The value of “going through the motions”
For at least a couple of weeks now I’ve felt that I’ve been “going through the motions” with my meditation practice. I’m still a rock-solid daily meditator. I still remind myself “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” But sometimes my sits have been shorter and squeezed in at the end of the day.
It has, though, been a tough few weeks. My wife was sick, both kids have been repeatedly ill — one with pneumonia. That’s interrupted my sleep, so that I’m more tired than usual. Work’s been challenging as well. These things take a toll.
Sometimes I’ve felt a sense of despair and overwhelm rise within me. I try to meet this with equanimity, giving it permission to be there. I also do what I can to dispel it, for example by making sure my body is in an open, upright posture. And I’m also striving to cut down on some of the overstimulation and to tackle, step by step, some of the tasks that I find most unpleasant to do.
My meditation practice has sometimes been very enjoyable, or at least mixed. Last night, for example, I felt a sense of joy alongside a feeling of tiredness and distress. But on the whole my practice has felt rather flat. It’s a bit of a chore.
I’m sure some people would say that if you’re not enjoying your meditation, you shouldn’t do it. That you should be “authentic.” I have to say, though, that I don’t see why the desire to give up meditation is any more authentic than the desire to keep going. They’re both just desires. Neither of them is ultimately me, mine, or myself. But one of those desires is more likely to lead to my long-term happiness than the other.
Apropos of this, yesterday I came across this passage in the Pali canon, called the Nava Sutta (although most of it involves analogies concerning chickens and carpenters, including the passage I’m about to quote:
Just as when a carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice sees the marks of his fingers or thumb on the handle of his adze but does not know, ‘Today my adze handle wore down this much, or yesterday it wore down that much, or the day before yesterday it wore down this much,’ still he knows it is worn through when it is worn through. In the same way, when a monk dwells devoting himself to development, he does not know, ‘Today my mental pollutants wore down this much, or yesterday they wore down that much, or the day before yesterday they wore down this much,’ still he knows they are worn through when they are worn through.
So yes, progress isn’t always visible. In fact sometimes progress doesn’t look like progress. Perhaps the resistance I’m experiencing at the moment is just sleep-deprivation. Perhaps it’s me approaching a breakthrough. Whichever it is, I just keep on going with my practice. Eventually something will “wear through.” I’m going through the motions, but they’re good motions to go through.
“I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.”