One great obstacle we face in meditation is the fact that initially success feels like failure. Typically, we come to meditate desiring calm, ease, tranquility, relaxation, contentment and pleasure. We hear descriptions of meditation that contain words like: silent mind, luminous consciousness, self-realization, cosmic orgasm, and unitary consciousness. We anticipate pleasant images, thoughts, moods and bodily experiences.
We take our seat, determined to bring attention to the breath and order to the unruly mind. However it doesn’t take long for the truth to emerge; the mind has a mind of its own. The inner life we thought would be calm, restful and pleasant turns out to be like a party for drunken animals.
Three fundamental characteristics of existence are revealed.
1. Everything is impermanent and in constant flux.
2. There is suffering and dissatisfaction.
3. The self is a process, not an enduring entity.
Rather than basking in the spaciousness and potential relief of these realities, the reactive mind sets out to get things under control, to make sense of them, and to confirm its own existence. It begins the litany of “I”, “me”, and “mine”. Wild thoughts arise:
− I am failing at meditation.
− I will try harder, exert more effort and control my wandering mind.
− There is something wrong with me. I should be able to control myself better.
− This is happening because I (ate the wrong thing, had the wrong childhood, have the wrong partner, don’t have a partner, am being punished, am not smart enough, didn’t do my yoga, etc).
− This must be the wrong practice. I need a different teacher.
− Maybe I should do lovingkindness meditation first.
− I can’t sit right.
− First I need to read more and understand Buddhism better.
Rather than signifying failure, the thrashing about of the self and emergence of these thoughts and feelings is grist for the mill of awakening. These very self-manifestations are the raw materials that the meditator transforms into liberation from attachment and suffering.
The word Vipassana means to see things as they really are, free of hopes, fears, fantasies, ideologies, projections and expectations. Vipassana meditation is intended to bring us nose to nose with reality, not to provide us with sophisticated ways to avoid it.
Insight does require some degree of ease and tranquility. In order for us to be attracted to our inner practice, and receive comfort and a sense of well being, we must have some access to peace of mind. The Buddha taught an optimal balance between concentration and mindfulness.
Concentration is the capacity to focus the mind on one object and have it remain there. It is often described as one-pointedness and is likened to an unwavering flame burning in still air. A surgeon uses a laser to converge light waves into a narrow, intense beam, in order to perform delicate surgery. In a similar way, a meditator uses concentration to perceive minute details of life. According to Buddhist psychology the primary condition for the arising of concentration is living a harmonious and ethical life.
Another condition in the cultivation of concentration is the gentle, systematic effort to focus the mind. Insight meditation involves countless repetitions of discovering the mind wandering and returning attention to the sensations of breathing. As we become adept at meditation we develop the art of knowing how much effort to exert, and how much slack to allow the centrifugal forces of the mind.
With practice the mind becomes calmer and directs attention to one experience at a time with greater ease.
Mindfulness is the awareness of what is occurring within and around oneself in successive moments of consciousness. It is referred to as the knowing faculty or the one who knows. It is like the sun that shines on everything without distinction. Mindfulness can be aware of a mind that is either concentrated or restless and agitated. It can also know such simple and profound truths as: at this moment this body is standing here; these particular thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions exist. Mindfulness is the power that liberates us from suffering as it realizes that these experiences are neither me nor mine. They just are. As miraculous as mindfulness is, equally wondrous is the fact that we can intentionally cultivate it.
While sitting in meditation we notice that awareness arises spontaneously, with no prompting. The mind may be off on a long wander into the past or the future when suddenly there is the awareness that thinking is happening. It is as if one awakens from a dream and discovers oneself sitting there. The mind has been off into the neurotic trance of everyday life.