May 9, 2012

Meditation and the Busy-ness of Modern Living. ~ Neil McKinlay


Tanis shared qualities with many who come to my meditation classes.

She walked in with no experience at all. “I’ve read a little in magazines,” she admitted, “Heard people say things.” By class four in the series, however, she was arriving early. Whisking into the room with a smile lifting her features, she spoke excitedly while setting up her cushion, “I’ve been looking forward to this for days!”

As our last session moved toward its conclusion, everyone was offered a chance to talk about their aspirations. Tanis, like several others, was clear when she spoke: “I want to continue with this. It’s been so helpful.” This sentiment was echoed on her feedback sheet. “I’m going to keep at it!” she insisted in big, blue-inked letters. While leaving the room one final time, she waved and offered a bow. “Thanks so much,” she said, “Thanks so much.”

Follow-up is typically limited with the people I meet in classes and workshops. Tanis proved no exception to this.

She did not attend any of the continuing events that are available. Though I did receive one quick email saying, “Thanks for the update. Keep me in the loop!” I didn’t really interact with her again until we crossed paths in a downtown coffee shop. This was about eight months later.

Her eyes were evasive when we spoke. Words stumbled out of her mouth in stops and starts. Guessing the reason for this, I tried to keep our interaction brief and at some distance from practice. After several minutes, though, Tanis bridged this gap herself. “I’m not really meditating anymore,” she admitted, “I loved that class. I just don’t know what happened. I guess I got swept up in other things.”

When I first began offering meditation classes, it quickly became evident that many participants struggled to establish a home practice once our time together ended. Chance encounters revealed this again and again. Hearing phrases like, “I really want to get back to it,” and “I think it’s something I’ll pick up once the weather changes,” made it abundantly clear Tanis was not alone. A lot of people were seeing an honest inspiration to continue fade into the fog of memory. Rather than a launch pad into something new, for many our class or workshop became something they once did — like ceramics or kick-boxing.

After some reflection, I decided to offer post-event support. Thinking this would remedy the situation, I put together a twenty minute compact disc and started a bimonthly group. Soon the recording was augmented by a thirty page booklet; the ongoing gatherings came together every four or five weeks. A home-based group took shape as well. Thanks to interest from a local community centre, an ‘open door’ evening session emerged. This offered a way for people to practice on a weekly basis. “These are great,” I was told on several occasions, “They really make a difference.”

Yet in my travels around town, I was still running into people who became uncomfortable in my company. Some seemed embarrassed at what had slipped away from them. Others seemed angry, frustrated. A few appeared wholly befuddled at how things had unfolded. Lacking any sense of where their aspiration to meditate had gone, many of these simply shrugged and offered some version of, “I just don’t know what happened.”

I shared this latter group’s confusion. I couldn’t understand what was going on. There were, I thought, now so many ways for people to remain plugged in. Why isn’t this happening?

I wondered right up until that unexpected meeting with Tanis. “I guess I got swept up in other things,” she said. For me, this was like a light going on.


Something that seems to continually astonish people is the extent to which meditation is about our lives. “I came here to get away from my life,” one woman recently confessed. I think many individuals, myself included, feel this way. Our days are hurried. Our homes intense. Our minds never cease. Many of us come to meditation seeking solace. We come hoping to get away from all this. Anyone who has spent a few hours practicing, however, can tell you that this is not what happens.

Sitting down and placing one’s attention on the breath does not provide shelter from the storms of daily living. Quite the opposite seems to be the case. When we sit in this way, we invite the stuff of our lives to arise in a freer, more direct fashion. Relatively unshackled from our constant attempts to manipulate and control, our inner world is able to express itself in ways not normally possible. Thus, we feel the anger we tend to deflect, the sorrow we typically defuse, the joy we so often rationalize away. The distress of a fight with our spouse hits us head on and a confusing situation at work whirls about us like a tornado.

While I cannot claim comfort with this situation, it is something I have become somewhat familiar with over the years. To some extent anyways, I now know the practice is not going to remove me from my emotional ups and downs. Rather than offering respite from how I am feeling, meditation makes me far more open to the emotional waves of my life. Until Tanis, however, I had not understood the extent to which the practice affords a similar sensitivity to outer experience as well.

