Sunday, November 1, 2015

Stop Trying So Hard

In meditation, as in life, some of the simplest lessons are also, paradoxically, the most challenging to learn. The most basic principles can be easily understood in theory but may take the longest time to be metabolized and understood in practice.

Striking the balance between effort and effortlessness is a good example. Perhaps you’ve heard about the Buddha’s famous meditation advice to one of his disciples: like the strings of an instrument, he said, you should fine-tune your meditation in a way that’s “not too tight and not too loose.” Finding that elusive balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough — between concentrating the mind too intensely and not concentrating at all — sounds simple in theory. But it can take years of practice — falling back and forth from one extreme to the other — to really metabolize this lesson and understand what that balance actually feels like.

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I recall some vivid glimpses of this when I was first starting out on my path of meditation.

At that time I was attending a meditation center that offered a series of weekend intensive courses in which participants would basically sit and meditate (interspersed with lectures, walking meditation, and other activities) Friday night, all day Saturday, and all day Sunday. That's a pretty hardcore immersion into meditation, especially for a beginner. A lot can happen when you sit on a cushion for eight hours and do nothing but work with your own mind.

What mostly happened for me was a lot of struggle as I sat there waging battle with my overactive mind for hours at a stretch, feeling frustrated that I couldn’t seem to keep my attention focused on the object of meditation for very long. My frustration would grow stronger as the day went on and I tried harder and harder to conquer my restless mind and wrestle it into submission. I wasn’t really aware, of course, that I was trying too hard.

But then one day I noticed something really curious happening. I left the meditation center and got on the subway to go home, my mind exhausted from hours of self-inflicted battle. I was disgusted with meditation, disgusted with myself, and I didn’t want to think about anything — I just wanted to rest. On the subway ride home I sat there and looked around at the people in the car and at the advertisements festooned above them, and — boom! — suddenly, without any effort on my part, I was vividly present and relaxed and aware. The colors around me seemed brighter, the sounds more precise, my mind more open and spacious, no longer bombarded by thoughts and commentary about everything. Right there in the subway, of all places, I was experiencing a spontaneous moment of the sort of pure presence that I’d been trying so hard, all day long, and without much success, to cultivate on the meditation cushion. And it came to me, unbidden, because I had simply given up and stopped trying so hard to create it.

A lot can happen when you sit on a cushion for eight hours and do nothing but work with your own mind.

Over the course of several of those weekend intensive trainings, this experience repeated itself several more times, until the lesson finally began to sink in. Naturally, if you don’t make any effort to train the mind, you don’t experience the benefits of mind-training; but if your practice isn’t balanced and you’re always trying too hard, then your effort is self-defeating, like tying your shoelaces together.

As the Buddha said, “not too tight, not too loose.” Makes sense, right? At least in theory…. ;-)

Fast forward about a decade-and-a-half. These days, my personal meditation practice is largely about effortlessness — about trying (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) to rest the mind in a natural state of awareness that is free from effort, free from manipulation, free from contrivance. This is called the natural state because it’s how the mind already exists when we stop trying so hard to control our experience.

When I first began meditating, I used to sit on my mind like a sumo wrestler who wants to squash his opponent, always trying too hard. These days, I’m more prone to the opposite extreme, not trying hard enough. As I seek to allow the mind’s natural state to emerge into awareness and simply stop interfering with it, my tendency sometimes is to become too loose, to space out and drift away.

But that’s the thing about tuning the strings of an instrument, be it a violin, a banjo, or the mind. You might be able to tune them perfectly for the music you’re playing right now, but then the next time you play the same instrument, you’ll need to tune them again. Strings don’t magically stay tuned forever just because you tuned them perfectly once. Every meditation, and every moment, is a fresh experience.

I guess that’s why they call it practice.


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