Sometimes our meditation practice ‘does not go well’, whatever that may mean in the meditator’s mind, and we get frustrated and end up giving up. The interpretation of it ‘not going well’ is fraught with confusion and misunderstanding about what meditation is. Inexperienced practitioners often say that a practice does not go well when painful experiences arise that are difficult to handle. Such experiences are routinely part of practice, though, since mindfulness meditation opens our awareness to the entirety of possible experiences, good or bad. Whatever experience content thus arises, pleasant or unpleasant, painful or enjoyable, says nothing about how well a meditation practice is going.
That does not mean that a practice cannot be deficient and not go well. It can, when lack of experience leads to deficiencies in meditation technique that can derail the whole process. This is no different than in any other discipline – with a lack of or wrong technique nothing productive can be achieved. For example, if a meditator tries to get rid of a painful experience, mindful self-compassion may be missing from the technique and the meditator will not benefit from the practice. The level of skill the meditator brings to using the necessary tools to meditate is therefore essential for a successful practice. When we are not clear about our technique, the mind cannot be examined. Most patients and students I see struggling to keep up the practice are not afflicted by a lack of will, motivation, or mental ability to practice, but they don’t realize which meditation tools they have forgotten or have not yet learned to use.
Meditation practices that repeatedly derail lead to the practitioner giving up. When we give up, we often end up berating ourselves for our lack of competence, instead of embracing it as an interesting fact about our mind to be explored. One of the most frequent reasons we end up failing in our meditation practice comes from resisting what is without realizing that that is what we are doing. We want bad things to go away, and if we don’t change that impulse, our meditation will certainly fail, and we fall into a sense of futility and resignation.
Giving up or resigning means getting overwhelmed by an internal chaos of energy flow, combined with the perception that our meditation practice is no match for one’s mind’s overwhelming power. We then easily fall prey to the usual autopilot mode of everyday living that cannot make sense of what is going on, is powerless to improve life’s experience, and is based on avoidance for survival. Resigning means giving up on our close examination of the mind because we are not able to handle it skillfully, feeling forced to accept that our meditation practice does not work. We are forced back into the autopilot mode of living that propels us through time without a sense of meaning and purpose, stringing us along an unending series of necessities that have to get done. In that mode, what we try, like meditation, in this case, does not seem to work well. We are stuck in an unconscious addiction to ignorance that is sweetened by the allure of the familiar and doctrinal, even though we know very well that those conditioned patterns do not work for us as we only cope for survival without ever tasting the joy of inspiration that creates a thriving life.
We should not assume that mindful living would eliminate any trace of resignation in life. There are moments when our conditioned brain wiring is just too powerful to work with and we will automatically be forced to temporarily give up. However, through mindfulness training, we will eventually be able to prevent having to resign or create a shift during the process of resignation. It is a shift in our relationship to what we experience through an expansion of awareness that allows us to step back a bit, kindly embrace ourselves in our entirety and wholeness without berating ourselves, and bring a curiosity of exploration to the situation. Even if we have already started to berate ourselves for having given up and being ‘bad students and hopeless losers who will never get anywhere in meditation’, even then we can embrace that, too, as part of our wholeness, exploring with curiosity how amazingly complex our mind is in its attempts at making sense of life and ensuring survival.
The moment we are able to take that step of bringing investigative awareness and attention to giving up, and not simply staying mired in that defeatist mental state forever, the mindfulness journey can continue, and giving up is immediately transformed into a tactical retreat, a purposeful surrender. With experience, we can remain aware of an upcoming internal storm that is threatening our ability to stay grounded before it has reached its full destructive force, and take steps to access resources that allow us to navigate the mental storm more skillfully and with more elegance.
