live — to do things, make progress, engage in conversation — without the mind’s opinionated chatter? To really be in life, this moment of it, and yet not to be defined or burdened by it?
If you’re thinking — okay, maybe this is how it is for somebody no longer identified with the ego, but it isn’t me — hang on. That very assumption keeps the boundary solidly drawn between meditation and life. It makes you lazy, neglectful of this moment and this one. It keeps you from remembering to notice — in the context of any real-life experience — that it’s possible to become still inside, to feel what it is to be. Simply to be.
It’s possible to pause in the middle of any moment and see that the thought you’ve been “lost” in is just a thought. And then see how the stillness comes. See how you become refreshed, able to bring attention to what your senses are presently offering to you. Mid-stream you are refreshed, just as you are on your cushion.
Opportunities abound. Meditation everywhere! Simply by bringing attention to the thing you’re doing right now (not doing one thing and thinking about the next thing, or about whether you like what’s happening at present) — just by being here with what is — you can feel a door open, as surely as you feel your mind grow quiet when you sit on a cushion, eyes shut, and let your muscles unwind.
Because we’re busy, and things are in constant flux, it appears that life is in motion, and we are carried along in its merciless force. Ordinary awareness has us convinced that we’re moving “through time.” Part of the reason meditation can be delicious is it feels like permission to stop, to rest. But any time you stop, in the middle of ordinary activity — a few seconds will do it! — and feel what it feels like to be you right now, in your body, heart, and mind, you can become aware of the stillness of the present moment. It’s always here, if only we will pause and notice.
Present-moment reality, when the attention is there, when there is no resistance, is a fine thing on which to meditate. (And if you notice there is resistance, meditate on that, as it is occurring.) Isn’t the breath always happening? If you pause to notice your breath, as you might in meditation, can you find it? Is there sensation in your body, always? Doesn’t your body go anywhere you go, your sense receptors always there? Can’t your eyes and ears tune in to what’s right here? At lunch time, if you allow your tongue to linger over this bite in the mouth, do you see how the morning’s “problems” dissolve into spacious stillness, into taste?
The real benefit of a meditation practice is not figuring out how to extend its peacefulness past the ringing of the gong. It’s about learning to discover the peace anew — freshly, in this moment, in the middle of the busy day. So much more truly renewing than looking back wistfully to the ease you felt coming out of morning meditation, lamenting your perennial inability to “make it last.”
Isn’t the sweetness of meditation about attention — to this breath, this moment, this sensation of being alive? What makes you think that isn’t constantly available, in the middle of anything? The shocking truth that sometimes erupts in the silence of a retreat — can that not come in the middle of a work day, in the aftermath of an argument with a co-worker? Can such an experience, considered in the light of awareness, not become your teacher, a door opening to insight and eventual freedom?
If you have the habit of believing that certain ways of being simply are not possible in Regular Life, that ordinary experience is inconsistent with being present and self-aware, you are maintaining the very prison that you’d swear you long to become free of. Meditation will continue to be a break from the imprisoning norm. Life will keep seeming like the thing to be tamed, triumphed over, or escaped.
Meditate all day! Sometimes during breakfast, sometimes at work, sometimes on a cushion. Sitting at a red light, waiting for the elevator, standing in line at Starbucks. Meanwhile, when it seems to be impossible to grow still inside, to bring attention to one thing, instead of just getting frustrated or feeling inadequate, do some gentle digging in your heart and mind. See what you deeply believe about what’s possible and what’s not, about what’s in the way, what’s necessary to become still, self-aware. Question every assumption. Take nothing for granted as “the truth,” just because it’s what you’ve believed until now.
Let doors open. If you think there’s a wall separating life from meditation, from retreats, run your hands over the wall and feel for cracks in the rigid belief structures. Maybe those cracks are doors.
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If you sit for meditation, enter into it with your whole body and mind and heart. It can only be a blessing (so long as you don’t try to direct it, or enter it full of expectation). Let meditation take you in its arms. Do your part to show up for it, but realize it has its own wisdom.
If you think you aren’t meditating “right,” move your attention from the exhausting effort to improve and see if you can simply be more truly present to life itself. Feel the difference between receptivity and effort. See what happens when you stop trying so hard and instead let yourself be soft, vulnerable to this moment of life, willing to be with whatever is there. Allowing life to be your teacher.
If you love the restfulness of sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed, after you’ve gotten up and the day is moving along, notice how any time you pause in the middle of the action — even during something unpleasant — you can feel yourself back on that cushion. The stillness moves with you, as you move. It goes everywhere you go. It didn’t stay on the cushion. It didn’t flee when your eyes opened.