I recently went back to my journal from early 2016, when I began my meditation practice, hoping to gain some understanding of my internal life during those first periods of daily sits. Unfortunately, my journal entries offer zero context. They skip from dread and doldrum to endless notes on the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, and page upon page of dharma. I’m not surprised that I was at a loss for words. With the privilege of hindsight, I can say that I was experiencing the rousing stir of my awakening mind. I was beginning to get some space between myself and my thoughts, realizing that I am not my “habit energy.” With this insight, I would get to decide how I wanted to respond to my egoic mind.
When we begin to feel the benefits of meditation practice, it is like putting on glasses for the first time. Once we learn to sit with the breath, be with the present moment, and create space between ourselves and our thoughts, our lives come into focus and we awaken to the possibility of something else—the alleviation of suffering. It is commonly described as beginner’s mind, a term popularized by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Beginner’s mind refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. In this place, there is the possibility of something new. It is a tender space of hope and discovery. If we can see that there is an escape from the prison of our thoughts, what else might we have been under-estimating?
When I began meditating I genuinely felt happy for the first time in years. Within three months of beginning my meditation practice, I had quit my job—in which I had been desperately unhappy—and begun to work at a meditation center. I was gaining the ability to identify my pain and make the choice to cultivate well-being for myself. My realization of the Four Noble Truths—the Buddha’s teaching on the nature of suffering and the way toward liberation—was underway.
But the realization of the Four Noble Truths isn’t a one-time event. You’ll need to experience the Four Noble Truths many times over. That’s because eventually the other shoe will drop.
However much we try, we get caught by the fallacy of permanence. But no feeling stays the same. We may feel that we have found the “fix” to suffering via our practice, but we fail to recognize that we will lose the high of new beginnings. In any relationship, the honeymoon period eventually will end. Meditation included.
Eventually we’ll fall into a period of stagnation. As Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” You’ve got your practice down, so what is there to discover, right? The grip that we hold on our meditation practice feeling a particular way can be another form of suffering. If we’re looking to escape from our reality, to fix ourselves, or attain status through practice, we are re-engaging with dukkha—the suffering that brought us to meditate in the first place. And just because we’re aware of something doesn’t mean that we’re immediately able to change it.
Placing this pressure on ourselves is antithetical to what we’re hoping to receive from practice and, in fact, can reinforce the egoic mind that will send us right back to our habit energy.
The Eightfold Path—the eight tenets for living, which, when practiced, lead to liberation—offers a roadmap out—or back. The Buddha offered, “Wherever the Noble Eightfold Path is practiced, joy, peace and insight are there.” (Digha Nikaya 16) The realization of our suffering and its cyclical nature—the words, thoughts, and actions that we habitually re-engage in to keep us out of the present—is the beginning of the Noble Eightfold Path. And by calling upon the interconnected tenets of the path—right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness, and right concentration—you can regain your beginner’s mind. These practices give us a roadmap to continually cultivate an approach of openness and eagerness similar to that which we experienced when we first began our meditation practice.
When it comes to reclaiming the joy of our practice, right diligence is of particular importance:
“When we practice sitting and walking meditation in ways that cause our body and mind to suffer, our effort is not Right Diligence and is not based on Right View. Our practice should be intelligent, based on Right Understanding of the teaching. It is not because we practice hard that we can say that we are practicing Right Diligence.”
—The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh
In short, forcing yourself to meditate isn’t going to get you to liberation. You can drop the idea that your meditation should look any specific way. We might have the aspiration to be the “perfect meditator” sitting in lotus, mala beads in hand, with the serene smile of the Buddha on our face. That is not realistic. Placing this pressure on ourselves is antithetical to what we’re hoping to receive from practice and, in fact, can reinforce the egoic mind that will send us right back to our habit energy. Instead, right diligence asks us to move toward what feels easeful.
While “diligence” implies hard work, the wonderful thing is that we can place emphasis on “right” and that means intuiting what feels skillful and useful to you.
A few suggestions, if you’re not sure what feels “right”:
- Take your meditation seat and cut your practice to five minutes. I like to call these “maintenance meditations”: when we do the shortest amount of time that constitutes practice to you, so that you can say that you did it.
- Schedule a meditation with a spiritual friend (kalyana mitra). Whether in-person or via video call, you will generate mindful energy that will cut through your stagnation and carry you to your next sit.
- Look toward nature for contemplation. What do you notice as you water your houseplants? Can a walk through your neighborhood provide an opportunity to gaze at a flower or tree? The pauses are just as beneficial as taking a formal meditation seat.
Ultimately, you have to define your practice for yourself. Look toward whatever works for your body, your mind, and your relationship to your practice. Your practice gets to evolve at whatever pace you set. Ask yourself: “Where is there joy and ease in my meditation practice?” and move toward the answer.
Remember that the spiritual path is delicious, fruitful work. If you are struggling in your meditation practice, you are on the path.
This article was originally published on January 26, 2022.
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