Goals are important tools, but in meditation, they can get in the way.
People have lots of goals for their meditation.
In her dharma talk for the Upaya Institute on the perfection of meditation Sokaku Kathy Fisher listed some of them.
>>> To create new, healthy habits of mind.
>>> To see things in a new way.
>>> To become open to surprise and delight.
>>> To develop gratefulness for the unexpected.
>>> To seek a vacation from a hectic, harried, frenzied life
>>> To reduce stress.
>>> For the beauty and adventure of the meditation itself.
>>> To become more mindful; and
>>>> To develop the capacity to stay in the present.
When I started to meditate over 20 years ago, it was to address the lifelong depression I’d been struggling with.
“You cannot have a goal for your meditation,” my meditation teacher had said. “You must not ask anything of meditation. When you stop asking, it will give you what you need.”
“Wanting to cure depression is a goal?” I challenged her in one of our private talks.
“Having a goal of any sort is a distraction,” she answered.
I hated that “D” word. It seemed to me that for my teacher, everything was a distraction.
I struggled with the concept of “meditating for its own sake.” How do you have no goals in meditation? How do you have no goals period? Goals are important. We need them to get through the day.
Then, toward end of the 10-day retreat I was on, something happened.
It was the last period of meditation for the day. My cushion on the floor was one place removed from the retreat master’s cushion and out of the corner of my eye I could see her hand move the second before she picked up the bell and rang it to alert us to the end of our 25-minute session. I heard the first bell and dimly anticipated the second bell which indicated that the period was over and that we were free to get up and leave the meditation hall.
By the end of the day, after eight sessions of sitting, it was always an enormous relief to let the internal witness who had so diligently kept vigil over my mind for the previous 10 hours have a rest.
On this particular night however when the retreat master rang the second bell, I didn’t move to get up. I heard the bell ring, but it was as if it rang somewhere outside of my awareness.
Someone usually moves immediately or bows immediately upon hearing the second bell followed by others who move and begin their bows more slowly. But without looking around I could tell that even though I thought the second bell had rung—nobody was moving.
The room remained as silent and still as if the bell hadn’t rung. We all stayed right where we were. Rooted to our cushions.
In her Dharma talk, Fischer offered a beautiful explanation for what had happened that night 20-some years ago during my meditation retreat.
“In meditation we would like to find ease. When we practice with ease the practice over time becomes …like a tone that is always present in, under and behind our field of consciousness.”
Fisher said that, like my own meditation teacher had told me at the time, if we sit in meditation in ease—without goals—the meditative state will come to us. We won’t have to go out and grab it.
Fischer also suggested “immersion” as a way to let go of meditation with a goal.
“Immersion conjures an image of letting go, of falling or of allowing falling. When you’re sitting you can call up an image of falling leaves, of falling snow, falling petals or falling water and you can sit under these things falling softly over you, so softly you can just barely feel them…and you can allow whatever hinders you to fall away of its own weight.”
She was saying that meditation hadn’t “cured” that which was hindering me—my depression—but that when I stopped practicing with a goal in mind, my depression had fallen away of its own weight.
Looking back on that night, that night in which something inside me wouldn’t let me get up from my cushion and go to bed, I experienced what Fisher was talking about.
I felt my meditation around me “like falling leaves, or falling snow, or falling petals or falling water”—and it was as if I could sit under those things falling softly over me, so softly, that I could just barely feel them—until dawn.
That feeling of immersion still comes over me from time to time—when I am cutting an onion for dinner or when I am listening to a symphony or when I am looking out the window at the mountains.
It happens like a “tone that is following me.”
It is a soft moment followed by quietude and peace in which I experience the falling away of everything that hinders me.
It is the gift that my meditation teacher had spoken to me about. “When you stop asking something of your meditation,” she had said. “Meditation will give you what you need.”
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Benjamin Balazs/Flickr