This essay was published in The Timberjay newspaper on March 5, 2015, in answer to a piece by Ms. O’Hara about the difficulty she had trying to meditate at a retreat.
Learning to meditate feels a lot like learning to drive. As a student driver, my mind raced: “Where’s the white line? What’s that other car doing out here on this road? I need at least both lanes!”
As a new meditator, my mind went crazy: “Stop thinking? Are these people nuts? What about my hands and feet? What about swallowing? What if I burp? Where’s that heightened state of awareness going to come from? Focus my attention? How the %@#@ can I do this for five minutes?”
All skills need practice. The only way to flunk meditation 101 is not to practice. In fact, Ms. O’Hara deserves a gold star. She says, “I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing and relaxing…breathing and relaxing. A bird smacked into the window behind me, I flinched and calmed. Breathing and relaxing.” This is perfect practicing. This is A+. Later she says, “I dug for understanding, compassion and patience. My shovel came up empty.” There is no higher practice than digging for understanding, compassion and patience. It’s the digging—not some correct end result—that is the practice. The practice is what matters. She gets another A+.
Everyone who practices meditation—including people like the Dalai Lama—still sometimes gets distracted, even when they have practiced for fifty years. That’s not the point.
The point is that once I get used to my crazy, silly, agonized thoughts, I can also learn to be at peace and look beyond them. And it’s what’s beyond them that is the payoff. That’s where we touch a new, peaceful openness, an awareness that is more peaceful and joyful than the usual way of living.
This is not religion. Buddhists do not worship Buddha. It’s mind training and relaxation.
Some people say, “But I like my thoughts. I don’t want to walk around in some airy-fairy trance.” We meditators still have normal thoughts. We’re just not controlled by our thoughts to the extent we were before we started meditating. And sometimes in meditation we can move past normal thoughts to peaceful awareness. Once we have practiced meditation for a while, life changes because how we meet daily life just gets easier.
Kim McCluskey and I hosted the retreat that Ms. O’Hara attended. It was a diverse group of about thirty. While we had several intrepid explorers like Ms. O’Hara, there were also people seeking help with PTSD, life-threatening illness, addiction, grief, despair and anger. Both meditation practice and Buddhism offer techniques that help these problems. We were delighted to welcome the newcomers.
This particular retreat was about basic Buddhist teachings, but the Tibetan teacher, Khenpo Sherab Sangpo, was not focusing on beginning meditation itself. In a retreat or class that teaches the skill of meditation, the teacher helps students cope with all sorts of distractions. In the beginning, as in driver’s ed class, just getting started and keeping going is a challenge. For new meditators, we offer Buddhist meditation at our home every Saturday morning, and there are often meditation classes in town.
In short, Ms. O’Hara did not flunk at all. She had a wonderful experience practicing with outside distraction. Great start! Way to go!
For us, as for Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Francis of Assisi, meditation is a way to open to new awareness. Congratulations to Ms. O’Hara for taking the first step!
–by Jean Gendreau