I’ve long had issues reconciling my Jewishly religious feelings and my Buddhist ones. Somehow, they still feel unresolved. I still feel a polarity between them, and I’m still pulled back and forth.
Zoketsu Norman Fisher was one of the first Jewish Buddhist teachers I ever met, learned from, and sat with, and he always makes it seem so natural. I don’t know why that naturalness doesn’t stick with me, but I guess hearing or reading him tell it over and over again is the next best thing:
I do believe in the benevolent protection of God. Not in the sense that good things will always come to good people whom God loves, but in the sense that something always happens, and that what happens is what it is and not something else, and that therefore there is a special virtue in it.
I feel this, too, and I would never deny it. It’s the particulars laid on top of God that give me pause.
Fisher says, and I agree, that part of the problem is that the longstanding design of Jewish religion optimizes for group cohesion and survival, which can come at the expense of personal spiritual experience. No Jew at any point on the religious spectrum would deny this; in fact, I hear this problem preached about most fervently from Orthodox Jews. The reason Fisher teaches Jewish meditation, in addition to Zen, at a dedicated institution is to help compensate for this spiritual lack:
So this is where the meditation comes in: it is easy access to God-encounter, through encountering your own body, breath, mind, and presence.
What he won’t be baited into saying is that this is more important than religious observances for their own sake. This is the kind of thing my desire for Zen urges me to say: Abandon the complexities and cognitive dissonances of formal religion and just do the practice! But Fisher has a deft way of sidestepping that problem by showing that wherever God is, that’s also where the practice is.
Practically all my meditation training has been in disciplines of opening the attention to admit all available phenomena, in order to learn to be present with them. But as someone easily irritated by sensation, it’s incredibly therapeutic to me to close my attention to outside phenomena, especially if I’m trying to concentrate.
Even though it’s the opposite of my meditation instructions, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m still practicing when I’m doing this.
Often I can’t achieve this state of closed concentration without a pair of noise-canceling headphones and a good myNoise setting. But once I’ve got the world well and truly blocked out, deeply interesting things begin to arise.
For one thing, my mind quiets itself. I get a clear sense that the thinking part of my mind is like the surface of a pond, and the world is chucking rocks into it all the time, creating unending turbulence. When I artificially put a force field around the pond, it quickly goes still. Only slight perturbations from below the surface ripple out, and they dissipate without a trace.
An emotion of relief arises, too, and that quickly gives way to compassion. All beings are having rocks tossed into their ponds, and even the best force fields are impermanent. My gratitude for a brief respite is powerful enough to reorient me towards the outside with an attitude of leaving no trace, tossing no rocks, even a desire to protect others from disturbance.
Doesn’t that sound super Buddhist? Yet no Buddhist-trained person has ever told me to block out sensations. Maybe I just haven’t asked the right question yet.
Brad Warner takes a big risk by publicly tunneling under the idea that the only moral way to live is with complete, uninterrupted commitment to obvious acts of service:
[F]rom a very young age I was aware of the idea that a truly moral person must give absolutely everything in order not to fall short of what the virtuous life requires. I felt like a real scumbag for enjoying my job.
I relate to this deeply. I can identify two different societal pressures on how I feel about the morality and virtue of work. On one hand there’s the liberal ideal that one should commit as much time and energy as possible to acts of service. On the other there’s the capitalist ideal that economically productive work is a virtue, and there’s no upper limit to how much of it you Should™ do.
The really tricky part is that these pressures both apply, but they aren’t exactly connected, and they can easily come into conflict. The result is an insatiable societal demand for more sacrifice.
But isn’t it the case that one should give of oneself in service of others? Warner brings a teaching from Dogen to show that this moral demand is much more radical than its conventional interpretation:
“Both receiving the body and giving up the body are free giving,” Dogen says. To Dogen, even being alive and dying are examples of free giving. Even the mere fact that you are alive and someday you will die are ways that the universe gives itself to the universe.
The way to truly serve all beings is to begin from the understanding that you’re always giving. Warner’s first post on the topic stops there, though, which doesn’t quite resolve the question of whether it’s virtuous to do self-satisfying work.
To clarify, he wrote a part 2 that examines the sort of moral Butterfly Effect that seems to inevitably arise from doing good work, even if not necessarily in the sense of direct acts of charity or community service.
