Meditation, Life, and the Good Sit

(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This is the second entry of a twice-monthly blog exploring daily life in the silence, and how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).

I have my first good sit today…Take one.

I’m nine days into the silence, and this morning for the first time since arriving I have a long meditation sit that I would describe as “beautiful.” 

I am alone in my small dorm room, perched on my meditation cushion, unmoving, eyes closed, alert, relaxed. In keeping with this style of meditation, I notice thoughts, feelings, and sensations come and go without chasing the narrative behind them. This morning, a wave of deep peace floods through me. It lasts a long time and leaves the residual of an exquisite, calm afterglow. In my heart, mind, and body, this calm registers as truth.

This peace doesn’t feel like an ordinary emotional state, but rather as if something transcendent or holy has been ushered in. The conviction arises that peace is indeed my true nature, our true nature, and this awareness infuses my inner world like a gentle perfume.

Shanti. Shanti. Peace. Peace. I invoke these words, or they simply arise and echo like a spontaneous mantra – slow, rhythmic, rich with meaning. Each repetition is like rediscovering some ancient human secret that I already know, have always known. This is so easy!  Forget the farcical theatre of personality, the three-ring circus of the small mind. Now, I can see through all that.

I have my first good sit today…Take two.

Boy, there’s a recipe for disaster.

In a practice that aspires towards equanimity, towards moving beyond the deeply conditioned habit of grasping for the pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant, what could it possibly mean to have a “good sit”?

Fundamental to Buddhism is a tenet whose surface simplicity belies a radical core: Lasting happiness does not come from orienting ourselves towards what we desire, or eschewing what we dislike. This path, so automatic and seemingly natural to us, instead paradoxically keeps us encoiled in loops of suffering. Micro-steering our lives to maximize the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant unwittingly keeps us in prison, with “desire” the underground jailer decked out in ordinary street clothes.

Mindfulness – the most ubiquitous tool in the Buddhist toolbox – is a practice of meeting everything in life — good, bad, happy, sad, easy, difficult — with as much equanimity as possible. It’s not about learning to privilege the pleasant. This we already know how to do.

So, “a good sit” – what does this mean? It means, of course, that I liked it. Loved it. It felt great.  Finally, this is meditation! Transcendent calm, peace that defies understanding – how cool is that? Lucky me!

As good as it feels, I need to remind myself: it’s not, ultimately, why I practice.

What makes a “good sit”? Is it the one awash in beatific calm, or the one in which I remain open-hearted and mindful, even if assailed by physical discomfort, difficult emotion, or unwanted circumstance? Which is better training for life off the cushion?

Getting hooked on the practice of meditation itself is a common trap — perhaps, ironically, especially for those of us who devote long hours to it. This is because after gaining some mastery over the initial annoyances and difficulties, meditation can feel lovely, even rapturous. Meditating leads to peace. Meditating leads to bliss. Meditating gets you high.

This needn’t be a problem. When learning to play piano there are crucial skills to develop – scales, arpeggios, finger exercises, bass riffs. These practices allow for richer music. They can, of course, be musical in their own right – but if it stopped there, then what of the sonata, the jazz improvisation, the wordless transportation of a haunting melody?

So, too, with meditation, or any spiritual practice. Formal practice can be an end in itself, delightful and musical. But when it is only about sitting cross-legged on a cushion, or striking the right yoga pose, or chanting the perfect note, it misses the essence. Formal practice is the scale or arpeggio; life, anarchic and unpredictable, glorious and haunting, is the sonata.

So I am left with the dilemma of a sit, my first in a long while, bathed in exquisite peace. It offers sure evidence that my mind is quieting. But the temptation to regard this as special would be misguided. Deep calm, ecstasy, bliss – each can be a decoy, easily mistaken for the final destination. Yet each is just another way station, not the terminus. Any conviction that I have “arrived” belies a deeper knowing that all perceived arrivals are false; this journey continues inexorably on.

But wow, that peace? It sure felt good…

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