During my third of our annual winter retreats at the monastery, about a month in to the three-month span of snowy, New Hampshire silence, a question popped into my mind as I sat meditating.

Why should this be difficult?

The question had just appeared. I felt more like a witness to it than its source. As the stillness of the long, solitary days and nights of retreat sank in, I did sometimes experience my inner speech like this. The next thought, though, felt more like my own.

I mean, I’m just sitting here. With my eyes closed. Why should this be difficult?

It was a fair question. I really was just sitting there with my eyes closed. I was quite comfortable, snug in my warm little forest cabin as night fell beyond the big front window. This was all I had been doing: long periods of meditation, day after day, interspersed with walks in the frozen forest, naps, solo chanting practice, and the brief daily meal with its minimal human contact. But with our ordinary monastic duties suspended for the three months of the retreat, this sitting was all I really had to do, my main task as a monk. Just sitting quietly with eyes closed. And this was the best hour for it, as the daylight faded and evening came in. Even with my eyes closed, I sensed the mysterious, potent twilight filling the cabin.

So after all this practice, these long first years at the monastery, and in this perfect forest setting, why the boredom, the frustration, the loneliness, the sadness, the dullness, the impatience that would still well up? Why was meditation still hard?

The answer came easily. Once again, the words seemed to come to me, rather than from me.

It’s difficult because you want your mind to be otherwise than it is.

We meditate because we are dissatisfied with our minds. This may seem like an odd way of putting it. There’s a more common explanation for why we meditate that has become something of a cliché in dharma circles. When the question gets asked, “what brought you to meditation?” a one-word answer is often rolled out a bit too easily: “suffering.”

We meditate because of suffering. Well, this is true as far as it goes. We do meditate because of our suffering. We hope that meditation will bring us—or others—relief. That it will alleviate our anxiety, our stress, our disappointment, our distraction, our perplexity.

Or we may frame our motivation to meditate in positive terms: we meditate for calmness and peace, or insight and understanding. Perhaps we meditate for transcendence.

But wanting any state of mind—even the most exalted state—is inseparable from being dissatisfied with not having it in our present state. Thus, we meditate because we are dissatisfied, specifically, with our minds.

This reflects the second noble truth, which plays out in meditation as in other areas of our lives. Dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction) arises (samudaya) with taṇhā (thirst, desire, wanting). The point of this insight isn’t that desire causes suffering, although its meaning is frequently reduced to this. It’s that wanting and suffering are bound together. Wanting, the condition of not having what one wants, focuses on some wanted thing—an object of desire. In contrast, dissatisfaction (understood as a broad category that includes suffering) is the feeling of this condition. It’s the feeling that motivates our further wanting. We perceive an object as the source of our motivation, but its desirability, and our dissatisfaction with not having the object, are in us, not in the object.

We can leave aside the niceties of Buddhist dogmatics. It’s enough to reflect that dissatisfaction and desire are two sides of the same coin.  Where meditation is concerned, the objects of our desire and aversion are themselves states of mind. We want not to suffer, and during meditation this wanting co-arises with our suffering. We suffer because we want our minds to be otherwise than they are. And we want our minds to be otherwise than they are because we are suffering.

When we start from suffering to explain why we meditate, it’s often past or habitual suffering that comes to mind. We want to heal, to recover from the difficult experiences or circumstances of our lives. We want to free ourselves from entrenched patterns of reaction that lead us to reproduce our past suffering.

But we soon discover that meditation brings no quick end to our suffering. At times meditation seems to accentuate it, or to bring new flavors of it to the fore, new sufferings layered atop the suffering that brought us to meditate in the first place. If we meditate at the end of a busy, stressful day, we may find our minds unpleasantly full of the “backwash of the day,” to borrow a phrase from Ajahn Chah, the drollest of Thai meditation masters (and the founder of the order in which I ordained). We may replay unpleasant recent interactions in our distracted minds. We may get caught up in reimagining them, or in looking ahead to alternative futures or escapes. We may get songs stuck in our head, or impactful words that we or others should have said, or shouldn’t have said. And if the mind does start to calm and settle, we may find older material coming up, miring us in rumination, even reactivating traumatic responses. Then suffering really kicks in, even as we sit there quietly, doing nothing, eyes closed.

