Oct 15, 2013
Four ways to shake up your meditation practice
Last month I wrote about how sometimes your meditation practice may seem to be going nowhere, and how that’s OK. It’s the “seems” that’s important, because sometimes you just can’t see the change that’s taking place, slowly and gradually, in your brain and mind. Connections can be growing, or strengthening in the brain, and you can be completely unaware of that until perhaps some tipping point is reached and you notice that you act differently, or feel differently, or see things differently.
But there are also times that you might want to shake things up. Here are four things you can do to stop your practice becoming stale.
You probably get habitual in your meditation. When you’re doing the mindfulness of breathing you probably pay attention to pretty much the same set of sensations every time, and call that “the breathing” or “the breath.” But we can shake that up and go deeper. Ask yourself, what is the breathing? Where do the sensations of “breathing” end and the sensations of “not-breathing” begin (that is, parts of the body that are not involved in breathing)? Elsewhere I’ve suggested ways to go deeper in that practice.
Similarly in lovingkindness practice you probably get habitual. Maybe it works for you and you get a warm glow of kindness. But perhaps you need to look more closely at what you do, and what you allow into awareness and exclude from awareness. Perhaps there are parts of yourself you leave out (parts of your body you don’t pay attention to) or perhaps there are aspects of other people that you haven’t considered (it’s life-changing to realize that everyone is basically seeking happiness, and finding happiness elusive, for example). So you can look for parts of the body that you’ve ignored, and pay attention to the feelings that arise there. You can let a fuller awareness of others enter your mind by cultivating a sense of curiosity about them. Or maybe you’re busy doing the practice, but you don’t pay much attention to the feeling tone of how you do the practice. Can you soften? Become kinder? If you do, everything else will change.
Find your “cutting edge”
Right now I’m paying particular attention to the factors that give rise to jhāna, which is a deeply enjoyable and focused state of “flow” in meditation. I’m paying attention to cultivating the factors that lead to this flow state, and I’m paying attention to different transitions in my experience once the flow state is established. At other times I’ve really paid attention to the impermanence of each sensation, and really focused, moment by moment, on my constantly changing experience. I like to have a “cutting edge” in my practice, something I’m specifically working on.
What are you working on? Do you have any goals in meditation? Having goals doesn’t mean grasping after results, or rejecting your present experience. It simply means having a sense of the direction which you’re gently heading. For many people this is hard to understand, because they habitually grasp after attaining goals, but the apparent paradox of having goals yet being in the moment is worth exploring.
See the big picture
What’s your overall purpose in meditating? Is it to de-stress? Is it to be happier? Is it to be a better person so that you cause less suffering to others? Those are all excellent purposes, but they’re not enough. If you want to de-stress you’re trying to reduce suffering, and there is, according to the Buddhist tradition, an end-point where suffering is eliminated. If you want to be happier, there’s an ultimate state of peace that can be attained, which makes every other state of happiness look unsatisfactory in comparison. That state of peace, that end of suffering, is called bodhi, awakening, or enlightenment. If you want to cause less suffering to others … well, you get my point.
There’s no point grasping after awakening. If you grasp, you’ll just suffer more. But how about if you entered every meditation with the sense that you’re heading, ultimately, toward a radical shift in consciousness in which there is no grasping, no hatred — in which there’s deep peace, clarity, and compassion. And the attainment of this state may be, for all you know, just at the end of the next breath. Awakening has a habit of appearing unexpectedly. Often it’s come to people when they’ve been profoundly depressed, even suicidal. So see if you can have a sense that something mysterious and amazing is just a hair’s-breadth away. Let there be a sense of openness and wonder in your practice of meditation.
Sometimes you need to just do a lot more meditation. You need to get on retreat. This can be challenging, but that’s the point! If your meditation practice is a bit boring, you can probably handle that if you’re sitting for 30 minutes a day. But if you’re sitting for six hours? Or eight hours? You’ll probably get to the point fairly soon where you realize that you have to make a change. It’s either that or go crazy. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice before you get to the stage of feeling like your head will explode (note: that has never actually happened to anyone in the entire 2,500 year history of Buddhist meditation), but sometimes you have to experience a crisis before you have that breakthrough. It’s tough to experience, but in the end it’s worth it.
Lastly, how do you know when you should just accept that your practice seems to be going nowhere, and when you should shake things up?
The things I’ve talked about above are things I think you’ve been doing all the time. I think if we all did these things — go for depth in our practice with an attitude of openness and curiosity; had a clear sense of something that we’re working on; keep in mind that enlightenment is what we’re working toward and that it may happen in any moment; and periodically do more intense periods of practice — then we wouldn’t have a sense of our meditation being stuck in a rut. Instead it would be a fresh and exciting thing to get on the cushion. So do these things first, and if you still feel stuck in a rut, then just be stuck. Accept your stuckness, and just keep doing the practice.