Straightening Out



Have you ever closed your eyes during a meditation session intent on following the breath, only to open them some time later to find your body in a wildly different, even uncomfortable posture? Have you tried to keep loose and upright, only to find you are fighting against a seemingly inescapable tendency to drift into slouching and contortion? What could be the cause, what the reason why, when we stop paying attention to the body to focus on our meditation object we end up finishing our meditation session with aches and pains from an unbalanced posture?

Look closely as you begin meditating. The process is very subtle, and it starts almost immediately. You sit, you assess the state of your mind, you start focusing on the breath and – There! You tensed up against something. “Okay,” you say, “I’ll let it go.” But in no long time more micromovements start pulling the posture out of alignment, and you’re leaning forward or back or to the side. “What is this??” you say to yourself. “Who is in control here?”

If we watch closely, we might start to discern this process is for the most part totally involuntary. It happens when we shift to pay attention to our meditation object, but it’s not that action itself that brings this process about. We might start to discern, if we watch closely enough, that it’s not just the activity. It’s how we are using our mind.

How do we enter the meditation? What are we expecting to be doing? What are we trying to get? Is there anything we are trying to avoid or get rid of? You can stop and ask yourself these questions, and there’s no wrong answer. This is why we sit, why we practice. Maybe we want to feel more ease, or cut out the tendency to get distracted. Maybe we want to have less stress. Maybe we just want to be ‘Ten Percent Happier’. These motivations are not just ideas, they are the direction, the driving force of the mind. They have no power by themselves, but our views and intentions are what produce and marshal the resources of the mind towards our goals.

Yet how we hold these goals, and the amount of driving force behind our views, may be the very thing causing tension and twisting us ever so slightly off course. Because if there is desire in the mind, even if it is the desire to be free of desire, we will inevitably generate a measure of stress around our approach. No matter our goal, if we are going to move towards it in a calm and balanced way, our view will have to be one that conduces to peace.

As it turns out, the ability to maintain ease and equipoise in our meditation is governed by the First Noble Truth – “There is Dukkha.” Watching ourselves in meditation, we may see that all our shifts in posture are not random but conditioned responses. Namely they are a response, a completely involuntary one, to Vedana or Feeling. A pleasant feeling arises and we incline towards it; a painful feeling arises and we tense up. A neutral feeling arises and we more or less ignore it in our search for something more exciting. But simply knowing this fact doesn’t liberate us from the underlying tendencies, because if our mind is of the view of trying to get something from meditation then by the time feeling arises it is already poised to react, like a coiled spring ready to be released.

What is the way out? We start with view. “There is Dukkha” is a bit of a riddle for most practitioners, but it represents a view that when held doesn’t generate stress. It is simply to be understood – pain or difficulty is a reliable fact of life. It’s there in almost every experience, even if just in the subtle way that pleasant feelings never last but inevitably fade. We can start meditation by recognizing this fact and breathing a sigh of relief. There’s nothing wrong with us or wrong with the experience we are having right now. Everything is exactly as it should be. The pleasurable feelings are normal, the painful feelings are normal, the neutral feelings are normal. Craving, however, is not normal, and by not generating it for some experience in meditation, we don’t generate any momentum towards moving towards or away from our experiences. The spring never gets coiled, and thus doesn’t go anywhere when released.

How we come to realize the first noble truth is different for all meditators, but it’s worth applying our minds to it early in each sitting. Right before we turn the mind towards the breath we can ask, “Am I trying to get something?” If so, we can pause and reflect. “Will that make me happy? Will that make me happier than if I let that energy of wanting go?” Little by little this reflection will start to sink into the mind. We’ll start to let go of the tendency to seek happiness outside ourselves. We’ll start to sit with a sense of looseness and ease, letting go of everything that comes up because we know that clinging or straining will only compound our problems. We stop trying to get something out of the meditation and instead appreciate what’s there already. When pain inevitably arises, we don’t tense but instead acknowledge it with wisdom. Sometimes we’ll even find ourselves welcoming it as a vivid experience to help us focus our minds. And when ease arises – and it will, because we’ve started with an easeful frame of mind – we will be fully able to appreciate it, knowing that it is just passing through.

With this, our view will start to straighten out. And, curiously, so will our bodies.

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