Forget the goddess, the lotus: is your meditation in a mess? Is your mind so busy that your inner world looks more like a junk-strewn beach at low tide than a lotus pond?
When you sit on your meditation cushion or chair, it’s not fun. Mind won’t stop racing. Stuff keeps coming up. Stuff you don’t want in your face. The boring old repetitive stuff. Your meditation is hopeless.
LET THE THOUGHTS COME
Take heart: you are not alone. Countless people have sat, as you sit, and faced that un-blank wall. Meditation guide books over the centuries repeat the same quality advice: sit with your spine straight; be alert but relaxed. Follow the flow of the breath, witness your thoughts.
A common error is to think we need to stop thoughts, be free of emotions and somehow control the mind. But actually meditation is about stepping back, seeing the thoughts and witnessing them coming and going.
As you sit on your polluted beach, simply witness the play of your mind. Be an impartial, casual observer. Let the thoughts come! Do not block the mind! But do not get lost in thoughts either.
ON A BREATH
The mind needs a focus, a point to keep returning to during the gales out at sea. We let the thoughts come, but we resist being carried away by them. For this process we need an anchor, so tether your mind to your breath.
Distraction, plans and memories, getting lost: return to the breath. Distraction, plans and memories, getting lost: return to the breath. Over and over.
ON THE NOSE
Breath awareness at the nostrils is particularly calming and centering. The nostrils are the place where many fine nerve endings of the parasympathetic nervous system converge. The parasympathetic is the nervous system’s relaxation response.
Persevere with nostril breath awareness and your mind will slow down as your nervous system balances and finds symmetry.
TAKE THE LIFE-RAFT OF PATIENCE
Chaotic mind happens to me a lot: it’s not just a beginner’s trip. To speak from my own thirty years of daily practice, I often can’t see the sparkling water for the flotsam and jetsam hiding it. No hint of bright mind waiting behind polluted haze.
But I know it’s there and I know patience, simply following the breath and letting my nervous system settle, will get me to where I want to go.
A DASH OF HUMOR AND SPACIOUSNESS
Along with patience, keep your mind spacious and add a dash of humor. A somewhat humorous attitude counteracts tension: a tense mind will not relax. A cramped mind will not relax either, so keep your mind spacious like the shepherd who never pens his sheep but provides plenty of pasture to roam.
Then keep returning to the breath again and again when distraction blows you off course.
The returning to the breath is itself mindfulness. It’s how we build our mindfulness muscle. Our increased mindfulness then spills into daily life and brings all the wonderful benefits of being more present.
Consistency is the key to any endeavor, meditation especially. Someone once told me meditation was like digging a hole: leave the hole unattended for too many days and rain will pour in, the surrounding dirt will crumble. It will get filled in.
It’s the same with meditation practice. A daily or regular practice will maintain the progress we have already made. An irregular practice makes it all the harder.
Go easy on yourself: ten minutes a day is fine to start with.
As you come to enjoy the experience of being on the cushion, you will crave it, you will delight in being there. It will no longer be a question of patience.
The garbage-strewn beach won’t turn you off anymore. In a way it will turn you on: you know it comes with the territory. And that gives you a certain ease and confidence. You know you are emptying out. The messy stuff inside is getting sorted. An inner spring-clean is happening by itself as you sit and follow the breath.
You might even get a glimpse of the lotus pond.
Shakti Burke has been practicing meditation daily since 1985
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