Ask a Buddhist: What is the key to meditating?

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Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She's ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  

You’ve landed on a central issue for every meditator: what to do with a drifting mind. The question addresses the irony that we have a learning curve to simply be with our experience of being. Meditation is just a circumscribed time of minimal distraction. If you let your mind amble about it can seem pointless, but if you try and force your mind not to wander, you can set yourself up for an unpleasant internal struggle. The act of sitting still, not being entertained, not doing much but simply paying attention is so unusual that we’re at a bit of a loss. Here you are, now what do you do? How do you approach this borderless terrain that seems to be centered inside your skull?

Every Buddhist tradition offers methods both for the cultivation of tranquility (samatha) as well as insight (vipassana). The famous Thai teacher, Ajahn Chah, says that meditation is like a single stick of wood with serenity on one end and insight on the other. To pick up the stick, both ends need to rise together. He also points to the dilemma you (and the rest of us) often encounter: the mind is like a water buffalo. If you always let it wander where it pleases, he says, you may end up watching it eat your whole field.

Samatha techniques of Buddhism address that wandering mind — you plant a post of mindfulness as if you were training a puppy and begin shortening the leash. The many methods include following the breath, body scans, mantras, visualizations, as well as noting thoughts, emotions and mind states. Different schools of Buddhism provide an array of effective techniques and skilled teachers for guidance. The challenge of methods for concentration, however, is the aforementioned battle with oneself to try and coerce the mind to be a certain way.

On the other end of the stick, vipassana, insight, seems most available to us when we allow ourselves undirected receptivity to our experience, whatever is happening. Ajahn Brahm, a funny and wise Buddhist teacher, quips that you don't do vipassana…you sit there under the mango tree. You don’t throw sticks up at it or shake the trunk or climb the tree: you sit underneath and open your hand and wait for the insights to fall. Be patient, he says, keep your hand out and sit still because if you move, that's precisely when the mango will fall and miss your open hand!  Meditation is one of the few times in life when we reflect, when we stop climbing or shaking the trees around us. It follows that wisdom and contentment lie in that direction — when we give ourselves an opportunity to ask what is wisdom, what is true contentment, and listen quietly for answers.

One of my primary teachers, Jason Siff, teaches a simple (but perhaps not so easy) instruction: meditation is the experience you have when you sit still and close your eyes. There’s nothing special to do except give yourself permission to have the experience you are having, and approach it with gentleness and curiosity. It may be uncomfortable, or even frightening, to discover the lack of control over your drifting or racing thoughts, but there is enormous value in simply experiencing the wandering mind. “With our thoughts we make the world” asserts the Buddha in the Dhammapada. Suffering as well as happiness are fruits of the mind. Indeed, that is the ground for practicing meditation, the journey of learning to know your mind and how it works. How will you begin to see your world, your interpretation of reality, without seeing where the mind wanders on its own?

Some beginners do fine with instructions as open and non-directive as Siff's. Others may prefer more focused techniques to feel more comfortable while exploring their minds. Both methods always benefit from the guidance of a teacher. At some point in meditation practice, we’ll lean more on techniques that cultivate tranquility; at other points, patient receptivity. Over time, experienced meditators utilize a combination.

Both techniques should involve recollection and contemplation. These days, when my mind wanders, I enjoy taking an inventory later of what it has collected on its jaunt. Is there something important in that pile of thoughts worthy of further consideration? Or is the learning a reflection of the astonishing fact of the mind’s capacity to spin infinite narratives and opinions? When I use a samatha technique, I take time to reflect during and after the meditation. Do I have a fixed idea of the effect a technique should produce? Am I full of expectations, or an ideal of a right and wrong way to do it? My favorite yoga teacher primed us before classes to assure our minds and bodies: “I come in peace.” Because I’m so used to pushing in other arenas of life, I’ve had to take care not to bully myself in meditation. Remember: samatha methods exist to cultivate tranquility and equanimity, not judgment and coercion.

The bustling conditions of modern life practically conspire to make the stillness of samatha and the deep listening of vipassana a rare experience. If we’re not very careful, life can feel like a drive-by from a speeding car. We carry so many day-to-day burdens and complications and benefit from a way to lay them down. It’s humbling and sometimes frightening to stop the car, move out of the driver’s seat, and explore what we’ve packed in the car.

Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She's ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  

Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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