The Job of Meditation

by Dan Nussbaum

You don’t need to manage your mind when you sit.  You can give up control. Chances are, your consciousness hasn’t issued a call for you to step in. You’ll be fine. Your mind will be fine.  You can leave it alone for a while.

Perhaps this seems like “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”, minus the sitar, but actually I’m proposing something  more easygoing than that. You don’t even have to turn off your mind. You don’t have to float. You don’t have to do anything to meditate other than sit still.

People tend to welcome this permission. It feels right because it addresses a particular aspect of suffering that almost everyone knows: There’s always something that has to be done. It’s not just having more to do than there’s time for;  it’s that we’re creatures that almost never stop doing something, regardless of whether there’s time or not. The information that sitting might be different comes as a big relief.

But then the gentle suggestion to relinquish control meets the more authoritative, mainstream view that meditation means training the mind to behave. Someone who welcomes the invitation to sit without a to-do list can still find it hard to recognize that his ordinary meditative practices keep managing going.  When you notice you’re thinking about an ex-spouse and you follow an instruction to bring your thoughts back to your breath,  you’re managing your experience. When you start with your attention at the top of your head and you methodically spiral it down through your body, you’re managing. When you label thoughts, feelings and sensations: managing. Follow a guided meditation: managing by delegating the chore to a professional. Repeating metta slogans is a form of managing, too. Lovely, but managing.

Surely I can’t mean that all someone has to do to meditate is sit still. But I do mean that. Calm states and other mental processes different from ordinary thinking may develop in a sit, but you don’t have to do anything special to bring them on.  Beginners tend to accept this statement because it sounds inviting and they don’t have a history of practice to uphold.  Periods of investigation into memories or aspects of dharma teaching can come up, without them feeling like obligatory tasks. Meditation isn’t a second job.

Before I learned Recollective Awareness I did a practice that relied on a lot of technique. including procedures to apply when facing different eventualities. It felt secure to have a roadmap for each sit and to some extent, for my practice itself.  I could look forward to getting good at the techniques and someday gaining mastery over my mind.

When I discovered Recollective Awareness, much of what I heard was so different that I couldn’t even take it in. What I did take in left me feeling conflicted. Then my future teacher told me that conflict wasn’t forbidden. That got my attention, mostly because it sounded so strange. It dawned on me that until then when internal conflict came up I had one overwhelming response: I want this to go away now. The notion that I could follow the Buddhist path and still have real emotions helped me understand the path depended on my being honest with myself. A practice that relied on transforming emotions rather than seeing into them became less interesting.

Transforming emotions means making an effort to change experience into something “better.” It’s controlling. But this post isn’t presenting  a new meditation instruction, one that says don’t control. If anything I’d like to subvert obedience to instructions. And to pose the question, Did you come to meditation because you needed more tasks to do?


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