To me, the takeaway is not that one should feel good about oneself merely for living one’s life. It’s that an orientation that every act is an act of service is what generates a truly moral attitude, as opposed to an attitude of doing acts of service as a means to some morally satisfying end.
I’m extremely grateful to Karen Maezen Miller for writing this short blog post and matter-of-factly stating this:
These days I carry a tiny notepad to the cushion to record passages that arrive when I am going nowhere and doing nothing.
I have struggled mightily over what to do with good ideas — or even merely important to-dos — that arise while I’m meditating.
My instinct has always told me to stop and write them down, or else the ideas will keep distracting me for the rest of the sit. When I’ve done that, it has worked.
Yet some teacherly voice in my head has always said not to do this.
At times I’ve felt like I should let them pass, because that’s what meditators are Supposed™ to do, and no matter how beautiful or important the thought is, it’s an opportunity to practice non-attachment by letting it disappear, possibly never to return.
My sense of loss over some of those ideas has been great, though. In a few cases, I’ve sensed it would be too great, so I’ve written them down. For example, the idea to create this website came to me in the middle of a retreat. I “broke” the silence of the retreat to sneak off and write it down, and I’m quite glad I did.
But apparently I’ve fretted about this problem needlessly. Karen Maezen Miller has an authoritative source saying it’s okay:
Yasutani Roshi said as much in the seminal Three Pillars of Zen: “There comes a point in your sitting when insights will flash into your mind. If you don’t jot down things that you want to remember, this could bother you and interfere with your concentration. You may want to keep a pencil and notebook next to you.”
Yes. That’s exactly why I think it’s the right call for me. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but I know when a really good one comes to me during meditation, no more meditation will get done until the idea is safely recorded.
If there is a faith claim that motivates the practice of meditation, it’s the claim that it “works.” For meditation to “work,” it could be enough that it alleviates suffering incrementally, or partially. But I admit that sometimes I believe, or want to believe, that it works completely — that the awakening the Buddha taught about is available.
If I’ve seen awakening in other beings with my own eyes, though, I didn’t know it. But I do occasionally hear reports from others that I believe. This description from Sarah Beasley of her teacher, for example:
Having even a brief taste of awakening, or true nature, causes one to fervently wish it for all beings. I remember with devotion the look on Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s face when he would softly say, “It’s so simple, you won’t believe me,” with tears in his eyes.
Oof. I think I would, actually.
I’ve never felt learned enough to decide on or declare adherence to any particular Buddhist tradition, but I’ve always gravitated toward Zen.
I try not to cling to that, because I suspect of myself — and of Western Buddhists writ large, if I’m being honest — that I’m merely experiencing some aesthetic preference rather than a legitimate philosophical one.
I think that skepticism and concern for cultural appropriation is healthy. Still, the closer I get to heart of Zen, the more true it sounds:
Bodhidharma was the first to introduce the specific teachings that defined the Zen school. Much of his renown comes from a famous four-line teaching attributed to him:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not depending on words and letters;
Directly pointing to the mind,
Seeing into one’s true nature and attaining buddhahood.
If those four lines are, as this post by Haleigh Atwood says, “the taproot of Zen,” I get why it calls to me. It’s the counterweight to my Jewish side. I can’t incorporate another tradition that depends utterly on the authority of scholarly texts. But “not depending on words and letters”? I can get into that for sure.
As usual, Pema Chödrön demonstrates the clear, penetrating simplicity of a true master’s teachings:
“There are different kinds of laziness. First, there’s the laziness of comfort orientation, we just try to stay comfortable and cozy. Then there’s the laziness of loss of heart, a kind of deep discouragement, a feeling of giving up on ourselves, of hopelessness. There’s also the laziness of couldn’t care less. That’s when we harden into resignation and bitterness and just close down.”
It would not have occurred to me naturally that laziness is more than one thing. This post shows that it is three distinct things, all of which are familiar to me, and all of which I recognize as laziness.
The more I study Buddhism, the more it seems to be the most scientifically advanced description our species has yet come up with of our own psychology.
Sometimes my desire to meditate is about achieving something. Sometimes I desire a peaceful mental state I know is temporary. Other times I desire a deeper, more permanent peace that I imagine is compounding over my lifetime of meditation.
Sometimes my desire to meditate is about taking care of something. I feel scattered or stressed or upset, and I want to work through those feelings, whether for my own benefit or to protect the people around me.
