The first part of the misunderstanding is that many people think that meditation will solve their problems, their frustrations, their anger, and when it doesn’t they feel they are failures once again. But the purpose of meditation is not to solve problems. The purpose of meditation is to gain clarity about the truths of life and yourself.
As the ancient poem, “In Praise of Zazen,” says: “The gateway to freedom is zazen samadhi, beyond all our praises, beyond exaltation, the pure Mahayana.” Meditation is a gateway, a vehicle, for discovering the truth, experiencing clarity, and uncovering your true Buddha nature.
Which brings up the second misunderstanding. Meditation is a wonderful practice in any context. It brings calm to us in a stressful world. But divorced from the teachings of the Buddha, meditation cannot be the gateway to ending our suffering because it is the context of the Buddha dharma that provides the basis for the clarity that will free you and bring you peace.
We first learn and understand the teachings of the Buddha intellectually. That is the basis for our initial and essential belief in the Buddha dharma. But that is only a first step on the path. It is only through meditation that we internalize them, realize in our innermost being the truth of those teachings and see our life and the world around us clearly, free of our ego and learned experience.
With the clarity you receive through meditation, you then have the ability when you are off the cushion to change your ego-driven habit energies. This is not an easy thing to do, even with clarity ... we’re talking about changing habit-energies, paradigms, that have formed over the course of a lifetime ... but without the clarity that comes from meditation it is impossible.
Even before you are able to change those energies though, to surrender your ego, the clarity you obtain through meditation will make you more aware of how you react to or interact with yourself and others, to see the difference between your ego-driven response and your true Buddha nature response. And with that increased awareness over time will come the strength to slowly let your ego, your past, go ... starting from issues more on the periphery of your life and steadily advancing to those that lie at the core of your samsara.
So the next time you sit on your cushion, don’t look for any answers or solutions. Just concentrate on your breathing while being aware of the environment around you ... meditation is not about closing yourself off to the world ... and let yourself go deep within yourself. Don’t try and force anything. Things will float through your mind ... this is inevitable, what a monk once called “our unfinished business” ... just let them float through, don’t engage them, don’t think about them.
Continue to focus on your breathing when distracted by your mind ... feel your breath move through your body. Sitting quietly and calmly brings great benefit in and of itself. And from that quiet place you will find as your practice deepens that without any mental effort you all of a sudden see something clearly that you hadn’t seen before. But regardless, just remember, “Breathing in, I’m aware of breathing in; breathing out, I’m aware of breathing out” and believe in the teachings of the Buddha.
Another lesson in practical Buddhism.