The question of whether my practice or meditation is working raises the further question of how I know. Is my meditation working if I feel happy, loving or confident? If I am less anxious and free of stress-related mental and physical ailments? If I am a better worker, spouse or person? If I am a more active sangha member and bodhisattva? If I am more enlightened?
Yes, answer utilitarian-minded practitioners. Most of us prefer to reduce it to following instructions and getting guaranteed results, much like learning how to operate a VCR. We expect these results, so if we get them, our meditation must be working. That is why we sit, especially we Americans. We do it for a reason or benefit. And if it doesn’t work we fix it.
As a beginning meditator, I expected success and worked hard to achieve it. Predictably, the harder I worked, the less effective were my various efforts—counting breaths, techniques of relaxation, chanting, introspection, exercise of will and discipline, and problem-solving. I worked hard and followed all the instructions, yet felt frustrated and cheated. Meditation is not a technique to achieve anything. If you expect something and pursue it, you’re a dog chasing its tail. The faster you turn to get it, the faster it moves from your grasp.
I still expect something from meditation, something like calm and enlightenment. But when sitting, I remember that expectation is desire and that, as stated in the second noble truth, the cause of my suffering is desire.
Is my practice working? I just do it. Nothing special. It works fine.
Gray mornings break through my venetian blinds. My first real thoughts are about morning meditation. I know my day is riding on these moments: if I don’t meditate, I will be disappointed and unfinished in the rest of my daily activities. Did I worry and rush like this four years ago, before I began practicing? I wonder if my meditation is just another activity, something to cram in before exercise and after teeth-brushing. But I plump my zafu and sit anyway.
My meditation is busy—thoughts of the day’s plans, clothes, breakfast, the letters I need to write. Trying to come back to my breath for perhaps two seconds. Then I’m deciding if I should ride my bike to class today. If I ride, what will I wear? It’s cold, can’t forget my gloves. Oh yeah, remember, I’m meditating. I dedicate my practice to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. In my closing prayers, I think about how this practice should inform my day; I pray for peace and open-heartedness.
My mind rushes off like wind. Trees and cars and people pass as I coast my bike down the hill, breathing in foggy air, remembering to wish happiness to people streaming by in cars. In class, I imagine the quiet girl in the back row as a bodhisattva, pray that her suffering decreases, and then shift attention to the lecture. I watch the steam rising from my professor’s coffee cup. A moment of lucidity
There’s a slowing, an appreciation. I think this is what calm-abiding does. Opening space for a breath of fresh air. My study of Tibetan Buddhism has taught me to experience the sacredness in everyday life. I love to imagine buddhafields and bodhisattvas dancing on every blowing leaf. But do these imaginings take away from the taste of rice on my tongue, the sweet earthy scent of rain? Maybe I’m crowding my mind with complexity, making the stream a rushing torrent instead of a still pool. Do I really think meditation benefits all creatures? Will I ever reach enlightenment on this purple cushion?
So far, this is my experience: my practice adds a dreamlike dimension to my life. Sometimes it hinders, sometimes it helps. I am more aware of thoughts filling my mind. But I also have moments of presence, a red leaf, the soft sky, a bird. Wonder.
I have to begin with a confession: I am a real progress addict. “This is emptiness!” “My mind is settling.” “This is really nice meditation.” I know that these are all ego’s game—ways of maintaining ground when there is no ground—yet I am a sucker for whatever seems like a sign of progress.
Of course, there are always the other experiences: “Why won’t this agitation dissolve?” “It has been weeks since my mind settled!” and “Why can’t I understand these teachings?” When these arise, it seems like bad news, but ever resourceful, ego can even twist these into signs of progress. For example, I might think, “These things are arising because my karmic blockages are breaking up, which will soon lead to greater realization!”
Even though I know intellectually that “better” and “worse” are imaginary, like dreams, mirages and movies, it is hard to untie the knot of self-concern and recognize ego’s ridiculous game for what it is. Temporary effects of practice seem like genuine transformation, even though regular meditation practice increases peacefulness and wakefulness in much the same way that taking aspirin makes you feel better when you have the flu. Unfortunately, feeling better does not necessarily translate into progress in getting over the illness.
Signs of genuine progress are subtle. One of the more reliable ones is a little more sense of humor (from not taking myself quite so seriously). Another is the occasional bout of nausea with the endless “me project.” I can’t say that I experience great compassion or devotion, but a little appreciation for my teachers and the teachings does occasionally arise. Of course, there are the odd flashes of insight, so quickly pounced on by ego as confirmation of great virtue and solidity, but as I begin to appreciate the irony of this little game… Damn!
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Though I’ve learned not to approach life with a measuring stick, I believe we can’t help sensing and reflecting on the depth of our practice, the breadth of its change in our life. Like Shunryu Suzuki, I believe one fine way to sense this is to ask those who live with us, family and friends. I remember months after my introduction to Zen practice at Zen Mountain Monastery, my wife told me, “You know, I like you this way. You’re more relaxed and gentle with yourself.” What I notice, besides my endurance and patience with others and myself, is my ability to pause before reacting, centering myself, and my willingness to just listen. For thirty years as a teacher I’ve struggled with the urge to fill in, keep the classroom going, value my own understanding and expression over others’. Now I see the effect of my deep listening in the students’ eyes, hear it in their respect for each other. Being present creates a presence in the world. Sensing our own intention and becoming gentle and open with it, we come to the Zen truth: “If you learn to enjoy waiting, you never have to wait to enjoy.”
I began my meditation practice sobbing in the shower. Overcome with grief at the state of the world and my life, I found something about the stillness of the morning, the warmth of the water pouring over my body, and the twilight state between sleep and wakefulness that naturally lent itself to the release of tears. About this time a friend had lent me Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart. There was something about her fearless admonition that the spiritual journey involves going beyond hope and fear that gave me hope that I had somehow placed myself on a path that I could trust. “Follow the tears,” I kept telling myself.
I soon learned that being diligent in one’s practice in no way guarantees freedom from pain, or growth in compassion and enlightenment. The more I hung on to the illusion that meditation is about “success” or “failure,” the more I lost the basic point–learning to lean into the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than protect myself from it.
My path more recently has been that of acceptance–acceptance of my limits, of my fallibility, and the wonder that occasionally arises as I learn to accept that this moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.
One thing I can be sure of is that the more I delve into the heart of dharma, the more I am not sure about anything anymore. The empty nature of everything reveals itself. I question everything and at the same time I question my questioning. When things become so absurdly convoluted and hazy, I am once again reminded to let go of all conceptualization. The dust settles once again before another doubtful thought creeps in and stirs the equilibrium. Hence, the cycle is repeated. It can be very disheartening at times, perhaps not dissimilar to the trepidation of those who are experiencing the dying process of the self (anatta), when the remnant of the self won’t let go.
There is no fixed formula toward enlightenment. It’s not about planning, scheduling and targeting. It’s about finding flowers and trees and birds as a child does for the first time. It’s about living spontaneously, seeing things freshly every time, starting anew every day with a clean slate: no assumptions, no preconceived notions, no accumulated knowledge. It’s a complete surrender to the moment and a transcendence of the norms that keep us from responding to perceived problems in a skillful manner. Problems are still there—but when the mind stops seeing them as problems, they cease being problems. For most of us, this is what success in practice is all about in this lifetime.
Los Angeles, Calif.