There’s an old story that goes something like this: A young man who wants to learn to be an expert swordsman travels for many days to seek out a famous teacher who lives in a remote place in the mountains. After much difficulty he tracks down the sword master and begs to be accepted as a student. To his joy, the master agrees to take him on.
“How long will it take for me to become as good a swordsman as you?” the student asks.
“Perhaps fifteen years,” replies the master.
The student is dismayed at this prospect. “How long if I try really hard?” he asks.
The master scratches his chin as he ponders, and then finally says, “I suppose, if you try really hard, it might take you … twenty years.”
The point of the story is that for some things, the harder you try, the more you get in your own way. Meditation is very much like that.
“Trying hard” inevitably involves an element of grasping. But meditation is about letting go of grasping. It’s about being, accepting, and opening up. Yes, within that context there can be a sense that we’re working in our meditation practice. But it’s important to establish a sense of openness, receptivity, and acceptance before we begin working, so that that work is not imbued with grasping but is instead more of matter of paying attention gently and kindly.
For me this all starts with the eyes.
The striving, grasping mind leads to a tight, narrow gaze. I imagine this is because striving requires us to focus narrowly on a single thing that we either want to have or want to avoid. When the gaze is narrowly focused we become physically tense, and the mind goes into overdrive. It’s not a pleasant way to exist.
Letting the eyes soften — letting the focus within the eyes be gentler and letting the muscles around the eyes relax — triggers a state of relaxation. This relaxed gaze is familiar to us from when we stare into space. That’s something we do when we feel safe and relaxed, and there’s no need to be hyperaware of danger.
As soon as the eyes soften in this way the mind calms, our thoughts slow down, and the body begins to relax. The breathing slows and deepens.
This is what I always do when I start meditating.
One thing that happens when the eyes soften is that our gaze is no longer narrowly focused, and we’re able to take in the whole of our visual field. This happens quite naturally and effortlessly.
And this immediately translates to our inner field of attention being open and receptive, and able to take in the whole of the body (and other inner sensations) at once. This too happens naturally and effortlessly.
Now we can sense the movements of the breathing in the whole body, offering us a rich sensory experience that helps us remain in mindfulness.
So while we might start off thinking that to calm the mind we need to do a lot of work, we actually find that all we have to do is let the eyes soften. And then it’s a question of letting our inner field of awareness connect with the body. And then with gentleness, kindness, and curiosity, we remain mindful of the whole body breathing. Often at this point our thoughts are few and far between. Mostly they arise and pass away without distracting us. And when we do get sucked into thinking, it’s easier to let go of them; we just let the eyes soften again.
If we tried through “trying harder” to achieve this depth of mindfulness it might take many hours, and probably even then only on a retreat. Making a lot of effort in meditation creates mental turbulence, distraction, and resistance. Think about what it’s like to try to grab a slippery bar of soap you’ve dropped in the bath. If you lunge after it you push it away. It’s very similar in meditation. If we want to achieve something, we need to let it happen, not make it happen.
By doing the opposite of trying hard, we can get much further.
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