This is the image that arose when that flash of light burst in my head: We are meditating in a room. The group is perhaps twelve in number. The space is silent, still. Seen from above, there is a sense of the four walls holding us. Their strength rises around us and permits the stillness we are enjoying. When a bell rings, the session is over. People get up from their cushions and bid silent farewells. One by one we step out the door only to be swept up by a terrible wind. This lifts each of us off our feet, pulling us into its speed and chaos.

Within seconds of being taken in this way, it is painfully obvious the experience of only a few moments earlier — the room, the stillness — has been forgotten. The wind has taken us away from this.

This wind is our outer life with all its pressures to gather and accomplish. It is the requirements of home and work. It is the school meetings we must attend, the financial burdens we feel. It is all the possessions we are compelled to accumulate, and our endless need to maintain and improve them. It is the hockey game we said we’d watch, the business trips we’ve committed to, the parent who needs care, the child who wants a ride. It is the gutters that require cleaning and the baby shower we must arrange. It is the dress that needs sewing, the car that needs repaired.

This wind is our outer lives in all their glory. Speaking with Tanis in the coffee shop, I suddenly saw that, if any of us is to engage and deepen the journey offered by meditation practice, we must look at the role this force plays in our personal situations.


The demands of modern living are simply too many and too pervasive to go unexamined. It is, then, our good fortune that meditation throws this fact in our faces with the same persistent vividness it offers our inner experience.

We aspire to practice five days a week. We get thirty minutes in on Monday evening, then our schedules take over. Tuesday is packed with business meetings. Wednesday is curling night. Thursday we forget and Friday we are simply too tired. If we don’t understand that we are being shown something here, we will likely miss a very important message. Instead, we might feel frustrated, discouraged. Perhaps we will denigrate ourselves and come to resent the practice. After a few weeks of this, we may quite understandably just give up.

As with our emotional world, however, this situation is showing us something essential. What is being revealed? What is the message?

It is that our lives, as they are presently arranged, are not able to support our longing for spiritual practice.

This situation is showing us — telling us — that if we are to step onto and travel the path that is waiting in the practice of meditation, something must change. To fulfill our aspiration, we cannot continue business as usual; this will not work. In order to sit down five days a week and begin the journey our heart yearns for, something must alter.

“We need to simplify our lives.” 

I remember the first time I shared this thought with others. It was near the end of an introductory workshop. We had been discussing how to practice at home. As is my tendency, I had been laying out some fairly conservative guidelines: be realistic, be patient, build slowly. When I spoke of simplifying, however, it was like a fire bomb swept through the room. I heard someone gasp. One woman started to cry. An older man blurted from the back, “How the hell do we do that?” A matter I expected to address in a few seconds took a heated half-hour.

For a variety of reasons modern living often allows little space for anything beyond hurry and consumption. As a result, our inspiration to find time for spiritual practice will often insist we encounter an uncomfortable truth. We aspire to five thirty-minute sessions a week, only to discover there is no room for this.

At this point, we are called to look — to really look — at how we live. We are invited to see that work occupies too much of our days. We are asked to see that we like to go to the cabin over weekends and that spare evenings are spent doing chores, connecting with friends, watching television. When inspiration collides with the actual shape of our lives, we are also given a chance to ask questions.

What, among all of this, is really essential? What is truly helpful, nourishing? What can be loosened, cut back, or let go altogether?

Finally understanding this, I now spend a good portion of time engaging these questions at the end of every class. As our last minutes together wind down, the group looks at how we live and considers the impact this might have on our desire to keep going. “We need to simplify our lives,” I say, repeating that incendiary phrase. How this can be achieved is never determined in any definitive way. Rather, the words are left to smolder in our minds like some sort of modern day koan.

My hope, of course, is to make it a little more likely people will find themselves meditating once they move outside the protective walls of the classroom we share. I wonder, though, whether a short discussion will be able to withstand the winds that blow around us through every day.

More specifically, I wonder about Tanis. Would this kind of guidance have helped back when her inspiration had the redness of fire to it? Would it have prevented her from getting “swept up in other things?”

I do not know the answer to these questions. I realize I may never know. Though I keep waiting for an email or another chance encounter, I haven’t interacted with Tanis in more than a year.


Neil McKinlay is a Senior Teacher in Dharma Ocean, a community dedicated to continuing the work of Chogyam Trungpa. He is also a personal coach and intuitive consultant, offering guidance and healing to those who are seeking. His website can be found at www.neilmckinlay.com.



Editor: Cassandra Smith

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