When we give up, the central coordinating brain structure responsible for the conscious regulation of the organism’s energy and information flow, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC), goes offline and we fall into various combinations of uncontrollable fight/flight/freeze-conditioned mental states. The moment we reconnect our MPC after having given up or keep it connected with appropriate mindfulness measures when we anticipate overwhelm and a possible resignation, we engage in a tactical retreat leading to surrender. With surrender as opposed to resignation, we remain fully aware and mindful of what is going on without losing our connection with the MPC. Like climbing a mountain that gets pummeled by a storm, we wisely, not impulsively, decide to temporarily retreat further down in order to regroup, wait until the storm has passed, and then start climbing again when the weather allows. Forced resignation with the hallmark of hopelessness transforms into deliberate and conscious surrender that retains the sense of agency on the path to awakening.
Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973) needs no introduction as one of the greatest cellists of all time. One day he received a visit at his home from one of his friends. Pablo was in his nineties practicing his cello when his friend arrived. “Pablo, you are the greatest cellist to ever walk this earth, and you are in your nineties, why are you still practicing?” asked his friend. Pablo answered: “Because I am noticing improvement!” A similar story comes from the piano legend Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989), who was once asked why in his eighties he was still practicing daily. “If I don’t practice for a day”, he said, “I notice it; for 2 days, my wife notices it; for 3 days, everybody notices it!” Both gentlemen were fully accomplished in their field and world-renowned representatives of their art. As Jack Kornfield entitles one of his books, ‘After The Ecstasy, The Laundry’.
The pleasure of noticing improvement without an end or goal in mind is the grail of mindfulness, driven by a vision of life as a journey to nowhere. Meaning and fulfillment do not appear in disembodied fantasies about a past and a future that are always somewhere else than where we are, but from the oh-so elusive bowels of the present moment that is always right here now. The journey to nowhere is then the awakening to the ever-flowing energy of the present moment. The vision of noticing improvement is the act of harnessing the power of the imagination to conceive with unusual discernment and foresight what does not yet exist, without ever feeling the need to glimpse an ever-elusive end or goal. Such is life and love, like play for a child, reality dancing with us for the sake of dancing, creativity for the sake of endless creation with nothing else extraneous. The journey to nowhere is its own purpose and meaning that does not require anything outside itself like a goal. The vision of noticing improvement is the crown jewel of mindfulness meditation that integrates all organismic functions like the body, the emotions, and the intellect. With this vision we remain humble and relaxed, not needing to chase non-existent goals that tend to lure us like mirages into narcissistic gratifications.
Our work consists of awakening awareness from the autopilot monkey mode of living, and it is a major challenge to calm down the striving problem-solving mind, which always creates imagined better results and prizes to be had at the end of the effort. Often, such striving is accompanied by an idealized view of the teacher as having arrived exactly where the student strives to arrive one day. At work is an automatic psychological mechanism, through which students project their own disowned authority onto the teacher, while their conscious self-image gets flooded with perceptions of imperfection. This mechanism manifests when we have not yet integrated disowned or dissociated parts in us. The result is that we don’t feel at peace, we identify our sense of who we are with this state of discomfort, and the problem-solving mind presents to our minds the fantasy of goodness as a solution to be found outside, somewhere else at a future date. Students often don’t notice that the teacher is exactly there where they are, maybe just a bit more so!
The ideal we seek is an imagined state of contentment and relief from whatever pain we suffer from. Freedom never appears to be there where we are but is imagined either somewhere else or at a future time. We want to be happy when we are not, or happier than we are. We are in the grip of a discomfort-driven psychological seizure to get to the place of relief as soon as possible. The problem-solving mind plans for us to get from here to there as quickly as possible, never mind that we don’t have the faintest idea about where ‘here’ is, what ‘there’ looks like, and what role time plays in it all. Both ‘here’ and ‘there’ are misconstrued in black-and-white terms: ‘Here’ is deficient and ‘there’ is fulfillment. In addition, we expect that getting from here to there should not take more than a few weeks.
