Are We Really Meditating?

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel examines common misconceptions about Buddhist practice that can derail even the most seasoned practitioners.

By Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Composite of photos by Liza Matthews.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel examines common misconceptions about Buddhist practice that can derail even the most seasoned practitioners.

What is meditation practice? When are we genuinely practicing and when are we just going through the motions, caught in unexamined assumptions about prac­tice? I often ask myself these questions so I don’t succumb to spiritual vagueness and because I want my practice to continue to grow.

The purpose of meditation is to develop a sane relationship to experience. The struggles we have in life—shutting down, pushing away, feeling overwhelmed, and all the neurotic attachment—arise from the confusion we harbor about how to relate to the rich energy of the mind. When eating, we ingest, process, and eliminate food. But how do we digest our experience? It’s not so clear.

As meditators we look at the mind and its activity. When we begin to practice, we often feel surprised: “I didn’t realize my mind was so wild and unruly!” Even experienced practitioners will complain, “I have been practicing for thirty years, but my mind is still crazy!” We often view experience as a problem. So how do we work with it? Is there a way to enjoy the activity of mind? How does practice bring us into a healthy relationship with our world? Meditation puts these questions front and center.

Methods Alone Are Not Practice

We think of meditation as the act of sitting in the lotus position, reciting a mantra, visualizing, or focusing on the breath. These skillful methods help us navigate our world. They keep our bodies upright and our energy flowing, and more impor­tant, they can help guide us away from habitual tendencies.

Sometimes, just following the meditation tech­nique will lead to a moment of clarity, when we experience a sense of liberation. I don’t mean “LIBERATION!!!” in some highfalutin kind of way. I just mean that we may enjoy a moment in which the mind stops trying to fix or push at things, allowing us to open into a larger way of being.

And yet we know that we can sometimes apply practice techniques without really “practicing” at all. In those moments, such methods don’t touch our habitual tendencies and we find our­selves defaulting to our usual ways of relating to the mind, such as getting lost in the momentum of thoughts and emotions or in rejecting them. We may spend a lot of time wishing we were someone else, somewhere else having a different experience. We may find ourselves wanting or not wanting, grasping or rejecting, even as we sit on the cushion.

The various tools of meditation practice can put us into a purposeful stronghold. When we place our body in a meditation posture, recite a mantra, or follow the breath, we provide our­selves with a supportive structure in which to view the mind and its distractions. We often for­get that this “seeing” is a powerful and necessary realization in and of itself. In fact, it is the start­ing point for our path.

Sometimes, however, rather than appreciating our discoveries along the path, we brace against them and our experience. When this happens we miss the genius of the practice methods, which are designed to bring us into a sane relationship with our experience. As the great Tibetan Buddhist master Tilopa said to his disciple Naropa, “Son, it is not experiences themselves that bind you, but the way you cling to and reject them.”

We may be reciting prayers, sitting erect, or watching the breath, but are we actually work­ing with our minds? Is our practice touching and transforming our habitual tendencies of grasp­ing and rejection? These questions about how we apply the practice moment to moment are deeply personal. We need to continually ask them, because if we think meditating means just applying a technique, we may never experience the liberation that genuine practice can bring. Eventually we may conclude that practice doesn’t work, that we’ve wasted our time, and that we’re going to return to the real world. It happens.

Toughing It Out

We’re told that the great yogis of the past, includ­ing Milarepa, Yeshe Tsogyal, and Bodhidharma, spent years practicing austerities, such as sit­ting naked on snowy mountaintops and cutting off their eyelids so they wouldn’t fall asleep in meditation.

As we practitioners struggle with our expe­rience, we may begin to associate meditation with suffering. We may even view this struggle as purifying karma, assuming that unless we are uncomfortable, we are not really practicing. When we hold fast to such notions of practice, our suffering grows ever more real along with the “not-wanting” we feel toward the unpleasantness of it all.

The Buddha, in his very first teaching, said, “There is suffering.” Sometimes we mistakenly interpret this to mean that we are doomed to suf­fer. I take the Buddha’s words as an invitation to practice nonviolence toward my inner and outer worlds. In this simple but powerful statement, the Buddha suggests that suffering is not some­thing we can fix, ignore, or get rid of. Rather, he is intimating that practice provides the ability to make ourselves big enough to include both the pain and beauty of the human condition—not only our own but also that of others.

Our ability to bear witness to suffering with­out pushing it away or getting overwhelmed is linked to liberation. What is experience before we shrink from it, try to subdue it, or manipulate it? This is the question for practitioners.

The move from “I am suffering” to “there is suffering” allows the pain of the human condi­tion to touch us and releases our deepest wisdom and compassion. In this way, the great practitio­ners of the past have experienced what we might call suffering as a kind of fierce empowerment.

