No easy path
If you want a quick and easy path to greater happiness, you’ve picked the wrong universe to live in. Better luck next time! Since it may take some time to find another universe in which personal change is swift and straightforward, you might want to bite the bullet and experiment with letting go of any lingering assumptions you may have that you’re going to be able to change without doing any work.
This isn’t to say that there are not great joys to be found on the path. In fact, although changing has its challenges it also brings great joys – just as a hike in the country is both hard work and invigoratingly enjoyable. But the challenges are definitely there. Sometimes your patience is going to be tested. Sometimes you will despair at the rate at which you are changing. Sometimes you’re going to be plain confused. Sometimes you’re going to feel like giving up.
All of these obstacles are not really obstacles at all. They are not rocks blocking your way, but are stepping stones to change. They are opportunities to get to know yourself better, and to develop fortitude, courage, and patience.
Your difficulties are going to be your greatest teachers, for we often learn most about ourselves when we are stretched to our limits – or to what we think are our limits, since often those limitations turn out to be illusory. We are all capable of far more than we know. Having our patience challenged is an opportunity to expand our understandings of what we are capable of. It is a call to a greater depth of understanding and acceptance of ourselves and others, and a call to let go of resistance to change.
Despair at the rate of change we are experiencing is an opportunity to learn about our preconceptions about what we think should happen, and an opportunity to learn acceptance. Any true artist has to know his or her materials intimately; has to understand how they will perform under different conditions. We have, as developing human beings, to learn the nature of the material with which we are working, and in meditation our material is our own mind. It would be wonderful if the nature of our minds was such that we could flick a switch and be happy. But that’s not how things are. Despair arises when we have a false understanding of how quickly it is possible to change or of what conditions are necessary for such change. This is obviously one of the main areas in which we can learn through meditation.
Doubt and confusion, rather than being looked at as experiences of failure, can be looked at as a healthy part of change. Confusion arises when we leave behind one set of preconceptions and suppositions, but have not yet found a new way to make sense of what is going on. We’ve let go of a false certainty, and are on the way to finding a new and truer understanding. That is a sign of progress, not failure.
Ultimately, all suffering is a message that we have something to learn; that there is some skill that we have not yet mastered, that there is some idea we have that is false, that there is pattern of behavior we have that is not delivering the results that we expect of it.
In one psychological discipline, they say that in communication there is no failure but only feedback. I believe that this is true in meditation. If what we experience in meditation is not to our liking, then it is not a sign that we are not cut out to be meditators, or that we need to give up, or that we need to find a new meditation practice, but that we have something more to learn. Not only that, but we are often being given an indication of what it is that we must learn.
This feedback can be very precise. Meditating can be a bit like scrutinizing our lives with a microscope and seeing what we most need to work on. When we repeatedly experience tiredness in meditation, this can teach us about the need to look after ourselves and to guard our own sources of nourishment. When our minds are making lists and anxiously planning, we can see that we need to become more organized in our daily lives. When we find that we are spending our meditation mulling things over, this can teach us of the need to set aside more time to reflect. Inner arguments show us that there are important conflicts that we have yet to resolve, whether by forgiving and letting go of grievances, or by working things through with another person.
The concept of failure in meditation is profoundly disempowering. It leads to giving up. In meditation there is no failure, only feedback. Remember that your difficulties will turn out to be your teachers, your obstacles will turn out to be stepping stones, and that the sometimes hard and rocky path of meditation will turn out to be the way to greater fulfillment and deeper contentment. Learning is not always easy, but it is always beneficial in the long term. Let go of the idea of failure, and embrace the notion that everything you experience in meditation is feedback, and the path will be immeasurably more enjoyable and enriching.