Sometimes my desire to meditate is about belonging to something. I want to be a meditator, to be one of the people who advocates for meditation in the world… which of course can only be done in good faith by someone who meditates. Lots of problems in this category.
Sometimes, though, my desire to meditate is just a desire to be alone for a while. This is actually the most interesting category to me.
People often say that the hardest part of meditation for them is being alone with their thoughts. It’s also common to generalize this sentiment and say that meditation is uniquely difficult for “Westerners” because of this. I guess “Westerners” are supposed to be outgoing, gregarious extroverts who need constant human interaction. And the flip side of this is supposedly that “Westerners” all have monstrous, domineering egos that cry out in agony under the barest scrutiny of meditation. That’s so alien to me it actually makes me sad.
Why exactly is it that meditation is so ascendant in this “Western” culture that is also constantly pressing everyone ever closer together, with denser cities, a so-called “service economy,” and media that encourage every person on the planet to yell at the top of their lungs about themselves? Could it be because we’re losing our minds in this sea of others?
“The problem is there are no good ways to give instructions on how to do nothing.”
I like this post not so much for its wisdom as for its style. It makes me slightly uncomfortable, but I think that’s because of its undisguised real-person-ness.
A lot of harm comes from believing a teacher is something more than or beyond a real person.
Plus, it seems important to accustom oneself to learning wisdom from real people — that is to say, anyone. Someone who writes and talks like this, rather than like some simulation of a holy guru.
I’ve decided to open up the structure of Grind Well a little bit, to make it possible to post more often without always writing a complete mini-essay and recording it to boot. I’m going to start doing link posts, entering the venerable tradition of blogging by sharing, with a brief comment, rather than always by writing new thoughts.
The titles of link posts will be prefixed with this character: ⤳. The Unicode table calls that a “Wave Arrow Pointing Directly Right.” Isn’t that nice?
Importantly, link posts will not have an audio component! So if you want to receive the link posts, you’ll need to be subscribed by RSS, Facebook, Twitter, or Micro.blog, instead of (or in addition to) your podcast player.
I certainly intend to be doing full posts with audio more frequently than I am right now, but link posts will be a nice way to keep things going in between them. It will also expand the palette of my thinking-out-loud about meditation to include other people’s voices, which seems like a good idea.
Hope you enjoy it,
It’s been six and a half weeks since my daughter was born. This morning, for the first time, I managed to wake myself at 6 a.m. to sit for 30 minutes before she and her mother woke up.
As good as I’ve been about taking this new experience of parenthood one breath at a time, I am starting to feel the fault lines in my mental state. The spaces between perceptions and reactions are narrowing. I’m noticing more often that I’m in the middle of a sentence already. My number of apologies per day has definitely increased in the past week or so.
Some of this can be written off to exhaustion, but that’s still not an excuse. Reactivity and lack of mindfulness with my newly expanded family is not acceptable. It’s my responsibility to remember I have a practice to work on those things. I have to consider the correlation between the decline in my practice and my decline in mindfulness.
This morning’s sit reminded me how much the practice is about making space. This is why it isn’t counterintuitive that we sit doing nothing to practice right action in the world.
Right action requires sensing the open space of the moment, deciding to step into that space, and then doing so freely. Sitting still for many minutes between actions is an expanded, scaled up version of that same free decision, letting us see it in exquisite detail and understand what it takes.
Right action requires a good night’s sleep, too — don’t get me wrong — but this is worth waking up for. Making space before a day of actions is an integral part of making space before each action.
The practice really does work one breath at a time. This is something I doubted before having a baby and getting my meditation routine utterly annihilated. I haven’t sat for more than five minutes straight since she was born over a month ago — and certainly not in any pattern for two days in a row — but my practice feels weirdly intact.
What am I doing right?
Certainly, I’m bringing mindfulness to all my interactions with her, especially when she needs something. I find it pretty much impossible to think about something else while changing a diaper, and that’s great for meditation.
But I’m also taking a minute here, a minute there, just to come back to the breath like every meditation teacher I’ve ever had has suggested. Funnily enough, I think I might skip over that part of the practice when I have a dedicated daily time for sitting. I think I might tell myself I’ve already meditated today, so I don’t need to do it again.
Clearly, that’s the wrong call, even if I’m only making it subconsciously. Now that I’m giving myself that gift of mindful breathing throughout the day (and in the middle of the night), I’m starting to think this might be the most fundamental part of meditation practice.
