It strikes me that one of the most important things to bear in mind when beginning any spiritual practice, but particularly meditation, is the word “practice.”
A meditation practice reflects all of the various definitions of that word.
It’s a “practice” in the same sense as “it’s my practice to have a cup of coffee every morning.” It should become a natural and habitual part of the daily routine.
It’s also a practice in the same sense as establishing a legal or healthcare or accounting practice. We become practitioners, and the practice gets to be at the center of our lives.
But it is also a practice in the same sense as “practice makes perfect.” Each time that we sit down to meditate, we are, in a sense, rehearsing, and developing what the Buddhists call “skillful means.”
Meditation practice is very similar to playing a musical instrument in this regard. Very few people can just pick up a new instrument for the very first time and make coherent, melodious sounds with it. In the same way, very few people can sit down to meditate for the very first time and achieve a coherent meditative state of mind as an experienced meditator might. Those rare individuals who can do this have an abundance of grace in their lives (and may perhaps be benefitting from the practice of many past lifetimes).
Here are the important implications of this, especially for beginning meditators.
- You can’t do it “wrong” as long as you do it every day.
- But you must make it a habit, and do it every day.
- It’s alright that you “don’t feel anything” or that you feel things which seem less than “skillful” or “spiritual.”
- It’s important to be patient for results, and to set aside all expectations, except for the expectation that over the long course of time, the practice will be beneficial.
One wouldn’t go to the gym for the first time, and expect to perform as an elite powerlifter does. One wouldn’t expect to workout once every few months and reap the physical rewards of a routine workout regimen. In the same way, it is the constant repetition of meditation practice which yields the benefits.
Let’s say that our physical goal is to lose 25 pounds. It would be foolish to begin an exercise program, and give up after two weeks because we had only lost one pound. If we continue that program for a year, and lose weight at the same rate, we would exceed our goal.
There may be some workouts when we feel particularly strong and fit, and some where we do not. We may not feel anything happening at all during the actual work, and there may be weeks when we don’t see any results at all, or where we actually lose ground. But if we stick with the program, over the long run, we’ll achieve the intended outcome.
This is a good illustration of how meditation works. There may be times when we are able to achieve a deep sense of peace and wholeness and connection during meditation, and times when we feel more distracted and frustrated than anything else. But the goal isn’t to sit down and feel something. The goal is to sit down and meditate.
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