Forming bad habits is hard work.
“Training” has many meanings—and our experience with training has a much longer history in our lives than we might realize. We can get physical training at a gym or yoga studio, professional training in a school, and training of the mind at a meditation center. But in a wider sense, we have also been training our body and mind just by living our life. When we were first taught to say “good morning” and “good night,” when we went to a childhood friend’s birthday party and someone suggested we take along a gift, when we went to our grandmother’s funeral and first experienced human grief—all these experiences were shaping our heart, our mind, our life. Since we were not born speaking a particular language or knowing the customs of our culture, these things are acquired knowledge, abilities we gain through learning and training. I still have vivid memories from my childhood of my mother’s and aunts’ wails of grief after my uncle was killed suddenly in a head-on automobile collision. It left a strong impression: this is how we mourn our dead.
In this wider sense, our entire life has been training. The question is: training in what? This question means: training in which direction? If we train ourselves to reach for a snack or pick up the phone to text-message whenever we feel frightened or bored, this is definitely training. The next time we feel uncomfortable we will also tend to reach for some comfort outside ourselves, eventually establishing a deeply ingrained habit, another brick in the wall of our mental prison. Are we training in how to distract ourselves from inner discomfort or anxiety? Are we training in numbing ourselves in the face of fear, or training in waking up? Training in opening the heart, or training in shutting down?
When we first sit down to meditate— and later when we return to the cushion—we can immediately recognize that we are not starting with a clean slate. If we’ve fallen in love, then the glow of passion and romance will deliciously perfume our meditation experience. If we’ve had a particularly stressful week at work, then our Saturday morning meditation session may have some of the irritating flavor of recent conflicts and disagreements. We may find ourselves replaying difficult conversations repeatedly—in a tape loop of irritation. A friend who worked as an accountant once told me that his discursive thoughts in meditation during tax season were often exclamations in numbers: “534! 63,000! 10, 10, 10!” Whatever the previous day, week, month, year, decade have brought—it is immediately clear that our minds are already in motion, already have movement and momentum in a particular direction before we sit down. Our experience when we sit down to meditate—whether we’ve been sitting for 30 minutes or 30 years—will often reflect our previous physical and mental “training.”
In other words, the wildness of mind that we experience when we sit quietly noticing our body and breathing for five minutes is the result of everything we’ve been doing before those five minutes. Frequently we discover that our minds do not rest in radiant contentment for the entire meditation session. Why not? Because we have been training for years in desiring, reaching, grasping, getting, and then wanting more, and then, of course, more—all reinforcing the underlying feeling that this moment is not enough. This pervasive feeling of something lacking, something missing (“not enough, not enough, when can I get something else, something different, something better?”) is itself a powerfully motivating force. This is what we notice when we simply sit quietly with ourselves for even a few moments: we experience the accumulated momentum of mental noise, booming and buzzing. We notice how strongly we are trained to want something different from what is happening. We notice that our minds are very well trained in dissatisfaction and distraction. Almost always our focus is on something else—not this. We seek another moment of greater happiness— not this moment. Contentment seems always elsewhere—never here. ▼
From Natural Wakefulness, © 2009 by Gaylon Ferguson. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, shambhala.com.
Image © Michael S. Wertz