Great meditators before us have laid out the path, but how can we be sure we’re following it genuinely? There are no guarantees, but CAROLYN ROSE GIMIAN has some tips for keeping it real.
When the Shambhala Sun asked me to write an article about how to make meditation practice genuine and real, I wasn’t sure whether to be proud or insulted. Maybe they were asking me because they could see what a fraud I am on the meditation cushion, and they needed someone to write honestly about failure.
Well, guilty as charged. Failure to be peaceful, failure to be mindful, failure to be aware, failure to be kind, failure to think big, failure to be generous (or insert your favorite virtue/ accomplishment I’ve failed at). On the other hand, sitting on the cushion for a lot of years (if I tell you how many, it will be really embarrassing) has yielded some results. I have witnessed a whole circus of bizarre fantasies, emotions, and extreme mental states, starring anger, lust, hatred, delusion, arrogance, pride, depression, anxiety, and a host of other amazing performers. I’ve made friends with Speedy, Distracted, and Lazy, three of the seven dwarfs of meditation for small-minded people. However, I do have one genuine accomplishment: I have gotten completely and totally bored.
Boredom is my great achievement. Isn’t that what you aspire to in your meditation practice? To be totally, fully bored with yourself, your practice, your life, your fantasies, etc., etc., etc.? No?
My topic, the actual topic I was asked to write about, is genuineness. Genuine is a term that is bandied about quite a lot these days, and it can mean many things, depending on the context. Through my search engine, I found that a lot of advertising companies use the word genuine in the title of their companies and websites. Suspicious. I also noticed that popular searches with genuine as the first word were mainly for car parts. If you’re going to drive an automobile, you would like it to have genuine parts, I’m sure. But this was not what I associate with genuineness in spiritual practice.
On the other hand, my word processor tells me that synonyms for genuine include real, authentic, indisputable, true, unadulterated, actual, legitimate, and valid. As far as the practice of meditation is concerned, these sound pretty good. I would definitely like my meditation to be real, authentic, indisputable, true, unadulterated, actual, legitimate, and valid.
Okay, so how are we going to achieve that? And what are the pitfalls? Simple. To be genuine, you have to be honest with yourself first, and then with others. Don’t make anything up. Just do it. Just be it. It’s pretty straightforward. But being honest with yourself is not so easy. There’s a little thing called self-deception that gets in the way.
Now that we’ve introduced that scary word, self-deception, we have our work cut out for us. In the realm of overcoming self-deception, it’s probably better to have no goal in your practice, but that’s a very difficult thing. Since meditation actually works, it’s hard not to have a goal. It actually does make you kinder, more aware, less speedy, happier, more mindful, more efficient, more peaceful, more in the moment, and so on. I’m not belittling these. They are important and valid outcomes of meditation. There are many studies and self-reports that support this. I’m a fan, a true believer. But this doesn’t specifically address genuineness.
In fact, when it comes to being genuine, it may be better to have one of those definite but perhaps limited purposes and let genuineness, which is all-pervasive, take care of itself. Indeed, unwittingly, you do manifest genuineness through the practice of meditation. You become more transparent and available to yourself, your thoughts are less fixed, you discover both natural strength and natural gentleness, and you’re able to see through preconceptions.
I presume you’re all waiting for the but, the pitfall. Here it comes, and it’s a big one. Largely, it’s attachment to credentials.
Sometimes experience comes blessedly, with no connection to credentials. If out of nowhere you have an experience of openness, joy, compassion, or awareness, an experience that doesn’t seem causally connected to anything particular in your life, then it is largely free from credentials. It’s a gift. It’s just what it is. Enjoy it for what it is, while it lasts.
But as soon as you become a “meditator,” whether you have been meditating for one hour, one week, one retreat, or twenty years, you may begin to feel the need to label your meditation experiences and to communicate them to others. That’s the beginning of gaining your spiritual credentials. You’ve just done your first meditation retreat. You go home and tell your family and friends about it: “Oh, it was fantastic. I had a really hard time for a few days, and my body hurt and I couldn’t control my thoughts, but then I had the most amazing (or insert other adjective) experience.” Whatever it was. Well, what else are you going to say? “Nothing happened. It was a complete waste of time, but I want to keep doing this.” Huh? We have positive experiences, and we want to share them with others. That’s an ordinary and acceptable thing to do. Pretty benign.
