The Practice of Buddhist Meditation is Not for the Fainthearted

We’re hearing about studies that boast meditation reduces stress, lowers high blood pressure, and calms the mind. These all sound great, and perhaps over the course of time, meditation has that effect, but that is not the purpose of Buddhist meditation. In fact, if your meditations are relaxing and cozy, I’m going to be bold here and suggest either you’re not doing it right, or you no  longer need it.

Buddhist meditation IS practice time, and it’s not easy.

Practice suggests you are doing something that is not nodding off, that is not feeling like everything is hunky-dory and if the world would just not interrupt your quiet time all will be well.

I just finished an hour of working through 50 problems that focused on mathematical exponents and their functions. Working through each one gave me practice I need to understand what is happening with the numbers, and so I’ll remember how to solve them in the future. Meditation is also practice time, and it’s work.

While on retreat I meditated daily. For these meditations the practice was concentration, and by the third day I entered what is called the first jhana. This is where your concentration becomes single pointed, nothing else is in the mental space except for the focus point, in this case the breath. I had a feeling of calm, of peace, of joy. My mind was absolutely still and quiet. It was nice. It was also what I consider to be one of the least productive meditations I’ve ever had.

My most productive meditations were the ones  where my mind was on fire with anger, indignation, and stories streaming faster than the stock market ticker tape at the bottom of a TV screen. This was the most productive meditation practice time I ever had because I had a front row seat to how thoughts stir up emotion, to how easily seduced I am by my own stories, and how much suffering this process causes for me. I knew suffering, angst, anger, and fury in that moment, and I realized I had to figure out how to hop off the merry-go-round of trouble-making thinking. I had to have compassion for myself. I had to let go!

Contrary to belief, Buddhist meditation is not about creating warm fuzzies. It’s not about learning not to think. And it’s not about stuffing your emotions. On the contrary, Buddhist meditation is the practice of sitting right in the heat of a moment, and giving yourself the space and the compassion to see what is really going on, how these processes arise, fall away, and what causes them to arise again. See the wonderful series on A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising for more information on those processes.

Buddhist meditation is the practice of learning to get to know suffering intimately, to see how we create and attach to a selfing process, to see that everything is impermanent. Buddhist meditation, when we sit, slows life down just enough so we can get a bird’s eye view, and then dive in more deeply to see what else is going on. The breath is the anchor, and anything that interrupts your focus on the breath, should be noted and let go of. It’s this continual letting go, over and over and over, that eventually allows us to jump off of the angry thought merry-go-round. If you don’t practice  letting go of the benign types of thoughts, you’ll be caught like a fish on a hook with the seductive thoughts of anger, self-righteousness, and sadness.

I often hear people say I can’t meditate. It doesn’t work for me. I’m going to take a guess that your expectation is  looking for a feel good pill, not practice time. Also, when I hear people say they had a good meditation, what they often mean is they had a quiet, relaxing, unfruitful and noneducational practice time. Let’s face it, if we want to relax there are lots of ways of doing that. My preference is to take a nap!

Buddhist meditation is not for the fainthearted. You will get close up looks at your most unsavory thoughts, your scrambled emotions, your frustrations and desires. This is great. This IS practice. This is KNOWING dukkha! It’s also where you learn your way out of dukkha, as you begin to see little by little how much of your suffering you create via the stories in your head, the way you tense your body, the way your build drama. Through Buddhist meditation, you learn how to let go, let go of the thoughts, let go of the stories, let go of the illusion of self and control. The real beauty of Buddhist meditation is that the mindfulness you learn on the cushion and through movement meditation bleeds out into daily living, becomes a regular mode of being.

Buddhist meditation thrusts you into the heart of the physical world and reality. You won’t transcend into some higher plane, develop psychic powers, or learn to levitate.

Instead, you will gain a firsthand understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Overtime, letting go gets easier, time between thoughts grows longer, and, yes, then peace takes up residence where the stories and selfing had been.

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