Do you plan to meditate every day and then struggle to keep going? Do you see meditation as the only way of being a good Buddhist or spiritual practitioner? Read on for a Gentle Buddhism approach to meditation…
I have had a regular meditation practice, on and off, for more than twenty years. I began in my early thirties, obeying all the instructions in Suzuki Shunryu’s Beginner’s Mind, even though I struggled to keep my tongue on the roof of my mouth and my teeth gently shut at the same time. I did a year-long daily vigil for the Earth in my local town, clocking up an hour a day in different weather, and most recently I’ve just been doing twenty minutes in front of my office shrine before I start my day.
This week, after 154 days in a row, I stopped. I stopped because I didn’t feel like it was serving me any more. I stopped because I wanted to have a break and then try something different. I stopped because I just didn’t want to carry on.
Why do we meditate?
I’m feeling curious this morning about the different agendas I have for meditating.
As a Pure Land Buddhist I am not told that the only way I can become enlightened is by doing lots of meditation. Despite that, I am influenced by this rhetoric in the Buddhist world and I see meditation as something a good Buddhist ought to do. The better the Buddhist, the more meditation they do.
This ties in with the idea that monastic folk – those who dedicate their whole lives to spiritual practice – are superior human beings to lay folk. I learnt this from various teachers and from the suttas – and maybe it’s true. Even if it is true, I have chosen to be a lay person with responsibilities, a bank account and relationships that are important to me. I’m not planning on giving everything up to live in the forests, and so it is pointless to reach after this unachievable ideal.
Alongside these internalised ideals, I sometimes worry about what other Buddhists think of me. A kind of ‘religious insecurity’, I guess. Do they see me as ‘legit’? Might they scoff at my unethical life? I see my own limitations so clearly – surely they will see them too and use them to put me down?
Freedom to meditate
The reasons above are not the only reasons why I meditate. I meditate because Shakyamuni Buddha said it was a good thing to do, like my mum telling me to brush my teeth. I do it because it gives me an opportunity to sit with the Buddha once a day and just hang out. I do it because I love how outside meditation connects me up with our beautiful and ailing Earth. I do it as an expression of my gratitude for all I’ve received from the Buddha and from Buddhist teachings.
Some of my reasons are driven by fear (if I don’t do it, then something bad will happen) and some are driven by love. Many are a mix. My aim in life is to be more driven by love, and less by fear. I find that when I push myself too hard to do meditation or anything else, there is usually a bunch of fear involved. Sometimes the useful thing is to keep pushing, but often it is more fruitful to slow down, to be gentle with myself, and to take some time out to reflect.
It felt good not to do my meditation this week. I am wondering what daily ritual I might replace it with, if anything – maybe a mala of nembutsu, or the two daily bows recommended by Rev. Koyo Kubose – one first thing to say ‘please help me to be in harmony with the day’ and one before bedtime to say ‘thank you’.
Just As You Are
I am also remembering the most important teaching from my many years of being a Buddhist. Amitabha Buddha accepts me just as I am. They don’t need me to do any practices at all, or to be a good Buddhist, or even to be a good human being. They just need me to ask for their help, and open my heart to receiving it.
Meditation sometimes helps me to get into a place of open-heartedness, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it is more helpful to listen to a troubled friend, or to walk my dogs across the fields in the November sunshine. Sometimes it’s good to do Buddhist practice with friends, or to listen to Dharma talks. Sometimes it’s helpful to bake brownies for our retreat day, or rest, or watch Ru Paul on Netflix.
I am a human being, and being a human is sometimes hard. I don’t want to add to my long list of ‘oughts’ by saying that I’ll only be a good person if I meditate, or do lots of activism, or give lots of money away, or anything else I might use to beat myself up. I will do my best, knowing how limited my best is. I will allow the Buddha to fuel me with their energy of enlightenment, and to transform me in mysterious ways. I will lean into Just Being Satya, and feel the great relief of putting everything else down.
It feels good, but it’s not just about me. When I go easy on myself, I think it makes me more likely to be kind to others. Sometimes ‘going easy on myself’ means having a meditation practice, and sometimes it means giving a meditation practice up. Right now, it’s time to give it up. Buddha knows when I’ll pick it up again. Until then, I can connect in with that enlightened energy everywhere. It’s present in this keyboard, in the dog curled up under my office desk, in the mist across the valley, in my half-drunk mug of tea. I’m feeling it right now. Are you?
What spiritual practices were a support to your spiritual life, but have now become a burden? How would it be to take a break from them? How else might you connect with enlightened energy, or fulfil any of the other purposes these practices fulfilled? What voices in you are concerned about you stopping? Listen to them and try and understand their concerns and their motivations. Be kind to them all.