On Practice and Change

For almost seven years I have committed to a daily meditation practice. Some days I am only able to manage a few minutes, other days I sit for a half hour. I go through minutes or weeks in which during meditation my mind wanders to television shows I recently watched, conversations recently had, things I want for myself, things I worry about, anything but attention to what is happening in the present. Recently I sat, after a long period, and became aware of an exquisite sense of discomfort and attention to the dark blankness that lay behind my eyelids. An acute sense of boredom came upon me.

“Ugh, I’m stuck in here with myself.”

The practice of sitting still and focusing on breath or observing myself sounds simple, but simple is not easy. A lot of the problems people create for ourselves seems to come from our resistance to simplicity. We have to train ourselves to become simple, which requires a surprising level of complexity. Every time the mind wanders from the practice, we have to invite our attention back again and again. We develop skills of will, self-observation, delaying gratification, enduring discomfort, emotional self-management, these complex subroutines that contribute to moments of stillness and inner silence that deepen and expand into rich presence.

Any skill worth cultivating requires such practice. When beginning a practice, we might be tempted to compare our clumsy first steps to the elegant performance of a master, but again any master has put in time and discipline to reach such grace and simplicity. Hours of practice forge that appearance of effortlessness.

From the Golden Tarot by Kat Black
From the Golden Tarot by Kat Black

To change ourselves requires such practice, discipline, and self-forgiveness. There may always be a part of me that feels disgusted with myself, that would rather be anywhere but in this body, in this life, but there is another part of me that knows sitting with all of this helps me to connect with something greater than the individual pieces, greater than the momentary discomfort, greater even than the self-loathing. Spiritual traditions point toward these greater realities and advocate practices and values to help people grow into them.

Making any change in our lives means confronting the ambivalence that keeps us stuck. Ambivalence is different from indifference, though often we use them interchangeably. Indifference means not caring at all, one way or the other. Ambivalence means caring very strongly in two opposing directions. “I really want to meditate this morning, and I really want to hit snooze and get more sleep.” No matter how often I go to the gym and value the benefits of regular exercise, a part of me wants to convince me that I’m not feeling up to the task and would be better served eating chocolate and resting on the couch.

Resistance will meet whatever it is we need to make our lives better — taking medication, going to therapy, reaching out to loved ones, eating well. That resistance is what helps us to become stronger. We do not develop muscle or aerobic health without pushing against a physical resistance. Our bodies and spirits need something to push against, and they also need time to rest. Too much of one or too little of the other both create problems. Ambivalence points toward the need to recognize these conflicting impulses and strive to find some way to honor both.

If I want to know myself, love myself, and be the most myself I can be, I need to sit with the part of me that gets bored, hates myself, and criticizes all my flaws. I need to practice bringing my attention back to the more that is happening now. There is always more than this problem, whatever problem holds your attention. There is always another breath to take. There is the firm support of the ground and the expansiveness of the sky.

Changing one’s self requires accepting one’s self as we are now. Worthwhile, deep, profound change comes from taking on a discipline and returning to it regardless of how one feels. It’s hard to exercise four times a week, but the benefits of maintaining that rhythm are healthier and longer-lasting than what comes from taking short cuts to force one’s body into a socially acceptable shape. This kind of discipline is imperfect. After seven years, my mind still wanders in meditation, and I forget to bring it back. Seven years is truly not that long, but the person I have become in that time has depended upon that foundation of cultivating inner stillness and self-observation.