We all share a few simple, universal, and compelling human desires. We want to be happy and free of suffering, to touch into the sweetness of life, and to thrive. No one would argue with this. However, the opportunity to flourish and prosper in health and life does not arise out of mere desire or even outer accomplishment, much as we have been led to believe. If that were the case, peace and happiness would abound in Western culture, as we both desire it and excel in outer achievements. Although we can claim greater physical and material comfort, there is no evidence that modernity has yet found the formula for sustained happiness and well-being.
In actuality, modern times are plagued by a new set of epidemics that obstruct our pathway to authentic well being. These show up as mental stress and distress, mood disturbances, addictive disorders, and premature chronic disease. To this we must add the difficulties in cultivating authentic and lasting intimacy and a pervasive, although often unseen, sense of tedium and meaningfulness that too often characterizes contemporary life.
Increasingly, we hear that meditation may be a remedy for our excessive outer focus and the resulting personal and social ills. So we find a teacher, a program or a group. We begin with enthusiasm and great hope. We may even try it and experience some of the early results – a calmer mind, less reactivity, more patience, and inner peace. But regardless of these improvements in life, too often we drop away from this simple yet profound and transformative practice, abandoning the one simple remedy that can assure the enduring happiness and well-being we desire. Why do we fall away from meditation and its allied practices, and how do we begin again with a more certain footing? Let’s begin by looking at the reasons why we find it so difficult to sustain an ongoing inner practice.
In contemporary times we honor the material, what we can touch or see with our senses. When it comes to our health, we focus on the body – physical ailments, and physical remedies. That focus has resulted in a sophisticated approach to biological illness, which we will all utilize at some time in our lifetime. However, we have been far less focused on the various forms of mental distress. This is a reflection of the materialistic perspective of modernity, which emphasizes biology over mind.
We are far more likely to visit the doctor, follow a medical prescription, or adhere to a schedule of physical therapy sessions than allocate time, effort, or resources to the care of mind and spirit. We won’t leave home in the morning with an unclean and unprepared body. We don’t undertake dangerous physical activity without protective gear, but we will leave home without care or protection for the clarity, ease, and quality of our mind.
We often fall away from meditation because we have not learned to value the pivotal role of mind and consciousness in our life. It is important to be aware of this deeply entrenched cultural obstacle to happiness and well-being Understanding how the values and institutions of modern culture influence our behavior helps explain why we so easily abandon the tools of inner development, even when we know better. To overcome this entrenched and unbalanced cultural emphasis on the physical and material, is to insist that we establish and be guided by our own value system, one that we have chosen. One that is consistent with a balanced and harmonious health of mind and body.
Mediation As Relaxation
The traditional and expansive vision of meditation has too often been distilled in the West to a relaxation technique. Instead of seeking the enduring happiness, peace, and wisdom – the achievement of inner development – we aim at the feel-good sense of relaxation and are satisfied with this very modest sense of self-improvement. Unfortunately, that is another form of Western pleasure seeking in disguise.
We reach for a technique (including meditation,) remedy, circumstance, or person that calms mind and body, allowing us to temporarily diminish mental stress and distress. We gain a transient pleasurable moment and lose the opportunity for authentic well-being. We feel we have accomplished something of great importance, when, in an act of self-sabotage,we have bypassed the deeper truths and potential of our life.
As a result of this cultural blind spot, once our life calms down we fall away from meditation. Of course our usual state of stress and distress returns, but by that point we have either given up on the practice or simply “don’t have time for it.” If we do continue with meditation as a relaxation technique it will soon lose its “juice.” Why, because once we have quieted down a bit there is no place further for the meditation to take us. We haven’t been taught how to progress our meditation or sustain inner calm through life’s adversities. We have neither learned nor allowed the time and patience to grow meditation to a place of insight, wisdom, and a final and curative understanding of stress, distress, and suffering. Without a broader vision and an increasingly subtle meditation practice we lose interest and let go of practice.
