After many years of periodically trying meditation, it finally clicked for me the other day. Pema Chodron, my meditation instructor (who doesn’t yet know that she’s my meditation instructor) was retelling a story her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, told her. He said life is like a series of big waves that come crashing in and knock you down, over and over again. Each time you get up, a face full of sand, mouth and nose full of water, and another one hits you. She waited for him to say something like, “and after a while, it gets better,” but he didn’t. Disheartened, she asked, “is that all there is?” And he responded, “well, maybe after a while, the waves seem smaller.”
In basic Buddhist meditation practice, the instruction is that you sit, eyes open, and observe your breath. If your mind wanders, you should bring your mind gently back to your breath.
When you actually sit down to practice, though, your mind is buffeted like those strong waves in Chogyam Trungpa’s story. You worry about your next deadline. You relive an annoying conversation you had that morning. You pine away for your upcoming vacation, or date, or raise, or meal. You suffer from the worry, from the regret, and from the attachment to some hope for a better tomorrow or some memory of a better yesterday (in either case, an aversion to your present circumstances). All these vivid mental worlds buffet you like the waves. They pull you away into anger, frustration, envy, disappointment, regret. Or they can pull you into desire and disgust. The waves batter you and fill your face with sand.
You learn from the buffeting how to deal with the buffeting. You learn from life, from making mistakes, from successes, from getting too low and falling into sadness, from getting too high and losing your mind to exuberance. But learning from life comes with stakes – physical injury, losing money, damaging relationships with anger. Why not learn how to handle it when the stakes are lower, when you’re just grappling with the distractions of your mind? Why not practice? That’s what meditation is: practice. When you sit regularly, it’s even called meditation practice.
I’ve been practicing for about two months, not quite daily, for just five minutes each time, and I can say that the waves already seem quite a bit smaller.