Most of you probably know the story of the Buddha, when he left the castle and his princely upbringing for the first time, and was confronted with the harsh reality of the real world.
First he saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a corpse.
He asked his charioteer, “Who are these people, why did this happen to them, what did they do to deserve this fate?”
Each time, his driver shook his head and looked at him like he was new, “Dude, this happens to everybody.”
The story glosses over another event. He saw two people, talking to each other, nervous and twitching, their eyes darting around.
The Buddha asked, “What is going on over there?”
“Oh, that’s an awkward social interaction?”
“Who does that happen to?”
“Everyone, brother. There is no promise in this world that you’re going to avoid things getting awkward from time to time. Awkward is going to happen.”
So, there you go. old age, sickness, death, ubiquitous awkward social interactions. Now you know. Take it easy on yourself, folks.
Buddha image by Mark Henson
When I decided that I wanted to put a little more energy into writing about meditation, the first thing I discovered is that the writing started to take over the meditation. I sat down, took a few breaths, and start to practice whatever technique I was practicing, and then the ideas for the article started to pour in. With the ideas for the article, came the justifications. These are good ideas, the mind said, these are thoughts about meditation. thoughts about meditation are important, it said. Thoughts about meditation are as good, if not better, than meditation itself.
This can be tricky.
As you may know, I’m not a big proponent of using time on the cushion as exclusively time to aggressively restrain the thoughts. It been my experience that sometimes letting the mind wander in an easy restful manner, casually checking things off the to do list, compassionately reviewing the previous day is a good use of our innate intelligence. Putting ourselves in a restful state can engage a creative part of ourselves that we maybe don’t always have access too. We often come up with new solutions, ones that include humility, forgiveness, and even ease.
However, we’ve probably seen firsthand that thoughts don’t always go that way. Depending the trials of the day, we can spiral, stuck in a mental rut or confusion, blame, gasping. And regardless of the flavor, it’s accompanied with that aforementioned justification. That voice telling us that these thoughts are important enough to take up all this space in our mind.
It’s even trickier when the spiral seems positive. We’re finally going to start that non-profit, we’re going to do all those nice things for all those people. We’re going to cure cancer. I don’t know about you, but if I had a dollar for all of the yoga meditation vegan homeless shelters in costa rica that I decided to build while meditating, I’d have enough money to build one.
So, what to do? One of the things I like to do, is to practice narrowing and widening my focus. This gives my mind a chance to be free and relaxed, and also trains me in some perspective and discipline. I’ll give you an example, but you’ll have to experiment with this on your own. It isn’t meant to be explicit instructions.
Perhaps I’ll start by just sitting down and settling in, watching my breath start to deepen. I’ll let my eyes wander over the altar, I’ll smile about the coziness of the Pendleton I’m wrapped in. I’ll say a few mantras, and scan my body a little to let it relax. I’ll check in to see if anything comes up that i’ve been ignoring in the business of my life, and I’ll give it some time. If there is something I don’t want to forget, I might even lean over to make a note on the phone. And this goes on for a bit, settling down, settling in, getting quiet, softening. This is a wider kind of focus, it’s natural, easy, soothing, creative.
Then, I’ll move into a shamatha practice. This is strict, disciplined. I’ll guide my attention to the tip of my nose and watch my breath go in and out. Exclusively. Thoughts still come up constantly, but are paid no mind. Attention goes back to the breath, again and again. Sometimes it seems as if the thoughts stop for a while, almost threatening that they might never come back. They are going to take their ball of good ideas and go home. It never lasts long, though, and once again I’m guiding the attention back to the breath.
To be clear, I don’t want the thoughts to go away forever, I just want a little more executive control over them. I’m not sure exactly what you want, dear reader, but it’s my guess that if you’re reading this, you want something similar. I just want a little bit of self control in the face of temptation. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
I often don’t end my meditation with the narrow focus. Popping up quickly after Shamatha and running back into my day can be a little shocking, for me personally. I like to widen the focus again, and let the mind wander some more. If the stuff it was talking about before is still that important, it can talk about it again. It’s almost like a treat. Ice cream after the doctor. I feel like it lets the mind know that it is still seen as a valuable life partner, that it is still loved. A bit of integration, aftercare.
There are many ways to structure a practice. This is just a brief example of how one might work with the mind. Depending on your desires, your practice might be totally different. It might even differ from day to day. It’s personal, and deserves experimentation and curiosity. I just want you to know that you’ve got options, you don’t have to take what one guy said one time as gospel. You’ve got the opportunity to have a meditation practice that serves you, and makes you really, really, happy.
Side Note/Plug: The image of the dancers is by James Jean. Brilliant artist. I have some notebooks with his art on the cover, one of them has been to India with me. Check Him out. http://www.jamesjean.com/