Mediation as a Circumscribed Practice
Meditation is most frequently taught as a stand alone daily session of practice. However, meditation is not an isolated technique. It is part of a lifetime path of inner development that seamlessly integrates formal practice with daily life. All of life is part of this pathway. Relationships, work, the challenge of afflictive emotions, the adversities of life, and the wandering mind can all become sources of practice. When addressed from a growing consciousness, these challenges can become important teachers.
Bringing all of life’s experience onto the path towards a larger health and life is the traditional process of inner development, of which formal practice is an essential but not sufficient component. Lacking the understanding, teachings, and skills of the full 24/7 meditative pathway limits our progress. The juice that drives practice comes from a comprehensive and pervasive effort, and quickly runs out when we only engage in a stand alone practice. When we understand meditation as part of a comprehensive pathway to the realization of our full potential, and we are properly instructed on how to bring all of life on the path, we are far more likely to continue and expand our practice, rather than let it fall away for lack of a larger vision and understanding.
The initial motivation to begin a meditation practice
is most often the desire to alleviate mental stress and distress. And this is fine, as far as it goes. But if that remains our singular motivation it is likely, that once achieved, or even partially achieved, our efforts will drop away.
In order to maintain a vital interest in meditation our motivation must expand. Early on it is important to recognize the benefits of our meditation practice and become increasingly pulled by the positive changes in our life rather than being exclusively motivated by suffering and distress. As these changes congeal into the beginnings of a larger life and health we can more clearly see and be motivated by a more expansive vision of our possibilities. And finally, we recognize the actuality that stress, distress, and suffering can be overcome in our life and, that it is also possible to flourish into a life of enduring peace, happiness, and freedom. That is the most developed personal motivation.
But there is more. What we have achieved for our self we will surely wish for others as well. Ultimately, the most expansive motivation for meditative practice is a profoundly noble intention – the desire to be of help and benefit to others and our planet. This increasingly selfless motivation underlies the long-term stability and richness of meditation practice.
If we fail to grow our motivation, it is likely our practice will stagnate and fall away. But if we mature and evolve our motivation, we are likely to continue a juicy and vital practice throughout our lifetime.
Grasping at Transcendence
Meditation is the cultivation of a state of being in contrast to a state of doing. The aim, if it can be called that, is to rest effortlessly in our natural state of harmonious being. That is where the fruits of inner development lie dormant awaiting our return home. If we hold as an object a perfected or developed state of enlightenment, we miss the point. There is nothing to be attained, nothing to achieve. When we learn to rest within our own nature, within our authentic self, there we will naturally find the elusive “enlightenment” effortlessly, and without bells and whistles. It is where it has always been, waiting for the veils to dissipate. There is really nothing to do and no place to go, and definitely nothing to grasp onto.
Of course, it is necessary to practice removing the obscuring veils of runaway cognition and a closed heart. But that is all. Grasping at some elusive state of transcendence that is somewhere outside of us merely complicates the simple discovery of our own being. That grasping leads to an inner frustration, a disappointment that we will never arrive at our destination, and a falling away of practice. On the contrary, a progressive lifting of the inner veils through practice and a growing satisfaction with the slow yet progressive improvement of our life and relationships will support ongoing practice. And one morning we will wake up and suddenly realize we are home, where we have always been, free and alive.
We Are Human
Less we forget, it is important to remind our self that we are human and human nature includes a tendency to learn by falling away. We are certain to fall away from any new initiative. Consider an infant learning to walk. When the infant falls down, as it surely will, it immediately gets up again. It does not remain on the ground enmeshed in a mental conversation of shame, doubt, or self-questioning. It simply gets up and starts again. If it did otherwise, it would never learn to walk.
The human tendency is what it is. What is most important is that we follow the example of the infant and get up and return to practice, over and over, without self-judgment. If we engage in a negative inner conversation it will only be dis-empowering. Turn it off and just return to practice, again and again. Here is where the virtues of patience and self-compassion are of great value. They honor our humanness without sabotaging our efforts. The inability to recognize that falling off is part of learning is a key reason for dropping our practice rather than mastering the quality of perseverance.
Program: We Are Human