“We meditate because we are dissatisfied with our minds” gets at this. But more to my point here, it highlights how we suffer during meditation about our meditation. We want our meditation to be better. We want our minds to be calmer, clearer, more focused, more silent. We doubt that we’re doing it right, and we become uncertain and indecisive, or rigid and tight. If moments of quiet and peace do come, we want them to last longer, to deepen further, to be more special. We may judge our meditation – or ourselves as meditators – to be inadequate, weak, unskillful, clumsy, or scattered, and from there escalate to I’m no good at meditation. Or to the even more deluded, I’m unusually not good at meditation. (I’ll leave aside for now the supremely deluded, I’m uniquely good at meditation.) Suffering about our meditation is also part of our suffering during meditation, and therefore, paradoxically, part of what we hope meditation will alleviate.

It’s reasonable to ask how much of our suffering about our meditation—and of all of our wanting of the mind to be otherwise than it is—contributes to the difficulty of meditation.

This question took shape in the next line of the inner dialogue I’ve been sharing.

How much of the difficulty of meditation comes from wanting my mind to be otherwise than it is?

As I’ve mentioned, I’d been meditating for many hours a day for about a month, with several more months of the same ahead. The conditions for meditation were ideal. I was alone in a snow-covered forest cabin in the deep silence of a remote monastery at the edge of night. My mind had settled such that the suffering that continued to bubble up had an attenuated, wispy quality, as if not quite mine. So I was able to let this question resonate. It sank into the flow of meditation as the moments passed, and beneath into past moments, to other times it had been hard, had been going poorly, had been dissatisfying.

A lot.

This seemed to be the answer. But as I stayed with the question, the scope of this answer expanded. From the viewpoint I was coming to, all of my difficult feelings and thoughts during meditation—whether about what I might be remembering or imagining, about pain or discomfort in the body, about the quality or progress of meditation, or about myself—all emerged as being of the same kind. They were all just suffering, in my mind, as I was meditating.

Only this present dissatisfaction, whatever its causes, is what’s difficult. Only this wanting of the mind to be otherwise than it is. The effort, the struggle, the self-restraint that meditation seems to demand—the difficulty of these too stems from, and produces, just this present dissatisfaction, right here behind these eyelids in this tranquil, resting body.

This explains the next line in my inner dialogue that evening, the definitive answer to the still-echoing question, how much of the difficulty of meditation comes from being dissatisfied with my mind?

It’s all of it.

It’s all just suffering during meditation. And suffering about meditation drives the suffering forward, like a tongue that can’t stop poking at a sore tooth to see if it still hurts.

If we neglect our feelings and thoughts about meditation as we’re meditating, allowing them to resonate, believing them, suffering over them—wanting our minds to be otherwise than they are—our suffering during meditation can’t end. We never get to the end of suffering that our wanting during meditation aims for, because we renew it with suffering about our meditation in the present, which we just can’t seem to shake.

So why not practice letting go of my suffering about meditation, it occurred to me, along with the rest? Why not just stop poking the sore tooth?

As I sat in full darkness, the first line of my inner dialogue—why should this be difficult?—took on a rhetorical quality. It became a statement.

This shouldn’t be difficult.

I remember the word “should” here clearly. I didn’t then and don’t now mean it in the normative sense. The point is rather that formal meditation might be expected not to be difficult, no more difficult than the simplest movement of attention.

At root, attention requires perhaps the slightest effort we are capable of exerting, less than an eyeblink, the mere shuffling of molecules across synapses. Moving the mind’s eye from moment to moment—or as it’s conceived in Pali, making in the mind (the literal meaning of manasikara, “attention”)—is the doing of meditation that merges into not-doing, into literal wu wei, “effortless effort.”

Our suffering during meditation, our wanting of our minds to be otherwise than they are, is a matter apart from attention, and therefore apart from the attentional practice of mindful awareness. It is an object of attention, however liminal. It’s an aversive object. It’s the part that’s difficult.

When we at last understand that meditation concerns not past or habitual but present suffering, we discover the future orientation of our hopes for meditation, of our wanting our minds to be otherwise than they are. (All wanting shares this future orientation.) We realize that we’ve introduced a qualifier into our hopes for meditation: eventually. With our hopes of immediate relief disappointed, we re-pin them on the faith that meditation will alleviate our suffering eventually. If we persevere.

Which is to say, if we suffer. We hope, nonsensically, that suffering—some part of our suffering during meditation—will end our suffering (our present suffering, which is our only suffering), and end it for good. That struggling will end our struggle. That misery will end our misery.

And how do we envision this dubious outcome? What form does our hoped-for end of suffering take? What is this mind we want that is otherwise than the mind we have?

We want the mind to be silent. Still. Empty of thoughts, narratives, commentary. This, we imagine, would be great, really great—the mahaggatacitta, “the great mind.” An entirely, ongoingly silent mind would mean complete peace, and somehow, wisdom.

