Thursday, December 31, 2009

Doing what you love

Choose an activity you especially enjoy. Maybe it’s dancing or cooking or painting or making love or simply playing with your kids. Next time you engage in the activity, give yourself to it wholeheartedly. Don’t hold back or conserve your energy in any way. You might experiment with losing yourself completely in the activity, the way children do. Don’t keep looking at your watch or wondering how you’re doing; just do it without reservation — until you and the activity seem to merge and become one. How do you know when to stop? Do you suddenly find yourself disengaging? Or do you reach a natural stopping point when you intuitively know it’s time? And how do you feel when you’re done? Do you feel drained and tired? Or do you feel energized and excited? Think of this exercise the next time you sit down to meditate.

Giving your energy 100 percent

There’s a secret “law of energy” that applies just as well to meditation as it does to sports — and to life in general: The more you expend, the more you get back in return. You can be stingy about your energy, parceling it out from one activity to the next as though you have just so much to give and no more. But if you love something and give yourself to it wholeheartedly, you may notice that the energy just feeds on itself and keeps growing and growing. In the NBA finals one year, Michael Jordan was suffering from an intestinal flu so severe that he needed fluid IVs and could barely stand. Yet, carried aloft by his own dedication (what he called “heart”) and fueled by an energy that seemed drawn from a source far vaster than his own exhausted body, he suited up for his team and scored 38 points. Jordan embodied the quality of wholeheartedness.
In meditation, too, the more wholeheartedly you practice, the more you tap
into a seemingly limitless energy source. It’s as though the flame inside your

Restraining yourself, both on and off the cushion

Broadly speaking, self-restraint is the quality of mind that keeps you from acting on every impulse or desire that flits through your brain and that helps you discriminate between behavior that’s useful and supportive and behavior that’s unsupportive or even harmful. If you’re an athlete, you need selfrestraint to prevent you from eating junk food or staying out late when you’re training for a big competition. If you’re a meditator, self-restraint can function on several different levels:
  • Before meditation: You may choose to eat well and in moderation or avoid mind-altering substances such as tobacco or caffeine because you want to keep your mind clear and fresh for your meditation.
  • During meditation: You can use self-restraint to keep pulling your mind back from its habitual fantasies and preoccupations to the object of your meditation, be it your breath or a mantra or some other focus. Be careful, however, not to confuse self-restraint with repression, avoidance, or judgment. You don’t need to criticize yourself for wandering off, nor do you want to push certain “undesirable” thoughts or feelings out of your mind. Instead, just welcome whatever arises, while gently returning your focus to the object of your meditation.After meditation: As your practice deepens and strengthens, you build a certain power or energy of mind — in the East they call it samadhi. You can blow off this energy by daydreaming or planning or obsessing — or you can use self-restraint to channel your energy back into your practice of being mindful from moment to moment.
Like self-discipline, self-restraint has a bad rap in our culture. After all, aren’t you supposed to say what you think and do what feels right? But what feels right in the moment may not be the same as what feels right in the long run —and self-restraint is the faculty that helps you distinguish between the two. For example, you may be tempted to charge those plane tickets to Hawaii because it feels right, but you may have different feelings altogether when you get your credit card statement. In the same way, it may feel great to spend your meditation indulging in fantasy — until you start wondering in a month or two why you still can’t count your breaths from one to ten. Above all, though, remember to be gentle with yourself!

If you don’t dig sports, try gardening

Although meditating has a lot in common with practicing and playing a sport, for some folks, meditating may be more akin to gardening. After you plant the seeds, you don’t try to force the seedlings out of the ground, do you? You just water and fertilize, thin and water some more, and eventually the little shoots appear on their own, coaxed into the light by some complex and mysterious mixture of chemistry, genetics, phototropism, and who knows what else.
The point is, you don’t have to know — you just have to do your part and get out of the way! If you get carried away and overwater or disturb the ground prematurely, you only interfere with the process.
In the same way, you need to exert just the right amount of consistent effort in your meditation —don’t overwater or keep scratching the ground searching for signs of progress, but don’t go away for a week and leave your plot unattended, either. Do what you need to do without fixating on the results, and your garden will blossom quite naturally, all by itself.