The Spring Equinox is a time of new beginnings, a fitting time to embark on the joyous task of learning how to meditate. Often books or courses on meditation explain the mechanics—how, when, where, and for how long one should meditate. In her book How to Meditate, Pema Chödrön covers these topics with a practical and easily accessible view that goes well beyond the norm by explaining how acceptance of the inevitable difficulties we all face when we try to quiet the mind is an essential and necessary part of the process.
Pema talks about five qualities that are developed through meditation practice. She says over time, as we continue to practice, we will experience a greater ability to be present. She calls this quality of constantly coming back and being in what is going on steadfastness. Often we think we are present and reacting to the situation at hand but we actually go into habitual patterns that we have developed over time and we disconnect from what is actually happening.
The second quality we develop by virtue of coming back into our experience is insight. We are actually witnessing our experience in a deeper way than we normally do, we are watching our patterns, and we are not getting carried away by them as much as we usually do. We are seeing our patterns. We usually don’t have the ability to change our patterns for quite some time because they are so strong. And it’s important not to have an expectation that, oh, all of the sudden, I’m going to be able to be a different person but the first step towards this is seeing the patterns, and actually acknowledging them. We don’t usually want to see our patterns. We don’t want to actually acknowledge that we have all these different patterns, all these habitual and almost mechanistic ways of relating to our experience.
The third quality that comes by virtue of doing these two things is that we gain what she calls courage or the bravery to really experience our situation instead of hiding away from underlying unresolved emotional issues, expectations, hopes, and fears that reside below the surface of our mind and body, much of the time. By having this steadfastness and this quality of insight we are able to be brave enough to actually start looking at this material. What is my purpose in life? What am I going to do now that x, y, and z happened? We actually go there and deal with this part of our world.
The fourth quality that she talks about is being awake to our life. It is slightly like coming out of a dream state that we have been in. It is almost like we experience being in this world that somebody else created for us. It is like we have been going along almost mechanically or by script, going along with our life for so many years and then we gradually become aware that we are doing this. We become awake to the patterns, become awake to the situations we are in, and become awake to things like the impacts of past experiences, upbringing, and traumatic experiences in our teenage and early adult years.
Lastly, she talks about sense of humor as one of the qualities we develop over time instead of freaking out about all this stuff and making all these dramatic changes all of the sudden. We wake up and find that we are not comfortable with this or that and then immediately, with a knee jerk reaction, we try to reject it or change it in some way. By gaining some perspective on the situation we accept the fact of where we are as a way of starting to transform our lives. She emphasizes that basically, the more we make a huge big deal out of this the more it is a huge big deal. We realize the capability of mind to create our world. If we solidify our situation and our experiences of habitual patterns as a really big huge problem then they will be a big huge problem. The more that we understand the fluidity of the situation—or, you might say, the weirdness of the situation— the more we gain some perspective, time, space, and larger view. This perspective gives us a sense of humor, so we don’t make as big a deal of ourselves and of the situation we are in and then it becomes more workable
In an upcoming weekend retreat we will learn the basic technique for how to work with thoughts, emotions, and sense perceptions and finally explore how to make room for all these things both on and off our cushion. We will break down the dynamics of the wandering mind. We will learn how getting acquainted with, making friends with, and, ultimately, accepting ourselves as we are, in all our vividness and vitality (moodiness, neurosis, and beauty) is the foundation for the practice of meditation. What better time to do this than as the days increase in length, signaling the change of season to spring.
Derek Kolleeny became a student of Trungpa Rinpoche in 1976. He earned a B.A. in Buddhism from Harvard College and teaches at the Westchester Buddhist Center and Rime Shedra NYC.
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