Normally, when we talk about meditation, we’re talking about formal meditation, meaning that our meditation session has a definite beginning and end. We have thought about the time, the place, and how long the session is going to be. We sit down and we follow the meditation instructions we’ve been given. There is an element of crispness to this plan. We need this formality to train our minds, to let the mind deepen, to allow ourselves to experience insights into our life and into who we are.
During formal practice, we know that time has been set aside to meditate. We practice letting go of thoughts. Encountering stubborn thoughts and feelings, we look at them and realize that they are simply fabricated and not substantial. In this way, we are training our mind to be more pliant and supple. But it’s difficult for us to continue this all day long, in the same way that we can’t exercise all day. We may do push-ups and sit-ups and weight training, but we don’t do it all day long. We can do it for a specific time and then we need to rest and recuperate.
In the same way, the meditation session is different from the rest of our life. We regard it as formal practice and the rest of our day as post-meditation. Ideally speaking, the two are equal partners, helping each other. We could say they are like the sun and the moon.
Because we sometimes struggle with finding our breath and acknowledging thoughts, we may feel as though our formal meditation session is spent juggling. We experience moments of peace, but mostly we feel awkward. Nonetheless, after finishing a session we may notice a slight difference in our perception. There might be more clarity. It’s not simply that we are relieved that the practice is over, but there is more space in our mind. We may even feel a little younger and fresher. When we talk to a friend, we may see her face more clearly than we usually do, and hear her words in a slightly different way.
This shift marks the beginning of an opening-up process that is quite powerful. We can actually take some pride in this state of mind. It’s softer and more accurate than our habitual mindset. There’s less discursiveness and more space. Our mind is less busy producing useless thoughts and chatter. We have meditated and worked with our mind, and this is the fruition. We didn’t take a pill or drink something; we did it on our own.
The post-meditation period is the time that we deepen our understanding of the meditation practice. We read, we study, we seek to understand ourselves and how our mind works. We take the time to think about the practice of meditation and to deepen our experience of its effect on our mind.
During post-meditation, because we have gained some perspective from meditating, we begin to see the play of our mind. We begin to see its fickle quality. We are able to observe how our mind jumps about from one topic to another: one minute we’re thinking about the snowstorm, the next minute we’re deciding what to eat for lunch, and the next minute we’re worrying that we left our lights on at home. We also see the heaviness of thought and concept. For example, we may go around for days feeling angry at somebody, or we might feel stuck in an argumentative frame of mind. Even though these kinds of thoughts have been going on for our whole life, we didn’t have the perspective before we started our formal practice to see how haphazardly our mind behaves.
In post-meditation, we begin to see how our familiar emotional patterns are just the mind fixating on different things. One minute the mind is fixated on self-doubt; the next minute our mind is stuck on irritation with the person we live with. So the value in the post-meditation experience is that it helps us to see gaps in our thinking process. We could see, for example, that our irritation has actually begun because we are irritated with ourselves, and we could see the irony of blaming others for how we feel.
The play between meditation and post-meditation is very important. Formal meditation is like the sun. The sun relaxes us if we are tense and cold. It brings us out of shadows into the open air. The warmth of the sun is nurturing and healing. Meditation has these qualities as well. Our formal session is when we set aside our other obligations. We can observe, acknowledge, and let go of our thoughts. We can rest the mind.
However, the intensity of formal training needs to be balanced with the cool moon of everyday life. We are happy to see the sun because of the moon, and we appreciate the moon because of the sun. If we had the sun all day and all night it would be overwhelming, even debilitating.
Finding the right proportion of meditation to post-meditation is a lifelong journey. There are times when we will need more formal meditation, and other times when we need to accommodate the unpredictability of daily life in our sessions. There will be times when we feel that things are not going so well, when our life feels claustrophobic. Then we may need a little adventure in our lives, something to pique our interest and bring some richness into our routine. We may just need to go for a walk instead of meditating that day.
If we approach the formal meditation session feeling that training our mind is drudgery, then we’re entering meditation in a depressed state of mind, and that’s not very helpful. Or if we sit down to meditate because we have nothing else to do, that’s not helpful either. Then we’ll probably just wallow in our depression during the session.
Meditation does not mean formal periods of soberness or heavy doses of reality. What we are doing is simply training the mind. One of the chief benefits of meditation is that it creates lightness and openness in our mind. It helps us to feel less burdened. This is crucial to how meditation helps us, because everything we do is colored by our state of mind. For instance, if we feel good, then things seem interesting and we want to learn; we’re intrigued. But if we feel attacked and our mind feels weak or doubtful, then we want to reject the world. At that point, our mind feels heavy and unworkable. By contrast, genuine meditation will bring about a kind of lightness. Once we achieve a certain emotional and mental buoyancy, or upliftedness, then life simply becomes more enjoyable.