What Meditation Practice Is Not Like

A Teaching on the Classic Obstacle of Disheartenment

[Quick note: I’m delighted that my essay on fatherhood, masculinity, and disability was just published on Fatherly. You can read it here.]

Just so you know, it’s not like I wake up even keeled and wanting to commune with the rising sun. I’m usually ejected from sleep by one of my daughters, petitioning for breakfast or lobbing outlandish requests while my defenses are weak: “Can I watch a movie before school? Can we have a doughnut?” When I have finally done the hundred things of breakfast, lunch, and school drop-offs, I often think about gliding right past my meditation cushion.

After nearly 20 years of meditation, I’m still a little nervous about sitting down with nothing to do for 20 minutes. Why don’t I first check my newsfeed (Trump lowlights and Yankees gossip)? Or maybe prepare a cup of tea — that seems sort of spiritual!

Meditation is inherently a conflict of interest. One conscious part of you is trying to put another less conscious part of you (ego) out of business. Meditation seeks to dismantle ego, encouraging us to live without controlling every second. So you can bet there’s resistance. Many a day goes by that I never get to the cushion (in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition this obstacle is referred to as “speedy laziness” — avoiding practice by being busy).

Another obstacle cited in the canon, and encountered by nearly every mindfulness practitioner at some point, is disheartenment. Disheartenment is when we experience the natural struggles of meditation and rather than see these challenges as part of the path, we interpret them as signs that we are hopeless. ‘I guess I’m not cut out for meditation because I keep missing days or my mind is so busy.’ What we’re really saying is that we didn’t expect to stumble so much. We thought it would be smoother.

But you don’t have to feel bad about having a hard time. We so often tend to interpret obstacles as personal failings rather than the natural and inevitable feature of moving on the path. For thousands of years, meditative traditions have chronicled these obstacles. Meditation, like marriage, only appears smooth from the outside.

Yet another cause of disheartenment is that living teachers and writers rarely acknowledge unevenness in their practice periods. I have them, to be sure. It happens to everyone I know. You have to remember that the Buddhist traditions coming to the West were largely from monastic contexts — no jobs and no families. For overworked people and parents, it’s hard.

Yet the stories we tell ourselves about our compatibility with meditation are just… stories. When having difficulty in your practice, don’t isolate. Find a group, or community, and start learning again. Watch a talk. Put a book on your nightstand. In addition, two of the classic antidotes to disheartenment are:

  1. Trust that meditation works. Remember experiences of openness you’ve had in meditation. Moments when your psychic load was somewhat unburdened. It’s happened. You’ve had glimpses. Keep going.
  2. Take inspiration from others. Remember that many others have met similar challenges, dropped the ball many times, thought they sucked at it, labeled those thoughts, and returned to the present moment and the waiting company of their breath and body. They chose (over and over) to not stick themselves to what doubt was saying about them. They cooked their doubt under the heat lamp of mindfulness. How?

By not being afraid of fear. They felt their fear and hung in there, just like the Buddha who was challenged by extreme doubt just before his realization. The idea of a “fresh start” is actually built into basic instruction. No matter how elaborate or depraved our thoughts are, we can let go and come back to the present. We are never too far. From the Buddhist perspective, our basic nature is never irrecoverable so long as we have sincere intention. One of the most celebrated Tibetan yogis, , was a murderer in the early part of his life. See, you’re doing great!

Purity is something to be sold on , dangled in front of us. It plays to our fantasies of complexity-free living. But holding out for perfection only delays our spiritual growth while we wait for the “right” time to resume the practice. Disheartenment is almost always a chapter in our story, just don’t let it be the last one.

Focus & Relax takes place every Monday night at 8 PM.

Originally published at https://www.dancayer.co on November 17, 2020.

Meditation + Alexander Technique teacher. Author of “Don’t Get Better,” forthcoming guide to sanity, humor, and wisdom during illness. dancayer.co

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