Judging your practice:
(tip - don't!)
One of the earliest obstacles we have to overcome in meditation, is the temptation to judge our practice.
Some of you might have read the wonderful novels by Patrick O’Brian about Captain Aubrey and his close friend Stephen Maturin, who acted as physician aboard the ships that Aubrey commanded during the Napoleonic Wars.
The crew on Aubrey’s ships had a very clear idea of what real medicine should taste like and found swallowing something vile very reassuring. So, Dr Maturin quickly learnt to add something absolutely vile tasting to whatever medicine he prepared.
Even if the therapeutic benefits of a medicine were limited, its vileness was considered strong evidence of a physician who really knew his stuff and so did a great deal to raise morale.
Many of us come to meditation carrying ideas of how our practice should look and feel. And when our practice doesn’t appear as we think it should we can quickly begin judging, which is very bad for our morale.
One of the common myths about meditation is that good practice will whisk away the quirks of our character we don’t like and remove the life-issues we would rather not face. It’s quite understandable that we might bring such ideas to our practice initially. The covers of many meditation magazines seem to suggest that good practice looks like flawless skin, a blissed-out smile and a tendency to spend your spare time sitting in a full lotus posture in a beautiful meadow, surrounded by flowers and adoring, friendly animals.
But good practice and our gradual enlightenment doesn’t remove our life-issues or mean that we are never short-tempered. The enlightened person stills feel uncomfortable when they’ve eaten too much rich food, still feels pain when they stub their toe or even (!) says a word they may regret.
Meditation is like a medicine which brings insight and peace. But like all prayer, it’s healing processes take place at the deepest level of our being, out of sight, and escape our direct apprehension. Our healing and enlightenment happen in silence and we can make no judgement about it.
Each time we practice we commit ourselves in trusting openness to a future we cannot see or know. So, faith is essential. You might have noticed that when healing miracles happen in the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t say, “I healed you,” but “your faith has made you whole.” The evangelists tell us that Jesus was afraid that people would clutch hold of what they could see and feel and overlook what these signs point to — our infinite potential for realising our oneness with God and growing into God’s likeness as bearers of his love in the world. We cannot see or feel this potential but, somehow, we know it, because it is the truth of who we are.
A great many people when they first come to meditation find it a real challenge to let go of a particularly unhelpful picture of what good practice looks like: no thoughts, no distractedness. Despite hearing it said very clearly that meditation is not about not having thoughts, but changing our relationship with our thoughts, it’s common for someone to say after practice (and I suspect many more have the same thought), “I don’t think it went well. I had dozens of thoughts, one after another.” Then the conversation very often runs like this:
“So, you saw dozens of thoughts?” “Yes.”
“And each time you became aware that your attention had got caught up in these thoughts, you returned your attention to your practice?” “Yes.”
“So, you had dozens of moments of awareness?” “Yes.”
“Why do you think your meditation didn’t go well?”
This last question is usually greeted with a smile, because the penny has dropped.
People usually do perfectly well with their practice, right from the beginning. What our practice looks or feels like to us during our time of practice is not the point. The point of meditation is the whole of our life. This is where the gifts of our practice manifest.
Will there be signs of our practice going well? Yes, there will be, but it’s also very likely that others will notice the fruits of our practice before we do; that we are a little calmer, a little slower to react in certain ways, that we are a little more patient and loving. We won’t suddenly find ourselves having no troublesome thoughts to deal with.
Our gradual enlightenment is the long process of our integration into the pristine truth of who we are. God doesn’t want us to be something other than human (like a contemplative Marvel hero), but fully, radically human. What does the fully, radically human life look like? It looks like loving-kindness, solidarity, friendship.
All we need do is begin. And keep beginning. What we seek is closer to us than we are to ourselves and we have been given all we need for the journey. We do not need to worry. We do not need to struggle.
Meditation is a simple way of allowing God to make every aspect of our life more transparent to his Light, so we can become windows of that Light. The window doesn’t care what it feels. It’s content to be a window and let the Light come through.