My meditation just isn’t working. Regardless how I approach it, I end up getting off my pillow confused. I’m not getting any answers to the problems in my life. The only thing consistent is that almost every negative experience I’ve had in the past comes up while I’m sitting there quietly watching my breath. Help!
Meditation Isn’t Working
Dear Meditation Isn’t Working,
A practitioner once said to a monk, “I’ve been meditating for 20 years and nothing has changed.” You are hardly alone. There may be technical reasons for this ... not concentrating on breathing, poor posture, engaging the random thoughts that enter the mind (one reason why you feel confused) ... but a greater problem is often a misunderstanding of what meditation is about.
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 or meditation have failed. 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. Then you have to take that clarity and purposefully apply it to your life.
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 can bring 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. So if you’re not versed in the teachings of the Buddha, you have work to do.
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, 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.
But don’t be surprised that you find these new insights a mixed blessing at first. Your insights may give you clarity, but they also will be fought tooth and nail by your ego-mind.
You are no doubt familiar with the saying that “ignorance is bliss.” Well, in this case, before you studied the Buddha dharma and meditated, you were “ignorant” and just went with the flow of your learned experience. Now you know the difference between what your true Buddha nature tells you and what your ego-mind tells you. You can’t ignore the truth you’ve learned, but you find that your ego-mind just won’t let up.
And so for a time, until you learn how to free yourself from your ego, you may well be in more turmoil than before. But this too shall pass. Have faith and continue on the path.
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 ... be present 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, acknowledge them, have compassion for them, but don’t engage them, don’t think about them. Thinking about them gives them and your ego-mind the power to confuse and distract you.
If you feel your mind pulling you away from your meditation, refocus on your breathing ... 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 I’m breathing in; breathing out, I’m aware I”m breathing out. Here there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today, only the present moment. And the present is the only reality, all else is thought.” And believe in the teachings of the Buddha.