Often when we go about meditation practice we either try too hard or are too lapsed in our practice. Finding the right balance can be a constant struggle. And sometimes sitting down and being completely relaxed but still mindful seems impossible. Typically we go to the practice with a certain desire whether it be to find peace, resolve internal anger, gain better health or to be enlightened. This desire that drives us is both good and bad. While it is good that it is getting us to meditate it is also bad in that it can make the practice itself challenging. When we sit down with this desire we often approach the meditation with a “goal-focused” mind and as we sit this desire arises and we struggle with it. ”Okay I’m going to sit for 30 minutes and not move”. Five minutes into the meditation we are fidgeting and wavering and struggling, we check the clock “Oh, only 5 minutes! I still have ages to go!” And so we sit and struggle.
We’ll often read that to meditate and advance we must do away with desire and to be enlightened we must do away with all desire but then to bring ourselves to meditate we have to have desire to sit. This appears as a quandry? ”How am I do be diligent with my meditation practice but have no desire for it?” I was reading a good discourse by Venerable Ajahn Chah last night in which we talked about this very topic. Its like going to the market to buy a coconut. People would say, “Are you going to eat the coconut shell?” Of course not, you are going to eat the lovely flesh and drink the juice. ”So why buy the whole coconut?” But this is how the coconut comes isn’t it? You buy it whole. If you want the flesh and juice you take the coconut as a whole and when you are ready you discard the outer shell of the coconut. Meditation is just the same. There is typically a desire to gain something from the meditation, so use this as a vehicle to get yourself to sit but then when sitting you have to just sit, just be with the meditation. The desire will be discarded when it is no longer required, just like the coconut shell.
In addition to this quandery, often when we sit this desire brings with it too much effort and we’ll sit and try too hard in the meditation itself. The perfectionist-mind, or goal-mind or I-must-do-it-right-mind kicks in. Again, you must use the desire to be diligent while you are sitting otherwise it is useless sitting. But don’t use the desire too much or it will rule you and be bad meditation. You’ll sit all tense, your body and breathing will be tight and time will seem to pass slowly and you’ll struggle all the way through it. Again, the quandry arises. How do we sit and be diligent in our meditation practice without trying too hard? Too much effort makes for bad meditation, too little effort makes for bad meditation. This balance when we are new to meditation can be difficult to understand and difficult to practice.
We are funny people really. If we try to sit still like this we have trouble, but sit down in front of a movie and we can sit no problem for 2 hours. Why is this? So how is sitting meditation different to sitting through a movie? In both the body is sitting still for a long period. The answer is in how we keep the mind. It is all in the mind! The mind controls how we experience reality. Imagine you are a rock? How come a rock can sit still for so long with no problem? What is the difference? You are made of the exact same nature as a rock, so why do you struggle and not the rock?
So finding this balance so you can sit still like a rock with no effort can be challenging. What is effort without effort? What is diligent practice without desire? If we sit with too much effort the body and breathing will be all tense and we’ll find it hard to maintain the practice and develop. If we don’t use enough effort we’ll be lapsed and do bad meditation practice and not develop or not bother to meditate at all. What is this balance?
Imagine a baby wakes during the night. You get up and take the baby in your arms, sit down in a chair and in the darkness hold the baby and gentley stroke its head to calm it down. But to do this YOU must first be relaxed! If you are all tense then the baby will not settle! Once you are settled you can sit like this with the baby for an hour, even 2 hours, if you really need to settle the baby. Then after calming yourself you softly stroke the babies head over and over, over and over, calming the baby until they calm down. If you stroke the baby’s head with too much effort they won’t settle and if you are too lapsed in your stroking, with no real rhythm, they also won’t settle. You just need a gentle touch, a soft stroke and steady rhythm over and over. This gentle rhythm of stroking the babies head is so calming they eventually drift off to sleep. Perfect!
How To Apply This
So, your meditation practice is just like this. You are the baby! Sit down and calm yourself, relax and be gentle with yourself like you are a baby needing tender care and attention. The stroking hand is your breath. Relax and breath gently with alertness, paying attention to the rhythm and pressure in your breath. Be aware of your body tensions and sensations. With each stroking breath relax into and release the tensions in your body. Don’t use too much effort or you’ll wake the baby! Don’t use too little effort or you’ll loose awareness and the baby won’t settle. Be present with your breath, gently resting your awareness on where you feel your breath most. You are the baby, the stroking hand is your breath. Be aware, be present with the baby and slowly calm it down with ever so gentle strokes of your breath, over and over. Every few minutes in your meditation remind yourself of this, check your body and breath for tension, then relax with awareness into the meditation with tenderness. It works beautifully.
When you sit with yourself like this there is intention to practice right, to practice diligently, but a delicate touch that wields awareness like a caring parent with little to no effort. In time as your meditation develops desire will fall away like peeling the coconut and discarding the unwanted shell. ”Ah yes, juicy sweet coconut flesh”. You can sit through the meditation with a bright, clear, aware mind and relaxed body and really dive into deeper practice. At this point you’ll come to understand effort without effort, practice without desire. Desire will no longer control you and you can use it as a tool to best function for your life when required. You’ll be able to sit like a stone, unmoved being ever-present with reality.