A month after I started meditating, I went home to visit my mother. This was back in the day—only a few years after the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, and caused a storm of mostly satirical press commentary. Meditation was still considered an activity for eccentrics and hippies, and my secular humanist mother found my insistence on sitting every morning hilarious at best. In the mornings, while I was sitting in meditation, she would walk past my closed door every few minutes and call out, "Aren't you done yet?"
I rolled with it on Saturday. But on Sunday, when she knocked on the door for the third time in twenty minutes, I lost it. Bursting with anger, I got up from my seat, opened the door, looked at my mother and said, "Can't you leave me alone?" And my mother smiled a 'Gotcha!" kind of smile and said, "I knew you hadn't become a saint."
That was the moment when I realized that effective meditation practice is not just what you do when you're sitting on the mat. It's also about how you react when your loved ones (and not so loved ones) do all those things that have historically annoyed or frustrated you. It's not that meditation will turn you into a saint overnight. (The fact that you haven't turned into a saint is one of the best reasons to keep on meditating!) Yet, one of the gifts that meditation can give you is the ability to use certain inner skills—skills like self-inquiry, substituting a loving thought for an angry one, gentleness, and especially the insight to notice a reactive emotion before you act on it—in difficult moments.
Meditation is for living. The inner practice is meant to radiate outward until your whole life becomes an ongoing training in living from your own center. As the intrinsic alchemy of meditation works its subtle changes in your consciousness and character, it simultaneously challenges you to take action on what you are becoming—to bring your meditative skills, insights, and experiences into the rest of your life.
The strength of your practice is tested in every single moment and interaction. Are you able to bring the love you experienced in meditation into your actions? Are you able to stay in touch with Awareness when you are working, when you are moving into a new house, or when someone you care for disappoints you? Are you speaking and moving from that deeper level of being, or are you on automatic pilot, perhaps even doing the right thing but with no sense of contact with your deeper being, no access to its inspiration and love?
Certainly there will be times when the inner world with its inspiration and broader vision seems to be at your fingertips, moments when love sweeps over you all on its own. You may suddenly find yourself in the state called "flow," acting unerringly without any apparent effort and with a quiet mind. The witness may rise up in the midst of an argument or crisis, holding you steady and poised in a situation where you would ordinarily go off the emotional deep end.
You might have mornings when the world shimmers with sacredness, when you find meaning in the blown leaves on the sidewalk, when the newspapers in the gutter seem to pulsate with the overflow of your own happiness. You will experience the ongoing magic of synchronicity, when a conversation overheard on the bus or a message seen on a billboard seems to give subtle spiritual teachings. At such times, work is transmuted into worship, and a walk in the woods turns into a processional up the nave of a cathedral.
Yet there will be other moments, many of them, when the gifts of meditation are there only if you work for them. The mere fact that you meditate will not suddenly make you immune to psychological pain. It won't eliminate mood swings, feelings of inadequacy, or problems with other people. In fact, people who meditate can be just as subject to ups and downs as anyone else. The major differences lie in their attitude toward their mood and tendencies and in the resources they have to deal with them. When sadness, anger, and frustration arise, they have learned how to separate their intrinsic sense of self from their moods and feelings. They know that a core part of them is untouched by the emotional weather. Not only that, they have learned some skills in meditation that can help them through a difficult encounter or a mental traffic jam. They have more choices about how they deal with their feelings, how they work with the desires, fears, and crises, which might otherwise derail them.
Living from our own center takes effort, but it is also exciting. When we see life as an ongoing spiritual training, we live inside a view that lends significance to even the most ordinary interactions. We don't think so much in terms of winning or losing, success or failure. Instead there is only the training, the consistent effort to come back to the love and lucidity we carry inside and to bring the values of the inner world into our outer actions.