It’s Not Like Paying Taxes

If our practice consists of toughing it out, a time will come when we feel we have endured enough. We may decide to give it all up and go danc­ing—as if practice and enjoyment were at odds. In his book The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Patrul Rinpoche says we often practice “as if we are paying taxes.” We really just want to come home after work and watch TV, but we feel we should meditate.

This raises a valuable question: “What is true enjoyment?” My teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, once defined bliss as “the absence of grasping and rejection.” If this is so, enjoyment could be a good way to define “practice.”

The purpose of meditation practice is to enjoy the natural vitality of the mind; practice is not something we should do out of a sense of duty. Who are we practicing for? The teacher? Are we doing this so we won’t go to hell? To be good? Who is the arbiter of “good,” anyway? The point of practice is not to be good, but to learn how to be at ease with our experience and deeply enjoy our mind and life.

Short Passing Experiences

Sometimes we meet a teacher, listen to a teaching, or have an experience—perhaps in nature—that wakes us up. All of a sudden our habitual mind stops, and we enjoy a moment of wonder or openness. Such experiences remind us that there is life beyond grasping and rejection.

But when we try to hold on to such passing experiences, we once again find ourselves trans­ported to the conditional world of preferences with all its “wants” and “not-wants,” hopes and fears. This is where we usually live, engaged in struggle with the world.

There is a saying in the mind training teach­ings: “Give up all hope of fruition.” People often interpret this to mean that there is no resting place for the practitioner. What it actually means is that when we grasp at positive experiences, we fall back into ordinary mind. Freedom is just the opposite. It arises from valuing all experience and remaining open to life in all its pain and joy.

No Physical Boundary

When people first enter a retreat, they can have an awkward or uncomfortable relationship with the experience of boundaries. Oftentimes they’ll distract themselves from meditation practice by trying to communicate with others or they’ll find “interesting” things to do. Some will withdraw from experience and try to create a protective shield through holding themselves in a rigid and contracted way. These two styles of relating to experience are once again expressions of grasping and rejection. They indicate that we don’t know how to be with our experience in an easy, enjoy­able, and intelligent way—in a practice way.

During a long-term retreat where a small group of us practiced in separate cabins on the same retreat land, I found myself dreading our occasional group practice sessions and trying to avoid my fellow retreatants at the water tap. Whenever someone walked past me, I would feel my mind and body tighten.

One day I saw someone I didn’t recognize walking toward me on the path and I jumped into the bushes. My teacher, who happened to be standing nearby, playfully teased me, saying, “That isn’t a dignified way for a practitioner to act!” I knew he was right.

Having to grapple with my confusion around boundaries eventually compelled me to ask some very deep and essential questions about practice: Where is the true boundary of practice? Where is the threshold and how do I step across it?

Sometimes we mistakenly think of meditation practice as staying within the protective container of a physical environment, such as a retreat, or following a set schedule or precepts. While these act as boundaries for our practice, there is a more subtle boundary that has to do with how we keep our minds oriented toward practice.

People often talk about the challenges of leaving retreat. They say that when they re-enter their ordinary lives, their mind no longer feels protected by or connected to their meditation practice. This is because we mistake the external boundary for the practice itself, when in fact the boundary of practice is not something outside of us, but has to do with how we relate to the rich experience of our inner and outer worlds.

The physical boundary and precepts that define the structure of our retreat serve as indispensable supports for retreat practice. They keep us within the sane confines of our intention, which is to find our true resting place beyond grasping and rejec­tion. But they are not the practice itself.

Value All Experience

If practice is not merely a technique or some­thing that can be identified by physical boundar­ies and short passing experiences, then how do we know when we are practicing and when we’re not? I think we need to look at the fundamen­tal attitude we bring to our experience. Are we valuing all experience? Or are we succumbing to our habitual tendencies to brace against what we don’t like and grasp at what we find pleasurable?

Practice provides an opportunity to bear wit­ness to such lapses without judging them. Rather than becoming discouraged, we can appreciate the potency of our ability to discern: What is practice? What isn’t practice? This is a crucial part of our inquiry and the beginning of respond­ing to our experience with nonaggression.

Our ability to accept our humanness with all its struggles, insights, and confusions increases our capacity to behold both the beauty and suf­fering we encounter in the world. This gives rise to fearlessness, compassion, insight, and an appreciation both of ourselves and of oth­ers. Because we feel less intimidated by our mind and world, we can walk through life with grace and composure. Our relationship with the world around us is less reactive and more responsive.

To be in sane relationship with our experi­ence, our life, our world, we need to learn how to digest experience—to let life touch us, nourish us, and move through us rather than reacting to it with so much fixation and preference. This means we need to find a way of being that is beyond grasping and rejection. Only then can we enjoy our humanness in all its fullness. And isn’t that the point of meditation?

Photo by Liza Matthews

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel has been a student of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche for almost forty years. Founder of the non-profit The Middle Way Initiative, she is also the host and creator of the Open Question podcast and the author of The Power of an Open Question and The Logic of Faith.