This post is both about a cartoon I drew years ago on the subject of racing thoughts during meditation and how we defeat ourselves by self-judging and recrimination when our thoughts run wild during meditation practice.
When I wrote my blog DukkhaGirl years ago, I occasionally drew a little cartoon to accompany a post. I’m not a cartoonist, and I never thought much of my little doodles. Years later, I searched the Internet and, to my surprise, someone had seen fit to save a couple of these.
But there’s something beautiful about sitting down with paper and some Prismacolors (OK, with some post-editing in Photoshop); working with real things can be a remedy for, and escape from, excessive screen time. While I write this, I realize that if I were doing it now, I’d probably paste some clipart in from Canva. It would look more “professional,” but sometimes there’s something to be said for the homebrewed and non-professional.
I think I am not alone in my mind being like that. We sit down intent on having a “quiet mind,” only to have it be more like trying to sit in your local Starbucks during the busy hour where the person next to you is intent on playing the video on her phone out loud, the guy across from you is having an abusive conversation with himself, and the intense guy at the nearby table keeps drumming his pencil as he thinks about what to write on his laptop. But then, what’s worse is that we tell ourselves our mind shouldn’t be like that. We’re bad meditators. We’re not mindful enough. Yuk! What’s wrong with my brain?
Hey, let’s look on Pexels. If we do, and look up “meditation,” what we’ll find are images like this:
What is her internal state here? Photos like this always tempt me to draw thought bubbles saying things like, “WTF?” We know nothing about what’s going on in her mind, but the picture implies that she has a level of inner peace and tranquility we may never, ourselves, achieve. And maybe we extrapolate that to, “I should be like that. Why aren’t I? Where’s my inner peace, dammit?”
When we start meditating, what our mind looks like more resembles “me” in the second panel of the cartoon. For some of us, this is what it looks like after regularly meditating for a long time. Maybe with less frequency. Maybe.
Our bodies don’t want to sit still, let alone our minds. “Monkey mind” is a phrase often used to describe this state of mind. We think about the checkbook, about how we’re such a lousy meditator we’re going to write a blog post about it. Our brain tells us to do crazy things like jump up in the middle of group meditation, scream “Woot! I’m enlightened!” and run out of the room. Or maybe that’s just me.
But when we start doing this, we add another layer of dukkha on top of that whole mess. Don’t read that blog post by a person who says that three months of meditation totally and permanently changed her life. If it did, good for her. We hate her, don’t we? If we constantly criticize our meditation practice, it can erode our resolve to continue. It brings to mind something the Buddha said about treating our mind like a wild horse — gently does the trick! It’s self-defeating to be beating ourselves up for not being mindful enough continually.
I asked a Zen teacher once about the idea that we should practice without expectation, after hearing the idea that we should practice for the moment, without expectation of results. I appreciated his practical answer: you should be getting results from your practice. If it’s somehow having a neutral or negative effect on your life, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at what you’re doing.
But positive changes you see from practice are often subtle. They’re not “I totally changed the way my mind works and my entire personality in three months.” Meditation can change your mind. But, I’m afraid that I may be stuck with my personality.
I meditated daily for a long time and then, suddenly, quit. From that “experiment” I can say that, yes, it had a positive effect on my mind. But the things were not necessarily noticeable unless I looked for them, and sometimes in retrospect. I appreciated and looked forward to my morning bowl of oatmeal more. I was able to follow the bumper-sticker wisdom of “Don’t believe everything you think,” more often and not instantly jump to assumptions or defensiveness. I was able to disconnect from that story about myself and who I was a little bit (in a good way.)
So, back to the cushion for me!
The good news is when you have a daily practice, it’s easier to get your butt on that cushion in the morning. The bad news is that when you start again after an absence from the cushion, it’s hard until you get a regular schedule established again. I think this is true with everything, physical exercise as well as mental. But, in both cases, it’s just a bit harder because you can fall into the trap of expecting that you will be more “advanced” than you are. After all, you’ve run a marathon. You mean you’re tired after walking a mile to the store? You’ve sat sesshin. Can’t you sit still for FIFTEEN MINUTES?
But “beginner’s mind” is something to keep. And patience with yourself is always a good attitude to cultivate, wherever we are in our meditation practice.
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