In seated meditation, we gradually learn that it’s fine for the mind to wander off occasionally. That’s just what minds do. The practice — the part that trains our strength as meditators — is the repeated effort of guiding our attention back. Coming back to the breath in moments of pause has exactly the same effect.
I’m sleep-deprived, I’m disoriented, I’m not taking the best care of my body right now. You know, baby stuff. Yet I’ve never been more sure that meditation is helping me get along.
I’m rocking in a rocking chair facing the window. The sun is streaming in. My wife is propped up on the couch with her laptop, notebook sprawled out beside her, taking a take-home test in her final year of rabbinical school. She’s streaming ambient piano music from the TV speakers, filling the room. The TV is covered with a red and orange tapestry. My feet are bare, and the cold air on them feels refreshing. It’s Sunday morning. I’ve had my coffee, done my reading, and now I’m writing on the tablet on my lap. Between my arms, held fast by a length of stretchy, gray fabric wrapped around my body, my daughter is asleep on my chest.
She’s been here less than three weeks. It’s been so amazing — so unprecedented — that I can’t believe I was able to anticipate anything about it, but I was right about what it meant for my practice. Caring for a newborn baby is not easy, but doing it makes spiritual practice the easiest thing in the world.
My daughter has become the avatar for holiness. She has annihilated any question of priority. The practice in its guise as seated meditation for 30 minutes did not always make clear to me that it was the highest priority in my life. The practice in its guise as caring for my luminous newborn daughter is my only priority. In each moment, I have a choice: Say no and be in hell, or say yes and be in heaven. Saying yes is doing the practice. Doing the practice is changing the diaper, washing the hair, putting on the onesie, giving her a fingertip to comfort herself while her mother is in the bath. I can’t even remember what the unmindful mind is like.
It’s time to put Grind Well on pause again for the moment, and it’s for the best possible reason. My wife and I are expecting our first child any moment now. When she is ready to come out into the world, we’re going to close up our world around her for a while and make our home into a quiet little nest. We’re both blessed with the freedom to do this for a few weeks. In California, paid parental leave is almost up to scratch with the civilized world! I’m putting most projects on hold for that time so I can be fully present in the baby zone.
Just like in the last pause, I’m not sure I won’t publish anything, but it certainly won’t be daily-ish for a short while. Given how profound things are about to get, if any of it can be put into words, I probably will, but maybe not for public consumption. Still, I think our daughter — Wow! Our daughter!! — is going to be the greatest spiritual teacher of our lives, and I look forward eagerly to the new lessons about life and the practice that she’s going to teach me. You’ll hear about it here, as soon as it’s time.
In the meantime, thanks for reading, listening, or both. It’s been a joy to hear from some of you and know you’re finding the site helpful. Feel free to keep getting in touch via any of the means on the About page. I’ll write back while the baby’s sleeping.
Talk to you on the other side,
Sometimes “mindfulness” and “productivity” seem like twin memes. The best illustration of this is that it’s equally natural to pair another meme, “Zen,” with either one. The demands of the high-tech Western world have colonized its spirituality so thoroughly that a desk or an email inbox can produce “Zen” feelings, while sitting and doing nothing can produce terrible suffering.
Much has been made of the way “mindfulness” as a meme, particularly on the West Coast of America, has really arisen as a form of compliant concentration to increase productivity. All the best-selling apps and competitive health-tracking metrics for meditation and yoga certainly contribute to that appearance. All the giant, profit-driven corporations providing mindfulness time for their employees must at least hope it will increase returns for shareholders.
It makes some sense, actually. It could be argued that the fundamental benefit of mindfulness is to integrate into the world as it is. One practices mindfulness because one believes there’s less suffering in facing reality than in struggling pointlessly against it. If your reality is relentless productivity, why not incorporate mindfulness into that reality? In the best case, you can hope for everyone’s gradual awakening to the fact that, hey, we might be more productive in the long run if we chilled out a little bit.
But this productivity mentality goes down to a very personal, moment-by-moment level. I spent most of my sit this morning resisting meditation because it felt spiritually healthier to get up and start planning my work day. The sense of getting things done has become emotionally important to me, and it does feel like part of my mindfulness practice. Honestly, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. But I do know that any strength built in meditation comes from not giving up, and that strength of will benefits both “mindfulness” and “productivity.” So even though productivity seemed like a good reason to get up, I sat with it anyway.
