We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis~
Clarifying Questions about Meditation Practice
Should I practice shamatha every day?
In my experience, any prescription about how often or how long you should meditate will more than likely set you up for failure. Of course it would be optimal if you could sit each day, especially in the beginning. But more important is the quality of your practice when you sit down to do it. You do it wholeheartedly. You give it 100 percent.
You will be much more likely to be wholehearted with any practice you do if you remind yourself why you are doing it in the first place. You have to look again and again at your motivation. You may be doing it because you feel you’re a bad person if you don’t. You tell yourself: “I was told to do this once, and I did it a couple of years ago and it was kind of nice but I don’t really have time for this. And why am I doing it again? I just can’t seem to get into it. I’m just no good.
That kind of attitude is obviously not so helpful. Whereas if every time you sit down, you start with what the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind”—an attitude of openness and curiosity such as a child might have—you may be more willing to keep at it.
You just begin again and again, remembering the view: “Oh yes, here I am again on my meditation cushion. I vow to tame this distracted mind and to make friends with whatever arises. I’m going to do this on the cushion so that I can do it in my life, because that’s where it really matters.” It’s okay to talk to yourself like this, even saying it out loud—but do it before you start to practice, not while you’re practicing.
Now, if you take the attitude that you’re going to practice because then you’ll be a great meditation master someday, you’re missing the point altogether. You’re going to do this on the cushion so you can do it in your life. No one cares what a great hope-and-fear-conqueror you are on your cushion.
So it really doesn’t matter so much whether you do it everyday. What matters is that when you do it, you really do it. And each time you really do it you’re going to have more of an appetite to do it again, because you are going to feel the clear difference between a life of distraction and a life of mindfulness. You’ll feel that contrast, and you’ll know that it matters.
How do I practice at those times when the view isn’t clear or I can’t really connect with it in a heartfelt way? What do I do when the only response I can find sounds something like, “Do I have to?”
Sometimes the view will be very clear for you. You will feel tremendous appreciation, and the inspiration to practice will be almost effortless. Other times, it will be more obscure and while you may try to force yourself to sit, it feels aggressive. The fact that the quality of your motivation changes from time to time is just a message that your longing and your resistance are still of equal strength. In some ways the whole path is an endless back and forth between your longing and your resistance. In fact, this is how you’re bringing hope and fear to the whole ‘project’ of meditation altogether.
Sometimes your longing will be very strong and you feel hopeful about your practice. At other times your resistance is stronger, and it’s as if you have to push through a vague sense of dread to reach the cushion. Rather than waiting for your inspiration to strike, right there you can experience an appreciation for how the hope and the fear are operating, and how fickle they are, and just go right into that experience. And if every once in a while you go to the cushion only because you feel you should, that’s not a problem! Just do it. The moment you step over your resistance, something shifts. Always. Every time.
Is there a presumption that when we sit, hope and fear will soon come visit us? What if they don’t?
Wait a little longer.
In other words, you can’t be too obsessive about making this connection, assuming that every time you sit down, along will come hope, and along will come fear. If you sit a lot, sometimes your meditation will be very peaceful, in the sense that your mind will be still, with very few thoughts. Then you may have a tendency to cling to that experience or feel that it’s an accomplishment—which is of course an expression of your hope about meditation. When you do this, you inevitably set yourself up for disappointment.
The main issue here has to do with understanding the larger background—which is that hope and fear are deeply ingrained in each of us, and that if we sit down regularly and open ourselves up, they will inevitably come along. Even if they appear to be dormant, we have an understanding that at the deepest level, this is what we’re working with because we are human beings.
If there’s pain or discomfort in my posture, should I regard it as a distraction that I can ignore and inwardly accommodate, or should I respond to it and outwardly address it?
There is a fine line to consider between those two responses. Just knowing that there is a line is really the key point. Exactly where your line falls is a very personal thing. My teacher addressed that question by encouraging us to distinguish between physical pain and psychosomatic pain.
Physical pain tends to be simple and straightforward. When it is just physical pain and it interferes with your ability to hold your mind to the breath—then you should adjust your posture.
Psychosomatic pain, on the other hand, will arise in the body as a sublimation of psychological material that’s not being dealt with. You become distracted by that pain and preoccupied with it as a way of actually blocking the arising of other painful material in the mind. And when it is on that level, if you are able to identify it as such, it’s very important that you stay with it until the painful bodily sensations begin to relax and the other material begins to come up.
That is the rule of thumb, but it’s a very personal matter. The most important rule is that you should not unnecessarily torment yourself when you’re sitting. In one of his earliest instructions, my teacher said that the most important thing when you meditate is to be physically comfortable. So it is better to sit on a chair and be comfortable than sit on a cushion and be uncomfortable. But beyond that general guideline, navigating pain during practice is very much up to you. Over time you gain such familiarity with your own patterns that you begin to know how to handle the different types of pain that arise.
If meditating with eyes closed is more comfortable, why must I meditate with eyes open?
Keeping the eyes closed encourages a dreamy mental state and a tendency to create a cocoon by withdrawing into yourself. Having closed eyes is helpful when you begin a session because doing so enables you to collect yourself and drop down into your bodily experience. But after that initial grounding, it’s more important to encourage a precise, wakeful state that is tuned into the present moment. You stay tuned into knowing what’s happening now. When you’re fully awake, your eyes are open. It’s very simple.
Previous chapters from Bravery: The Living Buddha Within You (In case you missed them):
> Intro & Chapter 1: Bravery: The Living Buddha Within You.
> Chapter 2: The Journey without Goal.
> Chapter 3: Pleasing Illusions that Put Us to Sleep.
> Chapter 4: Dancing with Hope and Fear.
> Chapter 6: Why People Meditate.
> Chapter 9: The Art of Making Friends with Yourself.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner