Last updated on November 1st, 2018 at 10:30 am
If you want to really get in touch with your neuroses, try meditating. As Buddhists and yogis, mystics, spiritual seekers and human beings we spend so much of our lives trying to conquer the various aspects of our minds. Indeed, in the second Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines the aim of yoga as being the control of the “mind-stuff.” And he’s not alone. Buddhist philosophy essentially boils down to the same thing. Conquer the mind, dwell fully in the present moment, and you will experience nirvana/samadhi/enlightenment/absolute bliss. All you need to do is to meditate—and I’m not talking about clearing your mind, that erroneous notion that most people seem to have about what meditation is, or should be. Your mind will probably never be clear, unfortunately. But it can, perhaps, be a little more under your control.
So have a seat, close your eyes, and let the fun begin. Observe the stories that your mind tells you: You’re tired, and you’re bored. You don’t want to sit there. Did you leave the stove on? What about the porch light? You should probably make a grocery list now, while you’ve got some time… If you’ve ever tried to sit in meditation, you know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve given in to the mind, and made that grocery list or checked the stove, you’ve basically failed. But the good news is that you’re not alone.
The mind-stuff that Patanjali refers to comes up in various forms. We struggle with procrastination, lack of motivation, distraction, lack of energy, depression, addiction, and so much mental noise in general, that it’s no wonder we can’t focus on much else. We seem to be always trying to overcome some obstacle, to reach some goal, and yet most of the obstacles we face are of our own making. To conquer ourselves we need discipline, love, faith and perseverance. It is not enough to decide on a path; one must follow through, as much and as often as possible. And our yoga mats and meditation cushions can hold the key, because a lot of what we experience on our mats and our cushions can be applied to the way we approach our lives in general. Each time we practice, we are literally training our minds. Can we stay with the breath for an extended period of time, patiently refocusing our attention each time our thoughts wander? Can we persevere and follow our path—any path, any course of action—with endurance, commitment, and faith in ourselves? Or do we easily succumb to distractions, and give in to excuses?
A couple of weekends ago, I decided I needed some time at a yoga ashram, to take a “time-out” and recharge my batteries. Sure, taking a weekend to sleep in would have been therapeutic, and I probably would have been better rested on the following Monday morning, but as to whether or not sleep equals balance, I’m not so sure. So there I was: Saturday morning, 5 a.m., and my alarm was going off. Squirming in my sleeping bag, the excuses started flowing. I don’t like getting up in the dark. I’m exhausted. I have to walk all the way to the meditation hall?! But it’s up a hill! (That did it.) So I turned my alarm off, fully intending on going back to sleep. But then I recalled Patanjali’s words. He also said that the moment when you decide to do something, the Universe will test your resolve and commitment. And really, how many excuses can you make in one week? (I’d already neglected my morning practice for three of the previous five days.) You need to hold firm to that which you have committed to. So with that thought, and with a lot of mental grumbling, I got out of bed, wrapped myself in a sweater and a shawl, and stumbled up the hill to the meditation hall.
Ahh, blissful 5:30 a.m. meditation. Or, more accurately, welcome to my own personal slice of hell. Often times when I’m at a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, I’ve heard him say that sometimes sitting on our meditation cushion feels good and serene. Our posture is stable, our mind is relaxed, and it is as though we are sitting on a beautiful lotus flower. And other times, it feels as though we are not sitting on a meditation cushion at all, but on burning hot coals. We fidget; we yawn; we change position once, twice, ten times; we begin making mental grocery lists; we check our watch every three minutes. Our practice time seems to stretch into one long, painful eternity.
So it was with my meditation practice this particular Saturday morning. I may as well have been sitting in a pit of fire. And my mind? No serenity, no stillness. My mind wasn’t even groggy. I observed with dismay that I was thinking things such as: “… ambrosial hours! Ha! There’s nothing magical about this. MY mind is fully awake. Where is that stillness I’m supposed to feel? (then, looking at Swamiji) Is she really this serene? (looking at the other people on their meditation cushions) What is wrong with these people? Show-offs. I could be in bed right now, but instead… stop it. I have to enjoy this! Stop being so negative!” I’m not going to lie and pretend that I settled down after this. This line of thinking continued on and on (and on!) for the entire 30 minutes of the meditation. My legs fell asleep. I lost count of the number of times I fantasized about lying down and napping. And it felt like hell, but it’s actually quite common, although we always think we’re the only ones losing our minds on the meditation cushion. Some days, the mental wrestling match is over quickly and I am able to actually meditate. Some days I simply practice being patient. This was one of those days. But it was still a good lesson about how things don’t ever go according to plan. You can’t serve up serenity and inner stillness on a plate, buffet-style. Sometimes all you can do is set up the conditions for serenity and stillness to visit you, and practice waiting.
How we approach our meditation practice, or our yoga practice, can tell us a lot about how we approach life. We come up against our excuses, insecurities, and our reluctance. Sometimes it’s easy, and it feels good. Other times it’s downright unpleasant. But if we persevere with gentleness and with patience, we can conquer our minds and live better lives. All we need to do is to start somewhere—anywhere. Practice showing up to a class, taking a few deep breaths, and leaving your thoughts at the door. And watch what happens.