The psychological mechanism creating these entanglements is compartmentalization and dissociation, both preventing a holistic view of who we are in the present moment. Sun without shadow is not possible, very much like pain here cannot exist without joy here, and joy there cannot exist without pain there. The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, but where you water it. The promised land we are all so desperately looking for is therefore not at the end of our journey somewhere else at another time – particularly since there is no end to the journey. It is the learned and trained capacity to embrace the full catastrophe of our existence in the present moment with equanimity and elegant flexibility. It is enjoying the peace and contentment of ceaselessly noticing improvement. It requires relinquishing the sanitized doctrines and disembodied ideas of the dissociative mind and reconnecting with our emotions, our body, and the world around us in an act of radical embodiment, so as to turn sterile intellectual ideas of perfection into the complex visions of messy creative potential. That all takes time and patience, a lot of time and patience – the thousand-year journey.
At the beginning of the mindful journey, this ideal of where we are supposed to end up is like a mirage. It recedes in proportion to our advances, never to be reached. Eventually, as we get closer and closer to realizing what we are looking for, the mirage disappears completely, only to leave us with the endless trail snaking through eternity around us. For a moment we may be despaired and lost, because the closer we seem to get to the ideal, the farther away we find we are from it because the ideal is just a disembodied idea, a thought, and not liberation itself. The idea of liberation is just a fantasy not to be worried about, except for learning to realize that only complete embodied presence with the fullness of perfectly imperfect reality can afford us the freedom we so desperately yearn for. The full embodiment of a previously disembodied idea turns it into a vision we can manifest moment-by-moment in our daily lives. Then, not only the ideal disappears, but the perceived trail itself dissolves and we discover that the path is not linear at all but meandering sloppily in all directions like the many arms of a river delta. We grow in all directions, and eternity is touching us from all directions until we can finally satisfy ourselves that once and for all, and for all eternity, becoming has no origin, no final goal, and no destination. We never arrive – that is the mystery of timelessness.
The practice of noticing improvement is the simplest and most ordinary of all possible states of being, and therefore so extraordinarily rare and coveted. The subtle internal work we do is intimately connected to others, and we cannot hide our internal world without affecting others. How we regulate our own energy and information flow directly affects others and vice versa. The resonance circuitry of the brain responsible for our dependence on relationships is exquisitely sensitive; there is not much leeway – ‘only 2 days, and then everybody notices’. Our practice needs to occur not only with our fellow humans in mind but in the field of all our relationships. Relationships and their harmony are at the core of spiritual awakening because our brain is a relational organ, wired for relationships. As Buddha already knew, one of the three refuges in our practice we can find safety is the sangha, the community of people on the path to awakening. The journey to a better place is in reality the story of a deeper and more refined settling into the web of relatedness that already exists in the present moment.
Casals’ statement is hauntingly beautiful. Old, at the end of his life, he continues to improve, unknowingly celebrating how neuroplasticity in the brain persists throughout our lifetime and never stops. You are perfect as you are, and there is room for improvement according to Buddhists. Your perfection is the manner of your becoming. Room for improvement is the infinite potential for ever deeper acceptance, clarity, simplicity, and love in every moment of becoming. The goal of this journey of liberation is the becoming, the journey itself. That sounds almost trite, as I am sure you have heard and intellectually absorbed that a million times. What should intrigue us here that makes the difference between intellectual understanding and being-as-lived experience, is how to realize what becoming is all about.
You are already becoming (and disappearing) moment-by-moment. Nature does that for you without your consent. You are form arising with the main trajectory already laid out. You become as a life form, not as a rock; you become a human being, not a lizard; and you become with a temperament and certain proclivities, not as a tabula rasa. You already are a river flowing, coming and going, and you cannot push the river. For better or for worse, as humans, we have the brain and mind capacity to interfere with becoming. You have the capacity over a lifetime to strongly influence the shape, size, and direction of the riverbed by regulating the river’s flow. But you cannot stop it or push it uphill without negative consequences. Because we can regulate the flow, and because we usually use only a small fraction of our brain’s capacity (the problem-solving mind) to regulate, we can regulate really badly, so badly that we end up dysregulating. We can regulate so badly as to push the river and not notice that we are involved in such hopeless nonsense. Then chaos and rigidity arise, and we get sick.
