So many people have told me over the years that when life gets hard, sitting and meditating and being mindful is even harder. Yet it is precisely during times of stress, discomfort, disappointment and confusion that mindfulness can help us the most. Having worked with a few thousand people at this point, I have come to see patterns in the way people avoid practice. When I ask people why they couldn’t meditate, they say things like, “Oh, I wasn’t relaxed enough to meditate,” or, “I wasn’t feeling happy,” or, “I was too overwhelmed.” These statements all reveal a misconception about mindfulness: that we’re supposed to do it only under conducive conditions, when we feel like it.
But the point of mindfulness is not to feel good, or to relax, or to feel calm. It is to meet our lives exactly as they are in any moment. Let’s face it: life is messy. It doesn’t operate according to our plans and good intentions. Things happen. We experience pain, both physical and mental, as well as uncertainty, ambiguity, fear, loss, praise and blame. Many of the moments of our lives are not “conducive” to peace and relaxation. Yet the invitation of mindfulness is to find our way into any situation with greater presence, focus, kindness and wisdom. In order to do this we have to practice. We have to practice every day, even if for only ten minutes. If you are in a state of despair, sit with it for 10 minutes and see what happens. Even if you spend the entire 10 minutes rocking and moaning and seething, your relationship to your despair will begin to change if you sit with it enough.
Once some years ago I rented a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains for a solo retreat. My plan was to spend three days in silent meditation and then return to my life in San Francisco. I arrived at the cabin in the early afternoon, unpacked my things, set up my meditation space, made a cup of tea, and then, around 4 o’clock, sat on my bench for my first session of practice. Within a few minutes I began to feel a deep sadness somewhere beneath my ribs. Soon, tears began trickling down my cheeks. When my body started to shake with sobs, I knew that this was no ordinary sadness. I fell off my bench, sobbing uncontrollably, completely crushed and shattered. As the intense wave passed, I steadied myself and sat upright on my bench again. I continued to weep, and then another violent wave shook me and I fell off my bench again, on the floor, shattered anew. When that wave passed, I sat up again, re-established my posture, and continued my practice. It went on for an hour like this. I found that as each wave of grief subsided, I could re-establish my posture and the holding of the experience in my awareness. At the end of the hour, I got up from my bench, dried my cheeks, and assessed things. I felt good, cleaned out, whole, at peace. In that moment I knew that my retreat was over.
I spent the night in the cabin, and in the morning packed my things and returned 2 days early. My sobbing session on the bench wasn’t pretty, it certainly didn’t look like meditation – but my willingness to meet the messiness inside my own heart is what allowed me to come to a deeper clarity and understanding. Mindfulness, like life itself, takes many forms.