Most people begin meditation practice because they think it will make them feel better. Fair enough: many people’s first introduction to sitting practice is a technique called shamatha meditation. Shamatha, in Sanskrit, translates as “developing peace.” But the development of this peace is often anything but peaceful.
When you first sit down to observe your mind in shamatha meditation, it may feel like you are submitting yourself to a tour of the rainforest: thick vegetation obscures clear vision, terrifying sounds call from the darkness, the path is laden with obstacles. Welcome to your mind. No wonder so many people try sitting meditation and give up. It’s hard to stay with it at first.
The point of shamatha meditation practice is simply to observe what is happening, right now, and remain present.
Especially at the beginning, it may seem like thoughts are as thick as the rainforest vegetation. There doesn’t seem to be any gap for the light to shine through. But this is the first step in gaining clarity–seeing where there is none. This is perfectly good meditation practice. The point is to simply observe what is happening. Then later, you may discover new facets of the forest, and places where light shines bright.
But here is one big mistake you may be making in your meditation practice: expecting results.
I fell into this trap for a long time. To be completely honest, I still fall into this trap. I keep hoping meditation practice will make my difficult emotions disappear. I still catch myself believing that if I just practice diligently, everything will fall into place effortlessly, and make my life perfect.
Meditation practice does not change the facts of life: that sometimes we get what we want, and sometimes we don’t. So meditation practice is not a quick fix for your woes.
What meditation practice can do is provide you with a lens through which to view your mental and emotional process. You then have the choice to stay present in the moment while the turmoil plays itself out. You no longer have to freak out and dive for the nearest drug to ease you pain–you can simply stay in your body and feel the emotions as they arise. After a few minutes of observing your experience, the intensity dissipates. This is how you gain clarity about your own habitual patterns and propensities.
THAT, is valuable information, if you choose to apply it. Meditation practice is not going to make life go the way you want, but it can teach you to be aware when shit is about to happen, so that you an apply preventative measures, rather than spinning out into drama. It helps you learn to stay present with experience no matter how difficult, so you don’t add to the pain by layering all sorts of other garbage on top of the original experience. You learn to let go of the extras, like self- doubt, judgement, reactivity and destructive behaviors.
Abandon any hope of fruition.
Don’t expect meditation to make you feel better, more calm, more confident. Whatever your particular issues are, when you deepen your meditation, you’ll most likely experience these issues in technicolor vision, with surround-sound as well. In Your Face. It’s not always easy. Or fun.
But here’s the trick: once you learn to weather the emotional storms, you do gain confidence. This tends to make you feel better, and maybe just a bit more calm.
All of this is just to say that meditation is not a panacea for suffering. Shit happens. Really painful shit. And sometimes meditation seems to make it more intense because you become aware of the excruciating details of the process, like watching a great literary scene unfold. You watch the characters undo their lives, moment by moment, gesture by gesture; the pauses between the words, the missed cues. You feel the magnitude of what they are about to say before they say it and still you can do nothing to alter the course of the story. All you can do is watch as the protagonists destroy themselves.
If those protagonists were meditators, it would be a different story….(and probably less entertaining.)
What is the big mistake most people make in their meditation practice?
It is expecting meditation to eliminate suffering from your life. Sorry! I wish I had better news. But the good news is that it helps your mind become strong and supple, so you can handle it. And you start to become more aware of when a “great literary scene” is about to arise in your life, so you can prepare or avert it.
So what is the point then? Why meditate?
Why not just carry on as most of humanity does, letting awareness flit from one distraction to another, ever ready for the next sound byte to carry them away from the present moment, avoiding the unpleasant or unresolvable questions that might highlight the precariousness of the human predicament?
Because living that way is fundamentally unsatisfying.There is no lasting happiness as long as we base our happiness on external circumstances. We come here for no good reason that we can discern, fumble about trying to figure out what to do once we’re here, and then BAM we die. Really, who wants to think about these things?
(Apparently I do. and if you’ve made it this far with me, you do too.)
A quote by Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel encapsulates this dilemma in her little gem, The Power of an Open Question:
“How do we live a life we can’t hold on to?” How do we live with the fact that the moment we’re born we move closer to death; when we fall in love we sign up for grief? How do we reconcile that gain always ends in loss; gathering, in separation?”
Meditation Practice Is A Tool
Meditation is simply a tool to help you settle into the ultimately unanswerable questions life poses. You don’t have all the answers. But you can learn to formulate interesting questions and then rest in the space that arises after you ask the question.
I prefer to be aware of the fundamental mystery we are living. Resting in a clear view of open potential makes it manageable. I’ve learned to be OK–maybe not always happy – but OK when shit happens. Because I know that too is impermanent. And I learned to trust this through meditation, through observing the mind. Eventually, with sustained effort, the practice does allow you to rest in a state of peace while the earth falls away under your feet. And that is a wild ride worth the price of the ticket.