You may be surprised to hear that meditation should be effortless, that no striving or concentration is needed. I know I was. When I first became interested in meditation, back in the mid-60s, I was repeatedly told that it took great mental discipline and many years of practice. Indian teachers had likened the mind to a wagonload of restless monkeys that needed to be tied down and kept quiet.
My experience appeared to confirm it. My mind was full of thoughts and, try as I may, I could not keep them at bay. Like many others, I naturally assumed that I was not trying hard enough; I needed greater mental discipline, not less.
Peace, the natural condition of the mind
A quiet mind is not a state of mind to be achieved. It is the state we experience when there is nothing to be achieved. It is the mind in its natural condition, untarnished by fears and desires, and the thoughts they create. When everything is okay in our world, we feel okay inside; we are at ease.
Yet, even when all our physical needs are met, and there is no immediate threat or danger, we seldom feel totally at ease. More often than not, we experience the very opposite. Leave us with nothing to do and most of us start getting bored. If someone upsets us, we may hold a grievance for days, weeks, or even years later. Or we may spend hours worrying about situations that could occur, but seldom do. In short, we find ourselves upset, bewildered, excited, frightened, hopeful, or in any other of a host of states; in which we are far from content.
Along with such feelings comes an almost endless procession of thoughts. Most of them boil down to worries about how we can be more content; ironically, a mind that is worrying is by definition, discontent. This is the sad joke about human beings—we are so busy worrying whether or not we are going to be at peace in the future, we don’t give ourselves the chance to be at peace in the present.
Wrestling with the mind
Thinking does, of course, have its place and value. Without our ability to gather information, comprehend, reason, draw conclusions, imagine the future, determine outcomes, make choices and initiate action, we would still be swinging from the trees. Nevertheless, much of our thinking is totally unnecessary. And most of it runs in loops anyway.
So, given how easily such thoughts spring up and take us away from true contentment, it is only natural to think that they must be subdued and controlled. That approach, however, stems from the same belief that created them—the belief that we need to be in control of things in order to find peace of mind. Whereas it is actually the wanting to be in control that that takes away from the natural ease of the mind in its resting state.
By failing we succeed
Thus, the advice that occurs repeatedly in a variety of meditation traditions is:
- When you realise you have been caught in a thought, accept the fact. Don’t judge or blame yourself. It happens, even to the most experienced meditators.
- Instead of following the thought, as you might in normal life, gently shift your attention back to some experience in the present moment. In Transcendental Meditation that may be the thought of a mantra; in mindfulness, it is the sensation of the breath, or in other practices perhaps a visual image, or a feeling of love.
- Let the attention rest in that experience. Don’t try to concentrate or hold it there. Ah yes, you will be sure to wander off again. But the practice is not so much learning how to stay present, but finding how to return to the present. If you wander off a 100 times, it is a 100 opportunities to practise gently returning your attention to the present.
Even then, trying and effort can arise in subtle ways. Maybe if I just added this or focussed on that, it would be easier. Some of it is so subtle, we don’t even notice that we are doing it. A faint resistance to an experience perhaps or even a slight wanting to have a good meditation can get in the way.
Effortlessness is the key
Over my 40 years of teaching meditation, I have found the greatest challenge for students is to let go of all effort. They can’t quite believe that they really do not need to try at all. Sometimes, even the most experienced meditators, with years of practice, may still put a slight effort or control into their practice. Once they let go completely, they begin to appreciate how effortless it can be, and find themselves dropping even more easily into a state of inner silence.
To this end, the focus of my teaching in recent years has been helping people weed out and dissolve even the subtlest levels of wanting, effort and expectation in meditation.
This was first published in the September 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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