First, that meditation is about achieving a special state of mind. And, second, that achieving that special state of mind has something to do with stopping or slowing down thoughts.
The special state of mind we usually envision is peaceful and relaxing, a haven from the rest of the world. Both of these myths are wrong and are, in fact, obstacles to a path of meditation.
I have friends on the path who, the first time they meditated, found it to be a deeply peaceful and inspiring process. They came out of each session relaxed and looking forward to the next session. These were the good meditators, the ones I was immediately jealous of. My mind, on the other hand, was totally wild, untamed, a riotous bloom of confusion, speediness and irritation.
Trying to sit in meditation was like holding a tiger by the tail, except I couldn’t go anywhere. I was both exhausted and antsy at the same time. Trying to stop thoughts was useless and daydreaming, the escape of choice, just left me back exactly where I started. I became discouraged and exhausted. I was a bad meditator.
But, out of desperation I kept coming back to the cushion. With nowhere to go, I was forced to learn to work with my emotional upheaval, my frantic thoughts. And so I did. Not very well, but again and again and again. There was no choice.
And so over time, I gradually developed some skills to work with my mind. I began noticing anxiety and worry in my body even before I recognized it in my mind. With mindfulness of body I began to let go of anxiety even before I was fully aware it was there. I started learning to bring a sense of space and mindfulness into my work, which was especially important since I worked in an emergency room.
Because I had such a wild mind I was forced to learn to work with it, and everything I learned on the cushion was directly translatable to my wild mind off the cushion. Meanwhile, I noticed that my friends, the good meditators, were still having very peaceful and satisfying meditation sessions. As far as I could tell they were just as anxious and neurotic in their day-to-day life as they were before they started meditating.
And it gradually dawned on me that the good meditators, those who were having the experience I thought I wanted, had fallen into a trap. Because they slipped so easily into a peaceful state of mind, they never learned to work with wild mind.
The upshot is that meditation is not about good meditation and bad meditation, but about working with whatever arises in one’s mind–not trying to have good thoughts and not trying to keep away speedy confused thoughts. Meditation is about learning to accommodate whatever arises, not trying to be control what does arise.
This is the topic for this Wednesday’s ( June 22) Kitchen Sink Dharma talk: The Shambhala Center’s Westside group is presenting weekly talks on subjects like money, love and humor. The community discussions led by senior Shambhala Buddhist teachers also features meditation instruction, a short period of meditation and refreshments. The talks are open to newcomers as well as seasoned practitioners.
The idea of the Kitchen Sink Dharma comes from the experience of rolling up our sleeves and experiencing life directly. Washing dishes in the sink can be meditation as much as sitting in a monastery reciting mantras. These evenings are about integrating a spiritual life with a secular life and having a sense of humor along the way.
When: The Kitchen Sink Dharma
Where: Wednesdays at 7:30 pm at the Westside Shambhala Group located 1453 14th Street #C at Broadway, Santa Monica, 90404. The suggested donation is $10, no one will be turned away for lack of funds. For more information, please email [email protected] or call 323 255 5472, or go to http://la.shambhala.org/westsidetalks.php.
June 22 – When “Good” Meditation is a Problem with David Dubin, MD
June 29 – Is There a Difference Between Gentleness and Bravery?
July 6 –– The Wisdom of a Sense of Humor with Cynthia MacKay
July 13 – The Wisdom of Inconvenience with Bill Bothwell
July 20 – Cultivating Gentleness with Pamela Bothwell
Please let me know if you have any questions or need more information.