Noticing Agendas in Meditation

As we become more familiar with meditation, we might think we know how practice should unfold. We can begin to carry hidden agendas into our practice. One such agenda is that the mind needs to be in a certain state in order to meditate. There might be a belief such as “good meditation has a certain clarity or precision.”  Such a belief might be based on familiarity with some of the states that come with meditation.   
On one retreat, after doing walking meditation, I was headed towards my room for sitting practice and noticed the mind trying to create a state without thought in order to put itself into a meditative state. Noticing that, immediately there was a recognition: “What is wrong with this state?  Why not be mindful of this?!”  And I discovered I had already become effortlessly mindful as I was aware of the experience.  Recognizing this easeful mindfulness was enough; nothin more had to happen.

Sometimes we associate mindfulness with directing the attention, believing that if we can’t choose an object for our meditation, there is a problem. Difficulty choosing an experience to attend to can happen when the mind is in a low energy or dull state, when it might feel like a real struggle to direct the attention. 

On another retreat, my mind was in a very low energy state. I was aware of the low energy, yet was still trying to direct attention to particular aspects of experience. It was a struggle. At some point, I recognized a natural awareness of sounds and sights was present without any attempt  to “do” it. Without choosing what to pay attention to, a very easy mindfulness was already happening. 

At times, we may believe that “I’m too dull, or too sleepy, or too restless to meditate.”  It may be hard to direct the attention to a particular object when the mind is in these states, yet perhaps it is possible to be aware of restlessness or dullness itself. 

A familiar analogy describes mindfulness being like a mirror that reflects experience. In the analogy, the reflecting power of the mirror is not changed by what it reflects, does not depend on what it reflects. Similarly, the quality of mindfulness is not changed by what it is mindful of, does not depend on what it is mindful of. To carry the analogy one step further, think about that mirror in a room full of steam. When we look in the mirror to try to see ourselves, the image is fuzzy and obscured because of steam on the mirror. We might take a towel to clean the mirror so it can do its job—or more accurately, so the mirror can fulfill our agenda for it!  The mirror is actually doing its job perfectly: it’s reflecting every drop of water on its surface. It’s just not doing the job that we want it to do, not reflecting what we want it to reflect. Similarly in certain states of mind, whether dullness or restlessness, mindfulness may not be meeting the experience that we would like it to meet, yet can still meet the experience of dullness or restlessness itself.

Another agenda around practice can be related to the way mindfulness and attention work together to explore our experience. There are so many different ways that these two work together, but perhaps we limit ourselves to familiar ways of being mindful. We might have an agenda that we need to keep the attention steady on one object. That is one way for the mind to attend to experience, but mindfulness and attention can also be felt as a steady flow from one experience to another. Or, it is possible that the attention might feel jumpy: it picks up on one experience, and then another experience bursts in. Attention and mindfulness can be panoramic and broad, taking in a wide range of experience, or microscopic and narrow, taking in a specific experience.  

In certain states of meditation we might feel separated from an experience, as if we are looking at it from a distance, and in that separation there can be a sense of balance and freedom, of not being bound up in the experience. As a result of experiencing this balance, we might try to create a similar sense of separation, associating it with the sense of balance, and as a result believing “separation from experience is what meditation is supposed to feel like!” Yet there are times when the mind is balanced and attentive, and we don’t feel separated from the experience; we can feel that we are right inside of the experience. Our assumptions and agendas about what “good” practice is might keep us from recognizing a new way of being with experience. 

Sometimes we can choose how mindfulness and attention are working, and sometimes we can’t. If there is struggle with the practice itself, and you have a sense that “I can’t meditate with this; I must be doing this wrong,” it might be interesting to recognize that an agenda or belief is functioning in the moment. If you are consciously aware of those agendas or beliefs, you probably have enough awareness to be mindful, in a simple way, of whatever is already happening! There might be the possibility of simply being with what is already unfolding, as it is.