Why Do We Meditate?
By Tony Glore
Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called Maitri, a simple direct relationship with the way we are. Trying to fix ourselves is not helpful. It implies struggle and denigration. Denigrating ourselves is probably the major way that we cover bodhichitta (enlightened mind). Does not trying to change mean we have to remain angry and addicted until the day we die? Self-improvement can have temporary results, but lasting transformation occurs only when we honor ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion. It is only when we relax with ourselves that meditation becomes a transformative process. Only when we relate with ourselves without moralizing, without harshness, without deception, can we let go of harmful patterns. Without maitri, renunciation of old habits becomes abusive.
There are four qualities of matri that are cultivated when we meditate:
When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves. No matter what comes up – aching bones, boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts and emotions – we develop a loyalty to our experience. Although plenty of meditators consider it, we don’t run screaming out of the room. Instead we acknowledge that impulse as thinking, without labeling it right or wrong. This is no small task. Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt. In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves, but also about what it is to be human. The pith instruction is, Stay….stay…just stay. So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to “stay” and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay. Discursive mind? Stay. Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay. What’s for lunch? Stay. What am I doing here? Stay. I can’t stand this another minute. Stay. That is how to cultivate steadfastness.
After meditating for a while, it’s common to feel that we are regressing rather than waking up. “Until I started meditating, I was quite settled; now it feels like I’m always restless”. Through the process of practicing the technique, day in and day out, year after year, we begin to be very honest with ourselves. Clear seeing is another way of saying that we have less self-deception. Through the process of practicing the mindfulness-awareness technique on a regular basis, we can no longer hide from ourselves. We clearly see the barriers we set up to shield us from naked experience. Although we still associate the walls we’ve erected with safety and comfort, we also begin to feel them as a restriction. It marks the beginning of longing for an alternative to our small, familiar world.
Experiencing our emotional distress
Many people, including long time practitioners, use meditation as a means of escaping difficult emotions. No matter how many times we’ve been instructed to stay open to whatever arises, we still can use meditation as repression. Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience. If we are angry when we sit down to meditate, we are instructed to label thoughts “thinking” and let them go. Yet below the thoughts something remains – a vital, pulsating energy. There is nothing wrong, nothing harmful about that underlying energy. Our practice is to stay with it, to experience it, to leave it at it is. When emotional distress arises uninvited, we let the story line to and abide with the energy. This is a felt experience, not a verbal commentary on what is happening. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide wit the experience of our emotional distress.
Attention to the present moment
We make a choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward other, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love. Coming back to the present moment takes some effort, but the effort is light. The instruction is to “touch and go”. We touch thoughts by acknowledging them as thinking and then we let them go. Sometimes we find that we like our thoughts so much that we don’t want to let them go. Watching our internal movie is a lot more entertaining than bringing our mind back home. There’s no doubt that our fantasy world can be very juicy and seductive. So we train using a “soft” effort when interrupting our habitual patterns; in other words, we train in cultivating self-compassion.
Excerpts from “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times”, by Pema Chodron, Shambala Press