Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel examines common misconceptions about Buddhist practice that can derail even the most seasoned practitioners.
What is meditation practice? When are we genuinely practicing and when are we just going through the motions, caught in unexamined assumptions about practice? I often ask myself these questions so I don’t succumb to spiritual vagueness and because I want my practice to continue to grow.
The purpose of meditation is to develop a sane relationship to experience. The struggles we have in life—shutting down, pushing away, feeling overwhelmed, and all the neurotic attachment—arise from the confusion we harbor about how to relate to the rich energy of the mind. When eating, we ingest, process, and eliminate food. But how do we digest our experience? It’s not so clear.
As meditators we look at the mind and its activity. When we begin to practice, we often feel surprised: “I didn’t realize my mind was so wild and unruly!” Even experienced practitioners will complain, “I have been practicing for thirty years, but my mind is still crazy!” We often view experience as a problem. So how do we work with it? Is there a way to enjoy the activity of mind? How does practice bring us into a healthy relationship with our world? Meditation puts these questions front and center.
METHODS ALONE ARE NOT THE PRACTICE
We think of meditation as the act of sitting in the lotus position, reciting a mantra, visualizing, or focusing on the breath. These skillful methods help us navigate our world. They keep our bodies upright and our energy flowing, and more important, they can help guide us away from habitual tendencies.
Sometimes, just following the meditation technique will lead to a moment of clarity, when we experience a sense of liberation. I don’t mean “LIBERATION!!!” in some highfalutin kind of way. I just mean that we may enjoy a moment in which the mind stops trying to fix or push at things, allowing us to open into a larger way of being.
And yet we know that we can sometimes apply practice techniques without really “practicing” at all. In those moments, such methods don’t touch our habitual tendencies and we find ourselves defaulting to our usual ways of relating to the mind, such as getting lost in the momentum of thoughts and emotions or in rejecting them. We may spend a lot of time wishing we were someone else, somewhere else having a different experience. We may find ourselves wanting or not wanting, grasping or rejecting, even as we sit on the cushion.
Excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel has studied and practiced the dharma for nearly three decades under the guidance of her teacher and husband, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. She spent six years in solitary retreat and now serves as retreat master of samten ling in Crestone, Colorado. She is the author of The Power of an Open Question (Shambhala).
Photo by Liza Matthews