Sometimes I compare the mind to a cat. Just as it’s in a cat’s nature to wander, it’s in the mind’s nature to wander. But just as it’s in a cat’s nature to come home, it’s also the mind’s nature to come home — to come home to mindfulness.
In a couple of days I have an online meditation course starting that explores a practice called “Just Sitting.” In a way this is different from other meditation practices such as mindfulness of the breathing or where we cultivate kindness or compassion. There’s no specific aim in the Just Sitting practice. Strictly speaking we’re not even trying to be mindful!
This might make this form of meditation seem pointless. After all, if you’ve meditated at all you’re probably very aware of how much the mind wanders and how much work seems to be involved in bringing your attention back to your object of attention, whether that’s the sensations of the breathing or a person you’re cultivating kindness for. You may wonder: if you don’t make an effort to be mindful, wouldn’t you just sit there in a distracted state and end up wasting your time?
It’s not like that at all!
Of course, as with any meditation practice, when you’re Just Sitting there are times when mindfulness is just absent and the mind wanders. But the interesting thing is that the mind always finds its own way home.
You’ve probably noticed many times how although your intention may be to remain mindful of the breathing, for example, your mind gets distracted without you deciding that it’s going to go wandering. Unmindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do.
But have you ever noticed that your mind always brings itself back to mindful awareness again? For every time that distraction happens, there is a time that mindfulness happens. It’s a one-to-one correspondence. And you never “decide” to come back to mindful awareness, do you? Mindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do. One moment you’re daydreaming and the next you’re aware that the daydream has ended, you have mindful awareness, and you return to your original intention. Your mind knows how to do this, and you have nothing to do with it!
Often when the mind has come home like this, we feel disappointed that it’s been wandering, or we feel it’s time to knuckle down and get back to practicing again. But neither of these things is very helpful.
If your cat was to walk through the door after an absence and you were to yell at it or try to force it to sit in one place it would probably head straight out of the door again.
If you were to welcome your cat home warmly and give it time and space to settle in, it would eventually find a place to sit quietly and be at peace. So what if your attitude was to warmly welcome when the mind has — quite spontaneously and with no effort on your part — found its way home again? What if you were to feel a sense of gratitude, and happiness, and even wonder? Perhaps your mind, just like a home-coming cat, would settle down more quickly?
At first we’ll probably think about welcoming the mind home as something we do in meditation. But in time we may come to appreciate that warmth and appreciation too are qualities that spontaneously arise. Just as our attention spontaneously comes home, so warmth and appreciation spontaneously appear to welcome it. And we find that there’s now less sense of us actually having to do anything in meditation. Meditation is no longer work. Our meditation practice is doing itself. The mind has come home, and is at peace.