I've been a Buddhist for more than twenty years and I've done a lot of meditation practice. But I've never experienced any real peace or absence of thoughts in my meditation, at least for more than brief moments here and there. I've also had the benefit of many wonderful teachings and yet I still succumb to my emotions and old habits. More and more I find myself asking "What's the point?" What should I do about this?
Blanche Hartman: Your question comes up for many of us. When we first begin mediation practice, quite naturally we expect some result. We may begin with a motivation to “improve” ourselves, to get something we think is missing. Meditation practice certainly does affect us, but not necessarily as we plan or expect.
You don’t mention whether you have worked with a meditation teacher or with a group, whether your practice has been continuous or sporadic, or whether you have done long guided retreats. Each of these can be of significant help in dealing with the usual perils and pitfalls that come up for all of us.
Though it is helpful to have some goal at first, it is that very goal-oriented self that turns out to be the main problem. Suzuki Roshi said, “You are perfect just as you are,” “You have everything you need,” and “Just to be alive is enough.” It took me a long time to see the truth in this. He asked that we “make our best effort on each moment forever” with no gaining idea. What is it to make effort with no gaining idea?
Since you have been meditating for over twenty years it is probably important for you to become intimate with that part of you that is calling you to practice. As Master Baizhang said of practice, “There is one who requires it.” Coming to know that “one” is coming to know our true self, our deepest nature, which is deeper than any of our wants, dislikes, judgments or goals.
As for not experiencing the absence of thoughts: none of us do. Just let them come and go, like scenery from a train window. We don’t cling to them or reify them, we just return to the breath and posture.
At times, all of us succumb to emotions and old habits. In meditation practice we acknowledge them and notice where we feel them in our body. If we offer our breath and kind attention to the physical sensations, we make room for change. Habits run deep and are hard to change. Master Dongshan said to his teacher, Yunyan, “I still have some habits I have not yet eradicated.” “What have you been practicing?” asked Yunyan. “I haven’t even been practicing the four noble truths,” responded Dongshan. “Are you joyful in this nonpractice?” “It is not without joy” said Dongshan, “It’s like sweeping excrement into a pile and then finding a jewel in it.” If even the ancients were like this, maybe there is a jewel in that pile for each of us.
Tulku Thondup: The quality of meditation is more important than the quantity. You should do your daily meditation (whatever it is) for about twenty or thirty minutes with total focus and feeling from the heart. Give 100% of yourself to it and enjoy it. Then during off-meditation periods, try to recall those feelings, such as the awareness of peace and joy, that you enjoyed during your meditation. At the beginning, do this for even a second, five times a day, regardless where you are. Enjoy it. Rejoice in and celebrate it. Then in the coming months slowly try to increase the number of times you recall those feelings to ten, twenty or more times a day. By doing this, the feelings created by the meditation will become the foundation of your life, the inner core of your heart. Doing this will establish a peaceful foundation within you that will underlie whatever turmoil life may deal you.
Meditation works, even if it is not visible to you. A friend of mine was involved in ritualistic and devotional meditation on the Buddha of Compassion. He never believed it would have much effect on him since he spent so little time and energy on it. But then one day, right after coming out of a major operation, he gave a twenty minute explanation on the particular meditation—even though his mind wasn't clear yet and he couldn't communicate well.
This means that if you do meditation in the right way, even if you don't see great results, it is still making a deep impact on you. At the time of death, when your mind becomes free from its entrapment in the physical body and the culture of the environment – the imprints you have made in the depth of your mind will shine forth.
But we should be realistic. Say we do an hour of meditation a day. That means we spend the remaining twenty-three hours engrossed in other matters. And even during that one hour of meditation, our mind might be wandering a lot and we might experience lots of afflicting emotions, doubting thoughts, and a lack of true insight. If we are not doing an effective meditation, we can't blame the meditation for our lack of progress. We must inspire ourselves to practice wholeheartedly and learn to apply the fruits of meditation to our day-to-day life. This way we could turn every moment of our lives into the wheel of dharma.
Narayan Liebenson Grady: It can be very disheartening to have been exposed to the teachings and, at the same time, to be more and more aware of the gap between those teachings and one's own experience. I think it would be better right now not to put yourself in the position of listening to generalized dharma teachings since you are at a point in your practice when doubt is predominant. You need to find ways to lessen the gap between what you understand intellectually and what you understand on a cellular level.
Do you have a teacher that you can work with in an ongoing way, who can address specific obstacles that you may be facing? Having had the benefit of many wonderful teachings is great but this is very different than the slow process of revealing your practice with all of its ups and downs to someone who can offer you a sustained sense of spiritual friendship and guidance. In the early years of practice this individualized guidance is not as important but becomes more so for most practitioners as the practice develops. Also, if you have never been in therapy it might be worthwhile to find a therapist who is sympathetic to Buddhism with whom you could discuss any issues that may be blocking the deepening of your practice.
Do you have a daily sitting practice? If you don't, there is no substitute for devoting some time each day to being physically still. If you do sit regularly, you might want to experiment with not sitting for a month or two to discover for yourself whether the daily sitting is having an affect on your daily life in ways that you have not been aware of.
Please remember that we practice for ourselves as well as for others. To remember that we are practicing for the benefit of others removes the burden of believing that practice has to bring us specific results in order to be worthwhile. Instead of trying to attain peaceful experiences, we can remember that we are cultivating qualities of heart such as patience and loving kindness. When we understand practice in this way, self-trust can be maintained even when our experiences are not what we want them to be.
We all begin practice with countless years of conditioning. In a way, we are only as old as our years of practice. So no matter how old you are physically, in terms of practice you are only twenty. This is very young. Your question reminds me of a poem in the Therigatha by a nun named Vaddhesi that begins: "It was twenty-five years since I left home (to ordain) and I hadn't had a moment's peace." The last lines of this poem are: "I have annihilated all the obsessions of the mind. The Buddha's teaching has been done." I admire hers and your perseverance.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is co-abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Tulku Thondup Rinpoche is a teacher in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Narayan Liebenson Grady is a guiding teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.