Realizing how the journey is the goal is not as simple as it may sound. That is the reason why the world teems with spiritual teachers who tell you how there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, and how liberation is right here, right now, already there for you to enjoy, yet most just don’t see it; and why the world also teems with students who compartmentalize and own all imperfection while projecting all perfection on the teacher! How simple that sounds – do nothing, let go, and you are already enlightened, already free. It is indeed simple once you get it. But getting to the point of getting it (if there even is such a thing as a journey to a point to be gotten!) is the challenge or the art, requiring intense and long training.
For the most part, we must acknowledge that everything worthwhile, including wisdom, requires hard work and mind training. There is an art, a challenge to this business of freedom from suffering with effortless effort. It is patiently learning the necessary technique of training the mind. We have to become proficient in how we use our mindfulness tools to undo conditioned compartmentalizations, dissociations, and resistances without pushing whole parts of who we are into the darkness of unconsciousness. That makes it possible for the organism to freely access its inherent wisdom and move towards integration, instead of continuing to create more suffering and eventually decompensation, overwhelm, and resignation.
We have to develop the ability to recognize and then connect all parts of what we are as human organisms into a harmoniously functioning whole, connecting the intellect with the heart, the guts, other human beings, and our environment. This does not come easily because, by virtue of our innate negativity bias and the reflex of wanting to get rid of pain, we are biologically wired to condition ourselves with all kinds of bad habits. While running away from an attacking tiger is a good idea, doing the same psychologically with an internally imagined aggressive tiger is a very bad idea. As the river inexorably flows, we naturally tend to diminish our capacity for skillful regulation and create suffering. We spontaneously and unwittingly tend to create chaos and rigidity in our lives. This natural and spontaneous capacity to create suffering can, fortunately, be met with an equally natural, but not usually spontaneously available capacity to decrease and eliminate suffering. To make it spontaneously available requires a certain attentional training of a very particular sort, called mindfulness training.
Here is the good news: The very engagement in that training is the prize! Enlightenment or liberation is the very real and embodied experience of relief that comes when we have decided to actively get involved in the integration of all our parts into a more harmonious whole, with no end in sight. There is no finish line to this endeavor, except maybe to say that we have arrived at the moment the mirage of the perfect place dissolves and we can peacefully settle in life’s imperfections; the moment the necessity to engage on this path has become so clear, so obvious to us that we never question it again and we become eternal students of existence. That is the laundry after ecstasy; enlightenment means to stop worrying about enlightenment as you go about the business of the laundry. Aren’t you enjoying clean clothes after your laundry, knowing that they soon will be dirty again? What more do you want than looking forward to the potential of ongoing laundries?
To be a student in that fashion does not end up in a degree, but on the contrary entails the fascinating journey of unknowing, knowing that there is no end to wisdom; knowing that there is always more after we get anything and that every time we get something, we are challenged to let it go and transform into something new, into what comes next in the flow of the river. What relief to drop into the space of the eternal student who knows there is no end to being a student and no land of Cockaigne to chase after. What a soothing experience it is to know that on this eternal path of study we have a chance, every moment of our lives, to integrate a bit more, to follow the river’s flow with a bit more ease, a bit more clarity, a bit more stability, a bit more depth, and a bit more love – that is mastery, and that is surrender instead of resignation! In every moment of our lives, we have this incredible opportunity to lovingly embrace imperfection and with delight notice improvement. But we have to actively take the opportunity, and it takes attention and effort to do so. Once the opportunity is taken, it takes learning effortlessness to bring the opportunity to flourish.
Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.