I’m currently reading The Mind Illuminated and I’m really glad I picked it up. It’s given me inspiration to talk about things I otherwise wouldn’t have had the right words for. It’s drawn my attention to a structure and algorithm of meditation that I previously didn’t know much on, and I’d really recommend it to everyone who wants to earnestly work on their meditation.
Today, it got me thinking about the idea that one cannot meditate. I hear people say this a lot, and having been a little Buddhist fledging for a few years now, it’s something I always saw as a jokey way of saying ‘I’m not a great meditator,’ but I started realising that this was a genuine view – that meditation is something you either can or cannot do. The thing is, that’s not true.
In the book, it takes you through the ten stages of meditation, and that’s why I feel it’s great for everyone. Specifically, it points out that the first three stages are all about learning to be a meditator. I feel that when people say they can’t meditate, they’re assuming that a clear, blank mindset is an automatic given. Truth is, it’s actually one of the very final stages of adept meditation.
The Mind Illuminated puts it like this:
- Stage One – regular practice
- Stage Two – focusing on breath
- Stage Three – developing focus
When you begin your journey with meditation, your first lesson is devoting to a regular practice. In contingency with that is focusing on the breathing and not mind wandering. I often use the little phrase, “arise and cease.” After those, it is then to develop that focus until sleepiness and mind wandering become less and less habitual.
But, the thing is, I think that when we say we can’t meditate, it’s because we’ve viewed these all wrong. You don’t learn these things overnight, they are journeys within meditation itself and you won’t automatically have them. In fact, just as the book pointed out, you may fluctuate between different stages because life events may set you back, or some days you may accomplish more. But, point is, they are accomplishments.
I’m a terrible meditator, I rarely do it and I rarely do it in a focused manner, and that’s why I wanted to look into this book. Upon starting it, I finally realised why other people consider their lack of focus to be a sign of not being able to meditate: misunderstanding.
Some people have this view that meditation is clearing the mind and sitting uncomfortably for hours on end in silence. It certainly can be, but it doesn’t have to be. [Side Note: Other forms of meditation also exist, like walking meditation.]
When you sit down for ten minutes every evening, you are training yourself in stage one. The next step is to focus on breathing. Keep getting distracted? That’s okay, because the entire point of step two is to notice you’re getting distracted, refocus, and continue! This is exactly why we say “arise and cease!” When you go through this cycle of wandering and refocusing, appreciating the moment you notice you have wandered, you are training yourself in stage two. You are meditating. As time goes on, as you continue to develop your regular practice, you will notice your mind doesn’t get as distracted. That’s stage three. That’s meditation.
Like I said, I’m a bad meditator. I can sit for roughly 15 minutes and have a distraction every other second sometimes, but the fact I see the distraction and replace it with a focus on my breath means that I am doing it. I may not be reaching enlightenment any time soon, but I’m still doing it. And even with all those distracting moments, I eventually feel calm and focused afterwards. Because I’ve still succeeded!
Meditation isn’t the act of having a quiet mind, it is the act of being conscious and present. When you make the choice to sit and be so, to realign yourself when you are not, you are meditating just as intended.
And it’s not a race. Don’t force yourself to excel, because that isn’t meditative. Some days, it’s easier than others. That’s okay. Just focus on the task at present, on that breathing, and you’re already doing it.