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“Progress” in meditation and opening to the bigger picture

14 January 2019 | , Timothea Goddard | Mindfulness Courses ,

My colleague Nancy Bardecke says: “Expectations? Suffering under construction!” So often when we are learning something new we expect this – the straight line of progress.

But as you know, meditation training is quite a bit different to this, and we often get taken on unexpected tangents inside ourselves ~ leading to the process looking more like this!

I always say that the MBSR course needs to be 8 years not eight weeks, so if you have 8 years, why not take it up with this long lens, as a project that takes time, just like life! And we do need buckets of patience, connection with others and lots of immersion; that is the nature of it, and perhaps not a problem or an obstacle. What else are we going to do with this precious life?

Many years ago, I studied Zen and attended quite a few retreats and every day we would make this chant:

The many beings are numberless, I vow to free them 
Reactions rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them. 
Doors to experience are countless, I vow to wake to them. 
The way is limitless. I vow to embody it fully.

I find this so helpful as an orientation to life, in the midst of all the challenges and uncertainties. And it offers paradoxes that can be liberating ~ as they loosen up our black- and-white thinking and our constricted thinking around time and space and “self”.

Let’s unpack it:

The many beings are numberless. I vow to free them.

These beings are inside us! They need our kind and spacious attention, and when we offer it, they tend to calm and step back and be soothed. They are also outside us, in the form of all the other creatures (both human and not) that we encounter each day. Even though it is impossible, why not bring forth an attitude of boundless good will and care, as we are all in the same boat. When we recognise that this boat is impermanent and eventually sinking, not to offer this compassion and kindness to all the parts of ourselves and others seems crazy.

Reactions rise endlessly. I vow to abandon them.

This is a recognition that our biological nature will give rise to impulses endlessly that we find self-serving, ignorant and cruel. Not to worry. This is natural and it only adds fuel to the fire if we get all caught up taking it personally and then attacking ourselves. Why not use these moments of discovery to recognise our capacity to dis-identify with these impulses ie. to not let them define us? And to make a relationship with them that calms and soothes them.

Doors to experience are countless. I vow to wake to them.

This is gold. Anything, and I mean anything can be used as a gate for learning and freedom. We could go into blocking out things when they get tough, or drowning in them. But there is an alternative. It is to recognise, allow and investigate what is arising, and see what is to be learned here. This is a shift from viewing life as a way to get what we want and to work hard so that all our "ducks in a row", to viewing life as learning how our perception constricts us and shapes us, and to keep opening into wisdom rather than attaining.

The way is limitless. I vow to embody it fully.

We always are in a battle to finish something, to accomplish something, to end something. It will end soon enough! So in the meanwhile, let’s operate with an act of faith. Even though we can never “get there” why not embody this mindfulness path with some energy and vigour. In the face of such an intention, perhaps being able to sit down to practice each day will come and go, with less struggle and self criticism.

For some profound reading over the holidays, I recommend Ken McCloud’s Reflections on Silver River.