We live life through our minds as it is the mind that thinks, feels, and remembers. Over time we continue to learn, understand, and experience various emotions but the mind never becomes fixed or closed. The human mind is more like nature untamed. I like to use the five elements to represent this concept because it can also help us express what we're feeling. What season are you today? Spring (anger), summer (joy), late summer/season (pensiveness), autumn (grief), winter (fear).
If the mind is a forest, then meditation is the act of observing the forest and learning how to plant a small garden within it. Practicing meditation gives us the opportunity to become acquainted with our forest and its wildness. In the wild, pleasant and unpleasant things exist together, each day cycles through a 24-hour rhythm, and all living things grow, change, and die.
I am a novice meditator and practice a style of meditation called open monitoring meditation. Open monitoring meditation is a sitting meditation practice that anyone can learn. It involves bringing one's attention to the present, observing the surroundings of your mind, allowing your mind to recognize that it is thinking and sensing, and trying not to judge, react to, or challenge your mind while doing so. It sounds basic but the first time I tried it and even still, I'll watch my mind talking to itself, zipping from thought to worry to my schedule to what I'm going to eat next all while I'm trying to meditate! The reason this and other types of meditation are so difficult is because mediation asks our mind to take a break from its usual job of suspecting and experiencing and asks it to focus on being and resting while awake- it's harder than it sounds and much easier to sedate yourself or go to sleep.
I've learned a lot about open monitoring meditation by reading the excellent books by Pema Chödrön. Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist (b. 1936), a nun, a mother, and a disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987). He was a descendant in the line of Trungpa tulkus, teachers of the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism called Kagyü. He was also trained in the tradition of the non-sectarian movement of Buddhism that aspired to make the teachings of the various schools of Buddhism free of sectarian rivalry and available to the widest possible audience.
In Chödrön’s book, How to Meditate, she introduces us to the five qualities that we are trying to nurture with meditation, steadfastness, clear awareness, courage, becoming awake to life, and "no big deal".
Steadfastness is commitment to yourself. Steadfastness represents making the gesture to yourself that you are willing to stay through the experience of meditation whether it is painful or pleasurable. You can imagine how difficult steadfastness is because commitment is difficult, doing things for yourself is hard for a lot of people, and it is natural to run toward pleasure and escape from pain.
The second quality is clear awareness of yourself and your mind. The day-to-day duties of life become habits like preparing breakfast, helping children get ready, and commuting. The mind has habits too and some habits may become detrimental to mental health like negative thought patterns. Improving the clear awareness of yourself and your mind does not mean that you will never have a negative thought or worry but working with your mind can help you become keen to it, change an unwanted habit, or deal with a complex and emotional event.
The third quality we try to cultivate and nurture with meditation is developing courage. Courage helps us deal with emotional distress. When we learn more about our minds, courage builds and transforms into grace. Chödrön says of grace, “when we allow the range of emotions to occur, we can be struck with moments of insight, insights that could never have come from trying to figure out conceptually what’s wrong with us, or what’s wrong with the world. These moments of insight come form the act of sitting in meditation, which takes courage, a courage that grows with time”. It is extraordinarily uncomfortable and painful to deal with many emotions but meditation can help us build courage to cope with ourselves and others.
The fourth quality is becoming awake to life. The essence of the human spirit is to be present and to feel awake and alive. Nurturing the quality of being present is called nowness. Cultivating nowness through meditation is another tool that we can use to help us relax about the unknown and all the things that are uncertain. Learning nowness through meditation can help us become more flexible and tolerant with the present moment.
The last reason we meditate is what Chödrön calls “no big deal”. She describes a time when she extremely excited about a powerful experience she had had during her meditation practice. She rushed to tell her teacher, Rinpoche, and the teacher looked at her, touched her, and said, “no…big…deal.” There is no goal or prize in meditation just as there is no binary characterization of one's practice as good or bad.
I love the five qualities of open style meditation, steadfastness, clear awareness, courage, becoming awake to life, and "no big deal". They are hard to practice and constant reminders that we are mortal and have tons of work to do. It is a critical time to focus on health, to cultivate and conserve energy, to learn, create, and give back. "You may wonder what the best approach is to helping society and how you can know that what you are doing is authentic and good". It may be a difficult time to focus but if helping society is on your list of things to commit to, start a simple meditation practice today. The only thing required is yourself.
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