Maintaining Practice (written 2002)
Children need to see immediately the consequences of their actions. If you explain that running across the road without looking was very dangerous and they should never do that again, you’re likely to be told something like “But I’m ok.” There was no negative consequent, other than the lecture you are now providing, and so it is difficult for them to imagine the possibly nasty outcomes you describe. By the same token, an ice cream cone now is better than saving the fifty cents to put towards the new dinosaur playset they’ve been wanting.
To some degree we never outgrow this. Our ability to pursue longterm goals with no immediate payoff does generally grow with maturity but at least a little of the child who wants things now is always there.
This is why keeping at something that is difficult can be such a monumental task. As adults we are likely to enact some version of the fox and the grapes when the going gets tough. We decide we haven’t got enough time, or that something else is more important, or that the goal is not desirable anyway. Often we don’t even see the chain of reasoning. Sometimes we do, but manage to shuffle it aside so as not to be embarrassed by its presence.
Sitting meditation is difficult in many ways. Despite the constant words of encouragement to continue, just to begin again, to practice. And despite the warnings of the obstacles that will arise, we’re not quite able to conjure up the experience until we’re in it. And the unease can be unpleasant. So aversion kicks in and we decide this isn’t for us after all.
I’ve been sitting in meditation practice for a number of years on a pretty much daily basis, times ranging anywhere from 10-15 minutes to an hour. Weekend retreats are the only more intensive practice I’ve had. This is not a lot when you think about those people who go into retreats for three years where sitting is their prime focus. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the lifetime practice of aged and wise teachers. But in my middle-aged, middle-class life, taking the time to sit each day is a commitment I consider pretty major. Yet, so very often the sitting itself is difficult. The worries and plans of the day intrude, other tasks beckon, household sounds and activities draw my attention and I hear the fox in the back of my head grumble “You’re not getting anywhere anyway. Why bother?”
It is the glimpses that lure me. Though they too can be obstacles when I find myself striving to repeat some former experience. The branch never shakes and a grape never falls when I try too hard.
What is difficult is learning just to be. To see the plans, to hear the noises, to acknowledge the tasks to be done, and then to go on sitting and breathing. The ladder I build with each breath puts mindfulness within my reach throughout the day. Sweeter by far than the fleeting taste of the grapes I thought I wanted.