At least, you’ve probably encountered such views. You may have run into the notion that enlightenment is “the space between your thoughts.” Such views prevail in many dharma circles and in the broader culture. Some teachers tell us outright to drive out our thoughts, or as one told me, to shoot them down like targets in a shooting gallery. Even teachers who reassure us, “it’s natural to have thoughts,” that “thinking is just what the mind does,” or as another teacher framed it for me, that “the mind thinks like the mouth salivates, automatically”—even these teachers seem to be telling us, it’s about stilling your thoughts.

It’s not about stilling your thoughts.

The hope that stilling our thoughts will end our suffering is itself a source and product of suffering. Especially during meditation. In his beloved teaching, “Still Flowing Water,” Ajahn Chah discourages pursuing the empty mind in meditation:

…you don’t have to go bottling the mind up. Some people try to get peaceful by sitting quietly and having nothing disturb them at all, but that’s just like being dead. The practice… is for developing wisdom and understanding.

Aj Chah’s comparison, “just like being dead,” encourages us to ask, what would it really be like to “bottle the mind up” for good, to have a mind empty of thoughts as your baseline condition? To live pre-reflectively, “free” of discursive thinking? Would this be a functional state? Would you be useful, to yourself or others, much less wise? Or would you not rather live on in an infantile or pathological state—“like being dead,” but not dead—needing full-time care just to survive?

We might associate thinking with stress, but not all of our thoughts really are dukkha or cause for dukkha. In addition to thoughts of suffering, we also have thoughts of uplift, kindness, justice, beauty, goodness, and truth. Insight takes shape in thought. Thought informs our deepest understanding, our wisdom. There are stressful, painful thoughts, of course, but also thoughts that it isn’t at all suffering to think.

We struggle to rid ourselves of thought—a futile struggle, in that it generates further feelings and thoughts—but we’re pursuing the wrong goal. Ajahn Chah continues,

…people practice meditation by trying to silence their minds. They say, “I try to sit in meditation but my mind won’t be still for a minute. One instant it flies off one place, the next instant it flies off somewhere else. How can I make it stop and be still?” You don’t have to make it stop, that’s not the point. Where there is movement is where understanding can arise.

The aim of meditation isn’t to eliminate thought, it’s to free ourselves from suffering. As Ajahn Chah points out, our aim is “to get peaceful… The practice… is for developing wisdom and understanding.”

None of which is to suggest that stillness has no role to play in meditative development. Stillness is the ground of movement. Movement has meaning only in relation to stillness. Where meditation is concerned, the oldest and longest-enduring Buddhist traditions—from the samatha tradition of the earliest Pali discourses, to the Ch’an, Sŏn, and Zen traditions, to the Thai forest tradition—all understand inner stillness as a potent means to the ends of peace and wisdom. But we don’t get to states of stillness through effortful striving, doubting, self-punishment, dogmatism, fantasies of carefree spontaneity, or any other form of suffering.

The inner dialogue I’ve described moved quickly. I’d been exploring the ideas I’ve shared here for years, so no great deliberation was needed to move from one line to the next. Rather, this brief dialogue flowed like a relaxed conversation, riding along on the waves of previous study, practice, and reflection that had built up over the course of my engagement with the dharma.

The last line I’ll share from this dialogue came almost immediately as I began attending to my thoughts and feelings about meditation as I was meditating. I had said to myself, as I’ve recounted,

This shouldn’t be so difficult.

As I saw how little this shift in practice entailed, the reply came:

It isn’t so difficult.

Letting go of the difficulty of meditation marks a line between modes of practice. It’s not effortless to get to this line. Meditation is difficult before it’s not. (And of course one might cross over this line back and forth many times.) A degree of renunciation is required, perhaps a very great degree, to enable the separation from desire and suffering that’s required to see through them. But it really isn’t—can’t—be difficult to step over this line once you’ve come to it.

You cross this line when the boredom of meditating, for instance, becomes a matter of interest. You become curious about your experience of it. You think, finally, to bring the boredom that you’re feeling into the field of awareness, and then, just like that, you do. You watch as it unwinds into its constituent sensations, feelings, and thoughts, emerging as an intentional, elusive, and finally, insubstantial contrivance. And then it’s gone.

It’s the same with the frustration, irritation, doubt, aversion, restlessness, and distraction that hinder us in meditation. It’s the same with our anxieties and enthusiasms about technique and approach, and with spiritual ambition and its accompanying convictions. What remains when we let all these go is just the play of mind, a quietly spectacular ongoing process.

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