It’s clear that the objective of meditation is to cultivate a stable state of mindfulness that can be carried out into daily life. But I don’t know of any traditions of meditation instruction that just leave you with, “Okay, kid! Now get out there and be mindful!” There are always at least some practical tips about how to find moments of practice in daily situations. Many traditions go further and teach additional, more lifelike activities as meditation, to introduce aspirants to the contrast in a controlled environment.
The best known example is probably walking meditation, which doubles as a nice relief for the knees during long days of sitting. Walking meditation is not taught in a way that at all resembles normal walking. You go through painstakingly slow, detailed movements of lifting the foot, placing it down, straightening the leg, feeling each part of the stride. It sensitizes you to the vibrant panoply of sensations available during walking, which makes it much easier to transfer that awareness into day-to-day walking. Sitting still and thinking about it doesn’t translate quite as easily.
There’s a rich Zen tradition of assigning practitioners to all kinds of cooking and cleaning duties as part of their retreat or monastic residence, so that mindful toilet-scrubbing is no different from mindful sitting. Judaism has a comprehensive system of blessings said outside of structured prayer times for elevating many mundane activities: eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, washing your hands. For me, writing this blog is certainly another mindfulness practice bridging my meditation and my daily work.
It might not be enough to just use mild mental affirmations while going about your day. It builds mindfulness muscle memory to complement seated meditation with other, more active practices.
Meditation can be a lonely practice. All that really means is that the mind can be a lonely place. It seems to come with a sense of isolation from other minds. Sometimes it feels removed from anything “outside” — like there’s a gap, or a glass barrier, that cannot be crossed.
This is why spiritual teachers insist on practice in community, so at least words, gestures, and facial expressions can be lobbed across the gap or pressed against the glass. If the path feels too lonely, it can be demoralizing to the point of giving up. Or, perhaps worse than that, one can get lost without the friendly guidance of others, wandering aimlessly, in circles, or in the wrong direction.
Most of us can’t take the express train to spiritual community and become monastics. Luckily, the local will still get you there. There are religious and secular meditation groups all over the place. I’ve sat regularly with a few over my years of wandering around looking for home, and they’ve been anchors in times of rest and sails in times of motion.
This kind of community, though, is hard to build while wandering. The work of this practice takes a lifetime, and so does the work of building the companionship required to support it. And these are wandering times. There are millions of people searching desperately for home, and millions more less desperate, but still searching. The prophets of our time point to the internet as the great layer of community that can connect us all, even as we wander. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you believe in that. But even if one can’t build a spiritual home on the shifting grounds of these times, at least one can smile across the gap to the person passing by.
In order to keep meditating with commitment and intensity day after day, it helps to bring to it a sense of novelty. That’s a tall order. It sure looks like meditation practice is just doing the same exact thing over and over again. That’s why it’s critical to learn to refresh the perspective on it.
A sense of repetitiveness and boredom destroys the will, and that’s more than enough to shut down the cycle of regular practice right there. In my experience, grimly hanging in there past that point can actually make things worse. Layering self-judgment and masochism on top of the suffering of boredom can start to do lasting emotional damage. Sure, you could try to work with all those negative feelings in meditation, but it’s probably best to head them off before they start.
The thing is, it’s not a trick; there really is novelty in every situation, even on the cushion. The light in the room is always a little different, the position of your body is always a little different, and your mix of thoughts and feelings is always way different from one moment to the next. I know, it sounds too cute to actually use this, but it’s true, and it works if you let it. Every single moment is different from the last. They’re all novel.
There’s one mental quality that can reliably generate the sense of novelty, and it can be boiled down to one word: curiosity. If you can learn to locate your sense of curiosity and feed it with mental energy, your ability to go, “Huh. What’s this?” will refresh any situation with novelty. It works on the cushion, it works when I don’t know what to write about my time on the cushion, and it works out in the world, too.
This time of year — the perfect part of autumn before the infernal end of Daylight Savings Time — my long morning walk begins right at sunrise. When I walk out the door, I’ve done nothing other than wake up, brush my teeth, drink water, and sit in meditation for 30 minutes, so a sunrise walk sounds just right.
I live in a big city, so this walk is often not as tranquil as it sounds. There are already people driving like maniacs through residential neighborhoods to avoid mayhem on the main roads, and I’m dodging them left and right. Mainly, what I enjoy about these walks is the quality of the light — how the glow of sunrise makes human habitations and morning routines seem silly and holy at the same time. Today, though, I was struck by one particular vision. Today, I saw the tree.
