Polishing Your Meditative Practice
People often assume that because I teach meditation, my life must be pretty chilled. They ask me if I meditate every day and assume that I have no challenges with this because I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years.
Of course, the truth is I experience all the challenges with my practice that a novice would. I often get restless and fidgety when starting to sit; my mind looks for reasons not to meditate; if daily routines change (like on holidays), so does my practice; and if major stresses occur, finding mental stillness can be tough.
I believe there are only two differences between a long-term meditator and a novice:
- A long-term meditator is quicker to notice the wandering mind. We’re told that in meditation practice, whenever we lose focus we just return to the object of attention and begin again. The novice may be gone in mind-wandering for several minutes before noticing, whereas the long-term meditator will notice in seconds or even milli-seconds. This doesn’t mean that the mind wanders any less, we just become really good at noticing this and refocusing the attention.
- When the mind wanders, a new meditator may say, “I’m no good at this, I can’t maintain my focus”. A long-term meditator will say, “Today my mind is wandering. This is how it is today”.
Regular practice will help you build the “beginner’s mind”, the attitude that looks at each moment as if it were the first. Every day is a new day. Each day our meditation is brand new.
Sometimes the mind is clear and focused, sometimes it’s restless and irritated. It may be sleepy, wakeful or enlightened. It may be calm and comfortable or painful and emotional.
Whatever it is, it is. Today. Yesterday may have been different. Tomorrow will perhaps be different.
Understanding this gives us the patience to accept the discomfort of a restless meditation, without the fear that we will never have a peaceful one. And it prepares us to accept the comfort of a peaceful meditation, without clinging to the idea or the wish that it will never again be restless.
Tomorrow is a new day, with a new meditation. Each day, we begin again.
So why meditate? Why inflict discomfort on ourselves when we’re restless? Why not just walk away and do something more pleasant until we feel like meditating?
We practice self-discipline to meditate regularly because life is often uncomfortable, and we can’t always walk away from it just because we don’t like it. This practice prepares us for life’s downs and ups. We practice being with the mild discomfort of boredom, irritation or restlessness, to help train our brain to be able to accept true discomfort when it inevitably arrives on our doorstep.
In fact, studies have shown that children who develop the skill of delayed gratification early in life, go on to perform better at school and end up in higher paying careers than those who struggle to control their impulses. So when your impulse is to get up and finish your meditation quickly because you’re restless, remember that by returning to your breath over and over again you’re creating a stronger, more resilient brain.
Rumi, a 13th century Persian philosopher and poet said:
“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”
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