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Right effort in cultivation: meditating beyond the first instructions
July 25th, 2015
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illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Right effort in cultivation: meditating beyond the first instructions

   Recently, a student told me she was meditating with her eyes closed… so far so normal, but it sounded a bit too 'fixed', so I asked why. I was told that, as she mostly uses sound as an anchor for the time being, sight was a distracting phenomenon, sight carried the mind away and she would often lose the audible anchor.

   A core trait of meditation practice is to train us to re-center, to come back to an equanimous stance, free from tendencies, free from preferences and biases… so regularly drifting away is necessary for the training:  without drifting, there's no training in re-centering, in re-anchoring in reality, in stepping back from obsessive thoughts (too scattered or too focused)!


   If you find yourself incapable of catching the drift, incapable for very long periods of noticing it, then to train in easier conditions (e.g. with eyes closed) for a while  might prove useful: any training has to be possible, manageable… or it isn't training, it's just a trap for failure.

   But one should then be mindful not to get too comfortable with a practice that works "just fine": if you don't drift enough, there's not enough training anymore. There's certainly focus, but no learning, no insight…

   The Buddha described appropriate concentration as "neither too loose, nor too tight." Too much control isn't helping.


   This can be understood if you put back your practice into context. The goal is not  a 'perfect' meditation while you meditate. That's (relatively speaking) easy. The goal is to lead a wise life, as free from conditionings as possible, responding appropriately to the situation at hand rather than clinging to prejudices and preferences…
   This goal is embodied if you can  re-center to an equanimous stance, if you can  "step back" from the ordinary "me, myself and I", whenever  circumstances carry your mind away, whenever circumstances resonate with past experiences and blind you from what's new, whenever circumstances lead to cravings or aversions, whenever circumstances make you respond in automatic (without awareness, without choice, i.e. without freedom).
   This goal is not  about being fine and equanimous only when everything is fine and nothing is disturbing in the least. The goal is about wisely handling the variety of conditions and circumstances away from the meditation cushion and about unconditionally finding equanimity in the midst of life.
   So, when you can handle your training in controlled conditions, the cultivation is to be ramped up to a 'richer' set of circumstances.

   The goal of meditation is to see reality as it is. Calm and peace are side-effects of such a clarity, of such a lack of distortions, not the goal. To see reality as it is, one has to drop many ignorant views, which is achieved by study. Studying requires appropriate effort (not so much that it leads to burn out, but not so little that no progress is measured either and despondency takes root). The study may well be experiential and beyond usual labels/concepts, but meditation is not restful in and of itself: studying is work, is effort.

   Regularly push the limits of what you can handle!
   If your meditation is comfortable, a safe heaven, then it's a refuge, not a raft. At times, we need to rest and a refuge is a great place to do so, but the point remains to continue the journey once rested: use the raft from refuge to refuge, even if the raft shakes, even if the raft is uncomfortable, even if effort is required! For explorers, effort doesn't equate suffering: you can embody enthusiasm as a motivation, and effort as its manifestation! Enthusiasm is always a better motivation than fear or aversion to pain; and equanimity is not met by fleeing dukkha.
   Mindfulness includes mindfulness of how you feel about your practice, about your cultivation. If your current practice is challenging but doable, you're in a position to learn something (maybe not what is expected, but that's a different conversation). If your practice is too hard, too easy or too stable, then you're stuck… and adjusting (more or less temporarily) the practice is necessary.

   To make it harder, maybe keep the eyes open! Maybe meditate in public transport! See if you can still remain anchored (in breath, in audible context, in any visualisation you're cultivating, in any mantra…) when the environment gets richer, louder, busier.

   If the goal is about unconditionally finding equanimity in the midst of life, then it's not much a "specialised trade": it's not about being better and better in narrow, specific, well-controlled conditions. Shake the conditions a little, and more!
   And when it gets beyond your ability to re-connect with equanimity, pull back a little, and learn to deal with this… It's not about running before you know how to walk, don't let ambition blind you. When ready, try pushing again! Not too easy, not too hard!

   This is the practice: re-anchor in reality as often as you can, look at what needs to be done and let go of mental fabrications and other scheming as often as you can.
   The cushion is helpful at times, but it's not key: the study is of your mind and how it relates to the world (mostly clinging to one branch or the next, as if your life depended on it, even though you just caught the branch that presented itself, without much choice about it!). A cushion can do nothing for you; learn to see reality (beyond the immediate branch, appropriated as your 'own' and imagined in 'need' to be defended against others) and, for this, don't limit reality to a cushion!


#Buddhism   #meditation   #Dharma  
illustration: "Mystic Nostalgia" © Tiffani Gyatso