A little less benign is that, internally, we are looking for confirmation, signs that something is happening in our practice. We are looking for results, progress on the path. That also may be natural but it’s a little more dangerous because after a while we may tend to manufacture results or jump on things in our practice. If we have a “good” (that is, peaceful) meditation session, we are pleased and we try to repeat that. Another time we are frustrated when our mind is a roaring freight train of thoughts and emotions. Or we are experiencing huge upheavals in our life, yet nothing is coming up when we’re on the cushion. Shouldn’t they manifest in our meditation? We may try to manufacture emotionality and crisis in our practice. There are many other examples of how our expectations manifest in our meditation practice.
All these concerns about our practice and our various meditation experiences are genuine signs of—wait for it—confusion. Actually, the recognition of confusion is quite helpful. Seeing our confusion is an important and, dare we say, genuine discovery. If we look into our experience, we see that we are very, very confused in some fundamental way. That may be the most authentic realization that comes up over and over in our meditation practice. If we are willing to acknowledge confusion, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, then the path and the teachings are real, even if we may not seem to be getting anywhere.
Give up any hope of fruition. This slogan from the lojong (mind-training) tradition is another way of putting it. This is the idea of our practice being anti-credential, or free from credentials—through and through, start to finish. That is why boredom, our starting point, is so helpful. It’s really not a very good credential. If someone asks what you have achieved after three days, or three years, or three decades of meditating, it’s not that impressive to say, “I’m thoroughly bored.” To prepare for writing this article, I looked at ads for spiritual paths and retreats, and not one of them said, “Come sit with us. We’ll make you completely bored.”
But boredom is actually a great sign, if it is genuine, complete boredom that includes being bored with your confusion, your anger, your arrogance, your everything, your you. I’m probably letting the cat out of the bag a bit, but if you commit yourself fully to your practice and discipline, you eventually wear out a lot of things—they begin to seem quite unnecessary and quite boring.
Boredom is genuinely helpful in ventilating our minds. The point of meditation is obviously not to encourage or enshrine our confusion, so getting really bored with our storylines, positive and negative, helps us clarify our confusion immensely. Of course, the path of meditation is not designed to deter us from commitment, confidence, and positive achievements in life. Meditation is not a nihilistic enterprise. But the approach of collecting credentials rather than wearing them out is problematic. It is very dangerous to try to con buddha mind, hoping to find a shortcut. It’s not dangerous to buddha mind itself, but it may lead to self-deception, the opposite of being genuine.
This is often a problem the longer you have been practicing, especially if you become an instructor or a spiritual model of some kind for others. Then you really feel that you have to demonstrate some accomplishment, and you may begin to panic if you don’t find anything in yourself that qualifies. People are looking to you for advice. They may be watching your every move, or so you think. They may ask you, “What was it like when you were just a beginner like me?” “How did you become so wise, kind, open, generous, blah blah blah?” And you start to think, “Well, I must have accomplished something. Yes, I am wiser, kinder, more open, more generous, more blah blah blah.” You may try to fulfill people’s expectations because you actually want to help them. But you also want to avoid embarrassment.
The interesting thing is that people actually see right through one another, so really we could relax about the whole thing. It’s an open secret. Or as Leonard Cohen wrote, “Everybody knows.” Everybody really does know their own and others’ little secrets. We know, that is, if we admit to ourselves what we see, what we really know. That perception sees what is truly genuine.
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to relax with that in ourselves. We have a lot of resistance to simply being ourselves, without pretense or adornment, with all our warts and wrinkles. It is quite uncomfortable. So often we put on a little show for ourselves and others, thinking that’s what is required. We try to give the people what they want. We try to give ourselves what we think we want. It’s actually very sad, and in the long run it doesn’t help ourselves or others. But in the short run, it’s a pretty good con.
But while everybody may know, that’s not a license for telling other people what’s wrong with them or what’s good for them. To do that, you’d have to really know. You’d have to be able to see others not just as schmucks or charlatans, devils or angels, but also as the immaculately genuine human beings they are. That has to start in one’s own practice. Sitting with ourselves without expectation, viewing practice as practice, as life’s work rather than a race to the finish line. In that way, we leave space so that buddha mind, genuine mind, can shine through at the most unexpected moments.
Genuineness is actually that simple. But I have to confess that I fall short most of the time, failure that I am.
A little voice pops up: Give it up. Abandon any hope of fruition.
I yield to the little voice.
Carolyn Rose Gimian is a senior editor of the works of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, including The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa and Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery. She is currently working on a book of mindfulness teachings by Chögyam Trungpa.