You know how it is. You sit down to meditate, adjust your posture to be comfortably upright and take a moment or two to stretch. Perhaps you light a candle, ring a gong, chant, bow and pay homage to the sacred objects on your altar. Then you decide; “Now I am going to practice mindfulness of breathing. I am going to bring my attention to the sensations of breathing in my body, and experience ease and tranquility, perhaps even some bliss. For a breath or two your mind is quite cooperative. “Breathing in, breathing out, in, out….” Then you discover that your mind is planning the dinner for the party next week, or anguishing about your pet’s death twenty years ago. “OK, wandering mind. NOW I am going to stay with the breath and experience that lovely concentrated feeling I had the last time I meditated. In, out, in, out ……”
Again you notice minutes have passed while your mind has been entranced in the past and the future. After a few repetitions the frustration begins to build. “What’s wrong with me, I can’t do this today. Maybe I am too tired. Perhaps it’s what I ate this morning. I never can do anything right. I will just try harder. In, out, in, out… Damn this is frustrating. I must be doing something wrong. Maybe this is the wrong practice for me. Maybe I should practice Lovingkindness for a while. Maybe some mantra practice or yoga, or a cup of tea. I think I will quit and try again tomorrow…or a few weeks from now…or never.”
Many people experience meditation as hopeless because they come to it with a profound misunderstanding. They define “success” depending upon whether or not the mind is concentrated, the feelings are pleasant, and the time passes with a minimum of mental or physical discomfort. It is true that sometimes, even at the beginning of one’s practice, there may be times of great ease, concentration and delight. However, it is inevitable that coming face to face with your mind will also require acceptance of the fact that the mind is more like a zoo full of crazed animals than a pristine meditation hall.
Just as in the outer world, violence and coercion will work in meditation for only a very short time. You may well be able to force attention to stay with the breath by sheer will power, but before long there will be an uprising and once again the mind will be out of control and rebellious. For meditation to develop, you must go beyond the effort to stop the mind from wandering, and embrace an attitude of acceptance.
At some point it becomes undeniably apparent to you that it is not “your” mind at all. It is, rather, “the mind”, a natural phenomenon that is no more predictable or personal than the Oregon weather. The mind is capable of thinking and feeling anything. If it were truly yours and under your control, you would not let the mind torture you with self-criticism, doubts, worry or obsessions.
The realization that the mind is out of control is not a sign of failure. It is one of the fundamental insights that arise through meditation. It signifies the opening of the inner eye and the beginning of meditative insight. The transition from “my” mind to “the” mind creates a certain distance between your sense of self and mental experiences. What you previously identified with as “me and mine” becomes an amazing collection of natural phenomena that can be observed and studied.
Once the activities of the mind can be observed directly, the work of mental development and purification begins. Thoughts, emotions, moods, beliefs, memories, perceptions, and every experience that occurs at the six sense doors, are observed to be fleeting.
Now back to sitting. You are making a gentle and persistent effort to maintain awareness of breathing in and breathing out. You study the texture and rhythm of the breath. Awareness arises that the mind is wandering and obsessing. It was unobserved when leaving the breath, but now awareness illuminates the mental activities. There is a choice… to continue thinking or to return to the simplicity and calm of attending to breathing.
Concentration on the breath is not an end in itself. It is more like a compass heading that helps you to find the way through a forest or dense fog. When you consult the compass and discover yourself to be off course, you make a correction and come back to your intended direction. By making a clear intention to remain present with the breathing, the wanderings of the mind are made apparent. Mindfulness of breathing is thus a skillful means to illuminate everything that happens in the mind.
Insight meditation is an artful blending of concentration and mindfulness. The breath is used as the primary object for the development of concentration. Simultaneously, non-judgmental mindfulness is cultivated. This allows awareness of everything that happens in the mind, including whether or not concentration is present.
With skillful practice, a dynamic balance develops between concentration and mindful awareness so that meditation becomes relaxing and often effortless. There is room for everything that arises.