Too many people tongue lash themselves for not being able to induce a complete state of cognitive arrest. To sit on the meditation cushion and try to achieve a state of perfect thoughtlessness is to try to become unnaturally good.
Meditation practice is about recognizing the vastness of who you actually are. In practice, we see just how spacious our true life really is.
In this vastness, we do not have to react to everything that pops up—it is the ego that reacts to every little thing. It is the ego that is uncomfortable in its own skin. It is the ego that gets pissy about the fact that we have not yet achieved the un-natural state of nobody-ness. It is the ego that sits around bitching about how we are not perfect, and when we realize that we have been sitting there beating ourselves up, it is the ego that gives us a hard time for giving ourselves a hard time.
The conscious mind has broken the intuition of being up into dozens of pieces. These fragments all have competing agendas. These competing agendas transform the natural stream of consciousness into a never-ending war and our minds are the battlefield.
How do we work with this condition in an effective and constructive way?
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Meditation is really a practical and loving approach to this state of division and unrest—the egoic mind.
In practice, we see first hand that we do not have to react to the fact that we react to everything that pops up. The mind drifts off in thought or goes off on a self-defeating tangent, just return to the simplicity of the breath. In this simplicity we learn that we can be comfortable with the ego flopping around in space. We can see it pitching a fit and just let it do that without reacting, responding, or suppressing.
We can just let the ego be an ego.
We do this by returning to the basic sensation of the breath. Returning to the breath is not an arbitrary adjustment. It represents a drastic change in the way that we relate to ourselves. We are letting go of our re-activity.
This re-activity only intensifies the situation. Reprimanding ourselves for thinking too much is like trying put a fire out with gasoline. Not only are we thinking about not thinking, which fills every gap with yet another thought, we are adding an emotional charge to the fire by infusing our thoughts with aggression.
Before long our head feels like it is going to explode, and we walk away from the cushion dominated by the self-defeating idea that meditation is not for me.
It is our re-activity that constitutes the presence of ego. Essentially, the ego is a fear based reaction to our true Self. In the Buddhist tradition it is commonly said that there is no solid, independently existing self. In practical experience, we could say that who or what we are is empty, impermanent, or open.
Sensitivity is a basic condition of human nature, and the ego is a paranoid reaction to this innate vulnerability. It wants to close down. Beating yourself up because the conceptual mind is constantly trying to withdraw from the immediacy of direct experience is like getting upset with a dog for barking—that is what dogs and egos do!
In fact, based on the principle of bad attention is better than no attention at all, it is the ego that beats itself up for barking. It is a vicious cycle. Where can we go for refuge?
Turn your attention towards the body. This is your refuge. Allow the breath to guide your awareness into the body—feel the coolness of the inhalation; feel the chest and abdomen expand with the in-breath; feel the stomach and chest contract as you exhale; feel the warmth of the exhalation.
The breath is trying to awaken you to the body. There you will find the stillness you crave. The body is perfectly silent and always available. The breath will teach you to look past thought, not silence it. The heart is always meditating. It never stops and you can sit with it whenever you like—in the car, at work, home, school, or in an argument. If we see this, then we will notice that there is always enough room. True freedom, freedom from self is always available.
This roomy-ness is the basic message.