I’ve been working on my meditation practice during the pandemic and have made strides in strengthening and maintaining my approach to this core practice of mindful (or, depending on your perspective, “mindless”) stillness.
If you drive, think of the last time you took your car to the garage, maybe for some tyres, a service or a repair. Let’s imagine you’re gonna wait while they do the work. Many garages around the world have a coffee machine and TV in the waiting area, for patrons to sit and keep themselves occupied whilst the important maintenance work on their car is undertaken. Ordinarily this is tuned to a news channel or perhaps to generic daytime TV – nothing too engrossing, not part 7 of a 10-part drama series, just enough to keep people’s attention until they’re “released”. Actually some of the time I feel this is just there to distract patrons from the somewhat disconcerting antics of the mechanics. Either way, in 45 minutes, an hour, two hours, the work is done and the patron pays and leaves.
Meditation is somewhat like this, in my estimation. In meditation we may focus on a mantra, or on the state of “simply being” beneath the ground of thoughts. When we do so for a while, we begin to notice our minds or lives run more smoothly. I’m beginning to understand that meditation is like the TV in the garage – it’s there to give our brains something to focus on whilst the important maintenance work is undertaken, unseen, behind us.
When your car runs smoothly, you almost don’t notice it. When something is not right with it, it can be obvious (“Oh wow, what’s that squeaking noise?”), but it is sometimes the case we think the car is running fine until we take it for some maintenance and drive it again – we realise, suddenly, it wasn’t right at all. It took the maintenance work for us to experience how smooth the car feels to drive when it’s in perfect working order, free from a rubbing this, a loose that, a worn-down the other. Meditation is also like this. You don’t know how much better you’ll feel if you take the time to maintain your mind – you probably don’t even realise your mind needs maintenance! But once you start to maintain the mind, or rather, invite it to maintain itself through that still concentration, that focus on the TV in the corner of the waiting room, you soon get to drive away on a smoother set of wheels.
Think of your dreams. Each night your unconscious mind takes your experiences, thoughts, feelings, fears and ideas from the days, weeks, months before and does, well, SOMETHING with them. I don’t want to speculate on what it does, but we know that depriving people of dreamful sleep for long enough causes mental disorders. Clearly, the business of dreaming is doing SOMETHING positive in terms of maintaining our brains, and we are certainly not (for the most part) conscious whilst it does so. Meditation is in a sense, the same thing as done by our conscious, awake mind. We decide (a conscious, awake process) to go into maintenance mode. We do so by visiting the garage, sitting down in the waiting room, and watching the TV.
Each day we dream, but we don’t think “damn, better dream!”. We instead think “I’m tired; better sleep”. Dreaming is a positive byproduct of sleep. Feeling “better”, less stressed, more aware, calmer, “ourselves again”, is a byproduct of meditation. Unfortunately for us, we don’t have a corresponding “I’m tired” for a need to meditate. Many will go through life without ever truly meditating, certainly not deliberately, in a way none go without sleep. Some cultures make meditative practice of some kind a core component of how one lives – it would be rare indeed to be raised as a Buddhist monk without feeling the need or urge to meditate! – but for those of us in the West, we don’t have this drive to meditate. We have to develop it ourselves.
Take the time to visit the garage in your conscious mind. Sit down, calmly, while invisible mechanics undertake the maintenance work on your mind. Focus if you like on the TV in the corner, time will go quicker and the work will seem less tiresome. When you’re done, drive away and notice how much smoother it all feels, how much more together, how “right” in a way you didn’t realise was possible.