This tree was literally highlighted by the sunrise, so I’m not some kind of genius naturalist for discovering its beauty. Still, I walk this same route every single morning, and this gnarly, stout, Western tree has always blended in with the neighborhood until today. This morning, the tree was practically singing with significance. It showed me what it looks like to thrive in the midst of the city.
To say this experience took place “in my mind” does not seem accurate. It took place on the street; every creature and car and garbage can in the area was involved. I saw a tree, a feeling arose, it stimulated a thought, I noticed the thought — that all happened in my mind. But what it all meant — why I thought it mattered enough to write about — was that the neighborhood is an ecosystem. Look around your neighborhood today. Is that how people are treating it?
I don’t think you have to be religious about mindfulness by any means, but I do think it helps. For those of us who haven’t already crossed over into a timeless state where all of life is deep meditation, I think there is a mood that supports the practice in the sense that it helps to be “in the mood” to do it. Of course, it is critical to strengthen the practice by doing it even when one is not in the mood, but it is also possible to cultivate the mood, and that’s where religiousness can help.
I’m very carefully not saying what kind of religion helps, but obviously it would stand to reason that Buddhism has some things to offer. I use an alchemical combination of Buddhism and my native Judaism, and I think anybody with religious experience can probably find a place for mindfulness in their life. All that matters is that it’s a superstructure of mythic narrative that feels like it applies to you, whether you think of it as religious or not. The mechanism of action here is a story about who and what you are that gets you in the mood to meditate on it.
The story is not the point; the mood is the point. This is the kind of thing that gets me into hot water with more traditionally-minded people, and this is why my wife is going to be the rabbi, and I’m going to be leading the “alternative” meditation group in the little side chapel. But I’ll say it anyway: I think religion might be for regulating mood, and that’s very important! We can use this powerful technology of mythic place-finding for putting ourselves in an expansive, contemplative mood. In that mood, we can open to insight.
I don’t always feel an immediate, tangible benefit after I meditate, but it’s not exceedingly rare, either. Nor is it quite comparable to the euphoric relaxation after a hard workout; it’s harder to detect than that. But there is a sensation I can feel sometimes after I sit — maybe just for an hour after, maybe for the rest of the day.
There’s a shift in my perspective. It feels like I’m wavering on the line between everything being its normal, boring self and being utterly new, different, dazzling and strange.
I realize as I say it that this might sound scary. To me, it’s the opposite — it’s what I live for. The sensation is intimately familiar to me. In fact, this sensation might be what drove me to meditation in the first place. Since I was very young, I got occasional peeks behind the curtain of my habitual states of mind, and I was tantalized by the possibility that I could pull it back further. That’s what meditation seems to do.
In Buddhism, there are different schools of thought about whether enlightenment is gradual or sudden. I can’t tell yet. This sensation and perspective shift I’m describing feels like wavering back and forth between unenlightened and enlightened states. I think they’re getting clearer, more frequent, and more stable over time, but I’m not totally sure. And either way, who’s to say it won’t feel like five gees of acceleration when — okay, if — it really happens? All I can say for now is, I believe the shift is possible, whether it happens all at once or bit by bit.
I frequently hear people — often in the midst of expressing how stressed out they are — utter the phrase, “I should be meditating more.” I’m sure I utter it myself sometimes.
It’s a classic Western-style cause-and-effect thing: “I am stressed out, so if I meditate more, I’ll be more relaxed.” It’s like a diet or an exercise regimen. It treats meditation as a health remedy.
But is that really how meditation works? Does meditating more often reduce one’s stress level? I don’t have clinical evidence, but it’s certainly not that straightforward in my personal experience. If anything, the causal relationship is reversed; being stressed out causes me to meditate less, and when I’m less stressed out, I meditate more.
The amount of meditation I’m doing doesn’t seem to determine in any way when or how often I get stressed out. It’s possible that I respond better to being stressed out when I’ve been meditating frequently — that I notice my stress enough to cool my reactions and be more forgiving of myself and others — but it’s also possible I just believe that because it’s what all my teachers and books tell me is supposed to happen. I can’t actually measure that and know it to be true.
So — it seems fair to ask at this point — what does meditation do, and why does it generate anxiety about not doing it enough?
