Today I would like to talk about why we meditate. Sometimes we might lose our motivation to practice, or forget the main reason why we are doing this. In our culture of rushing and doing, sitting and doing nothing for half an hour every day may seem counterintuitive and a waste of time.
People come to meditation for a wide range of reasons, maybe they are struggling with a health issue, mental or physical, they have experienced a burn-out, or a divorce, or they have lost a loved one, the sense of meaning in their life…. And as I speak you might sense for yourself what has drawn you to meditation in the first place, and you might take some time to reflect on your journey with meditation, how it has been for you… Sometimes when we are first introduced to meditation, we are very motivated to give it a go, and we set aside time to practice every day. We might be very consistent with our practice for a few weeks or months, and we notice a gradual change in ourselves, less reactivity, more calm, balance, joy or happiness for no reason. We notice more the beauty of the world around us, we have more patience and time for our loved ones…
And then it can happen that life starts to get in the way, other commitments slip into our busy schedules and we start to skip our regular practice. Or we might think that things are going well and that we don’t need to practice every day, or that we can replace our formal practice with an informal practice of simply being mindful throughout the day… It happens to all of us, it’s normal, there is no need to judge ourselves for it, or beat ourselves up… But it is good to notice it when it happens, so we can come back to our daily practice, because it is really essential if we want to make lasting changes to how we relate to ourselves, others and the whole of life. Otherwise, we tend to fall back into our old conditioned patterns of reactivity.
So why do we really meditate?
As the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, we meditate “to wake up from the cocoon of our habitual patterns”.
Every day, as we sit in meditation, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves: “As I go into this day, what is the most important thing? What is the best use of this day?”
What is the best use of each day of our lives?
Meditation practice invites us into this reflection: every day, we could be more sane, more compassionate, more tender, more openhearted and more in touch with reality.
Our practice allows us to realise when we are hooked on automatic pilot, so we can pause and to create a gap. With this pause comes choice: we realise that we can choose a different, wiser response, instead of our habitual conditioned reaction.
Bringing the two wings of mindfulness into our practice helps us with this realisation:
- The wing of awareness and clear seeing, answering the question “What is happening in me right now ?”
- The wing of allowing our experience with a loving presence, answering the question “Can I let this be, can I be with this ?”
Our habitual tendency
Our habitual tendency is to get caught up in the content of our life, to get distracted by all the details that make up each day, we become self-absorbed in our big projects, in the work we have to do that day, we get caught up in busy mind, in fear, worry, hesitation, discouragement or something else. This is what Pema Chodron calls going into our cocoon.
The great 14th century Tibetan teacher Longchenpa already talked about our useless and meaningless focus on the details, that extends moment by moment into a continuum, days, months and even whole lives go by.
You might like to ask yourself: do I spend my whole time just thinking about things, distracting myself with my own mind, completely lost in thoughts? Do I get caught up in the different roles I play in my life?
I know that habit very well for myself. It is the human predicament.
And when we are in our self-absorbed cocoon, we forget to notice the blessings of each moment, the magic, stillness and the vastness in our surroundings: the sky, the wind, the trees, the land, the animals… It also creates stress and tightness, tension in our mind and our body.
Formal meditation practice allows us to create some silence and space in our life, so we can start to poke our heads out of our cocoons to experience something else, the sacredness of this life and this world. The more we practice, the more our experience of the vastness and stillness can stay with us, so we can take it into our day.
You might be wondering: how am I supposed to juggle all that I have to do in a day, in a week, in a month, and to create enough space to experience who I really am?
Of course, we have jobs to do, we don’t just sit around meditating all day, but if we can spend some time each day creating at least some spaciousness, some openness in our mind and heart, some gap in our usual way of getting caught up, this is going to permeate the rest of our day.
And then throughout our day, we can remember to put our full attention on the immediacy of our experience, for example by looking at our hands resting on the keyboard or holding the cup, or feeling our bottom sitting on the chair, our feet flat on the ground. We can just be here in that moment of awareness, instead of being absorbed in thinking, planning, worrying.
Some tips to create gaps in your day
Here are a few ways you can try to punctuate your life with thought-free moments, with gaps of pure presence:
- When you wake up in the morning, before getting out of bed, simply look out, drop the story line in your mind and take three conscious breaths, just be where you are, feel the sensations of the pillow underneath your head, the mattress underneath your body and the bed sheets on your hands
- When you are getting ready or making your coffee or your tea, brushing your teeth, take three conscious breaths and create a gap in your story-telling mind, just pause. Imagine popping a bubble of thoughts in your mind and letting them disintegrate into the air.
- Throughout the day, simply pause and listen for a moment, instead of sight being the predominant sense perception, let sound, hearing, take over. You can try it as I speak, closing your eyes and listening intently, letting sound fill your awareness. It is a very powerful way to cut through our conventional way of looking at the world, to bring us back into presence
- When you go out for a walk, pause frequently, to stop, listen, and take one, two or three conscious breaths. As soon as you create a gap, you realise how big the sky is, how big your mind is.
- When you are working at a computer, you could have a timer on your computer or an app with mindfulness bells, to remind you to create gaps. No matter how busy you are, just keep pausing, keep allowing a gap. You might worry that this is going to slow you down, and that you might not be able to finish your work. On the contrary this practice of pausing allows you to connect with your natural intelligence instead of being on automatic pilot, and your natural intelligence knows what the right thing to do is.
Meditation practice allows us to create a gap in our life, so we can come out of our cocoon and connect with the sky and the ocean, and the birds, and the land and the blessings of the sacred world.
My invitation for you is to slow down, to relax the mind and the body and to do it often, continuously throughout the day, to leave a gap. Each gap is like a little hole poked in the cocoon of your conditioned mind.
Source: Pema Chodron, The most important thing in life, Lion’s Roar Special Edition, Awaken your heart and mind