He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
— William Blake
In psychotherapy, a primary component and focus of the first session with a new client is to establish a welcoming, trustworthy environment, such that he or she will feel safe and sufficiently comfortable to return. As this trust in the holding environment deepens, the client becomes more willing to explore, reveal, and in time, open to ever-deepening reflection and revelation.
In similar fashion, Westerners need to feel this sense of comfort and safety early on in meditation. If this is not a priority, they are more likely to abandon the practice, and if they do continue, it may be an intermittent, frustrating, cognitive grind.
We need to take baby steps that make sense and feel good, steps that are appropriate to our cultural context. This is largely uncharted territory for us, and acknowledging that is an important first step — not an easy one in a cultural milieu that views “not knowing” as an admission of weakness.
The days of throwing a child into the water as a way of teaching him or her to swim are over. Isn’t it time we stop approaching meditation that way too? Granted, the sticks in the meditation hall have been put away; this is no longer being seen as a useful motivational tool. But meditation is often still perceived as rather a dry and serious enterprise, good medicine at best.
Why aren’t you meditating more regularly? Is it because you have not found it to be refreshing? Or perhaps because you feel yourself to be a failure at it? Do you often feel you are barely managing restlessness and distraction until the bell rings?
Following the sensations of the breath is simply not terribly interesting. We need to find ways to infuse interest and creativity into what is essentially a repetitive lifelong rhythm — not unlike the beating of our hearts.
But we are not generally encouraged to be creative in that way. We are not encouraged to actively soften and enliven the body and breath and heart. We are instructed to be with the breath as it is. If it is boring, then we should be with boredom. These instructions, by and large, are far too dry.
Interest is the mother of tranquil concentration, and tranquil concentration is the mother of insight. We must therefore create the conditions to foster and encourage interest right from the start. We must put our active minds to good use by cultivating calm, by engaging the heart, by discovering enriching, personally meaningful inroads in meditation. We can only do this if we find these “preliminary” practices to be useful in and of themselves. Only then can they lay the foundation for deeper exploration, insight, and a sense of true inner peace and well-being.
So much is written about happiness these days. We all want contentment but often look for it in the wrong places. Even if we understand that happiness is not to be found in a bigger house or faster car, we still overschedule, overconnect, overeat, underexercise, and have few abiding, available inner resources for managing stress.
Mindfulness, practiced the right way, directly contributes to this core need for well-being. It suggests that with appropriate, engaging attention we can learn how to cultivate beneficial states of mind and heart. We can learn to be less driven by desires and urges that we often intuitively know detract from our integrity and wholeness. As we come to understand these patterns that inhibit — and even prohibit — our growth and potential happiness, we can begin to unravel the “ties that bind us” and relax into a more spacious inner landscape and a far more comfortable existence in the world we share. From my retreat journal:
Mindfulness takes practice int he way that love takes practice,
in the way that enjoying a sunset takes practice,
or empathizing with a dear friend,
or listening, with a sense of wonder,
to the sound of the ocean in a conch shell.
There is a wonderful encapsulated expression of happiness in Japanese Morita therapy. Aru ga mama means “that state where the mind is not unduly disturbed by anything and runs smoothly.” I find this to be deceptively simple and elegant. “Not unduly disturbed by anything” implies an extremely welcoming posture of mind. This isn’t the same as “previously challenging things no longer come to visit.” It suggests that the mind is at home with whatever arises.
I once studied with a venerable Burmese monk who graciously offered the following instruction to me. I am forever indebted to him and will remember his words always:
Your practice is becoming fluid, but there are a few spots which are rough. As monks we only have our robes, and we learn to stitch them when they tear. When you use a rusty needle, the needle catches on the cloth when it passes through the material. But when you use a clean needle, it does not catch on the cloth. Focus on where the needle is catching on the cloth and what you can do to clean it. The less the needle of mindfulness catches on the cloth of experience, the more you will experience happiness and freedom.
In closing, these are my words, my hope, for you — which is to say, for us all:
May you create delight in your meditation.
May your mind not be unduly ruffled by anything;
may it not catch on the cloth of experience.
May the mind, having struggled for so long trying
to make things other than what they are,
rest lightly in the trustworthy stream of experience.