I’ve been practicing one form of meditation or another since my college days almost thirty years ago. And by practicing I mean trying and then failing to keep a regular practice for nearly thirty years. My best stretches seem to last around 6 months, but, more often than not, the vast majority of my attempts at daily meditation usually run a course of 1-3 months, then my discipline wanes, I lose interest, and my commitment vanishes.
Until (I think) now. My latest commitment to a daily practice is right around the 5 month mark (so I’m not quite over the hump). But something is different. I don’t struggle to practice or try to cram a few minutes in whenever possible or grudgingly stop whatever else I am supposed to be doing to go and sit in silence for 20 minutes. There may be a day here or there when such things still happen, but mostly I’m just doing it–10 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the evening–with a degree of rhythm and ease which were totally unfamiliar to my past attempts.
The change (again, I think) is in why I am doing it. Every other time I took up meditation (or centering prayer or contemplation or call it whatever you will), I began doing it because I wanted to be better. I dove into it because I felt the desire to be a better person or the drive to live a better life or the need to have a more profound spirituality, a deeper experience of God. I was banking on it making me calmer or more compassionate or more centered or more loving or more the person I really wanted to be. Always–ALWAYS–it was about better and more. And thus it started from the premise that there was something wrong or lacking–whether with me or with my life–and I needed to do something to fix it, to get better.
And therein lies the difference this time around.
My practice now consists of something far less vague or esoteric than “becoming better” or “deepening my spirituality”. I intentionally keep using the word “practice” because that is exactly what my meditation is now. I am “practicing” something every time I do it, and what I am practicing is learning how to stay.
For me in these 10 or 20 minute sessions, it simply means that I just practice staying with the moment, focusing on my breath, letting go gently and without judgment of whatever thoughts or anxieties or emotions that come up during that timeframe (and they come up, tons of them, again and again and again). It is training for doing the very same thing in my regular life when I am not meditating. In my meditation I’m preparing myself for how to stay with difficulties and discomfort when they arise in my day-to-day activities–problems at work, uncomfortable emotions, painful experiences, relationship issues, and so on. The default for me (maybe for others too?) has often been to repress or ignore ugly things, to flee from that which makes me ashamed or uncomfortable or hurt, or to lash out or build walls under the guise of self-protection when I feel threatened or afraid. What I am teaching myself instead to do is to just stay. Stay with the difficult thing instead of pretending it didn’t happen or blaming someone else for it. Stay with the feeling of pain or humiliation instead of acting out or pushing it deep down. Stay with the experience of discovering something unsettling about myself instead of projecting my issues onto another or living in denial. This practice of “staying” which is the real content of my meditation is just training for all those moments in my life when “staying” is the last thing I want to do.
There are at least two good reasons I want to increase my own capacity for being able to stay with whatever arises in myself or in my own life: 1) Because at times, whether I like it or not, want it or not, deserve it or not, things in my life will be difficult, painful, heartbreaking, frightening, disastrous, etc.–this is just the reality of being human. Live long enough and everyone experiences hardship and catastrophe, whether by our own hands or because such is the nature of life. And 2) because the people, events and situations I perceive as difficult or unseemly or unacceptable are in fact the very opportunities I need to learn something really important, maybe essential, about myself and about what it means to be human. Learning to be compassionate and gentle with my own pain, with my own failures and brokenness–and coming to a greater understanding of myself in the process–is the gateway to cultivating compassion for others, for treating others who also wrestle with all the messiness of being human with gentleness and respect.
So this latest meditation practice feels different for me. I no longer come to it begging with a sense of need and self-improvement, with vague or ethereal reasons of wanting to be better or even “holy”. I have sloughed off that search for a better life, a better way of being in the world, a better me. Instead I meditate for the most practical and mundane of reasons, just learning how to “stay”–to stay with myself, to stay with this moment, to be stay with whatever I find here, inside or outside of me, no matter what it is. I’m just learning to sit with myself really, as I am; with my life, as it is. That’s all.