Meditation reveals the mind’s true nature. I think it’s important to let that be all it does. Loading the practice with relieving all neuroses and anxieties and aspirations fills it with distractions from the task at hand. Don’t overcomplicate it; attending to reality is all there is to do. “Should” is anxiety, and anxiety obscures reality. Insight may indeed reduce anxiety, but “should” will never let you get there.
Meditators are so serious about the word “practice.” All its connotations seem to fit so well with what it is we do on the proverbial cushion. Meditation is a “practice” in the sense that it’s practical — that it’s primarily about doing it rather than believing in it. It’s also a “practice” in the sense of rehearsal, a focused time to hone a skill in preparation for deploying it in the situations of our lives.
Here’s where my faith in that word tends to break down, though: When you practice with your band, you play the songs the way they’re really played. You pretend with the full force of your imagination that you’re playing the real show right now, and you’re playing the music the exact same way. Later, when you’re up on stage, the performance feels familiar — because you’ve practiced it — so your body and mind know just what to do.
Isn’t that the opposite of meditation practice?
How often do you find yourself in a situation — hours or even minutes after a lovely, quiet, mindful period of meditation — where you realize that all that lovely, quiet mindfulness has gone completely out the window? It happens to me daily. Some mundane situation — even a completely minor one — gets me so spun up that I react in exactly the opposite way I’d want to if I were fully present. Well, that situation is usually the polar opposite of sitting cross-legged in a quiet room with my eyes closed. So where’s the practice in this?
Maybe meditation is really more like exercise than practice, at least in this sense. You work on fundamental skills, leading to incremental improvements and — crucially — to faster recovery. Meditation is not for rehearsing life; it’s for building strength.
On Sundays, I wake up at the exact same time and do the exact same meditation practice that I do on Mondays. Younger versions of me would be horrified at this, but it’s true.
I do this for two reasons. The first is to maintain routine, which inculcates the practice — and it’s just how I like my life to be anyway — but it also makes the launch into the work week much less jarring if Monday starts off just like the Sunday before it.
The second reason is scientific. I impose some rigor on my daily practice in order to control for variables, so I can more clearly see results in the ongoing experiment that is my daily meditation practice. If I meditate in exactly the same way on Sunday as I do on a weekday, any differences in the experience will reveal something significant about my mind and my meditation on the weekend versus the workday.
And it is quite different. In my Sunday morning sits, there is far less projection about what’s going to happen today. The near future feels quiet and spacious, whereas on a weekday it often feels cramped and loud and intense. But even though I’m less concerned with particulars of what’s going to happen today, there’s an underlying general anxiety about whether I’m going to spend my time well today that feels exactly the same.
There’s so much to learn here! The experiment helps me separate out which feelings arise from fleeting concerns and which ones arise from more ongoing, deeper mysteries in my life.
This is just one example from one Sunday morning, but it speaks to a general lesson about the practice: To really see the contours of our mental landscape, it’s best to look from multiple angles.
It’s been months since my last retreat, and the memories of what it was like have faded. I remember some events, some visions, some teachings, the food. I certainly remember sitting in meditation a lot, but the vividness and intensity of what really happened in those sits is long gone.
But I remember it well enough to know that this meditation at home feels different. On retreat, I was sitting with my own stuff — deeply engrained tendencies and thought patterns, lifelong themes — and I was untangling them, loosening them. Don’t get me wrong; it was painful and frustrating, but it felt like progress.
At home, though — especially by the time Friday rolls around — my mind is so much more boring than that. All the energy in there is consumed by the stuff I’m already spending time on — whatever domestic, social, financial, or professional micro-dramas happen to be swirling around. I mean, I count my blessings. I could be preoccupied with past trauma or present danger, but I am privileged to spend my endless mental rehearsals mostly on very dull things.
I’m not alone here. I frequently hear about this kind of boring, neurotic, repetitive thought pattern as people’s primary obstacle in meditation — even the reason they stop doing it. Clearly, this is our work, but what is there to work with here?
I don’t want to lob this one in with some “come back to your breath” shtick, because this bugs me a lot personally. How do we turn this endless repetition into forward progress?
Maybe the mind is rehashing these mundane thoughts because it’s looking for something — it missed something. Maybe when we’re only half present in a moment of our lives, the other half of it comes back to haunt us. Then the cure is not to let go of it on the cushion, but to pay more attention in the real situation.
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