The act of moving houses always reveals to us how much stuff we actually own. It is invariably more than we thought.
Once we move to a new place, we rid ourselves of the clutter and enjoy a spacious and roomy house, until we fill the new house with more stuff and the cycle continues.
A silent meditation retreat is analogous to moving houses in many ways. When we sit down for several hours with our thoughts, its contents are emptied in front of us. We then realize how much junk we actually store within our minds. We are then free to discard what doesn’t serve us. And like an uncluttered house, our mind is able to function better.
Then we return to our normal lives, which gradually clutters up our mind once again.
Its hard work to move houses – to let go of what we hold dear and move on. But this challenge also presents the opportunity to be mindful of what we buy, thereby interrupting this cycle of accumulation and purging.
It’s hard to get through a meditation retreat. But the experience makes us mindful of what we pay attention to.
A walking meditation can be a revealing exercise.
The practice is to walk very slowly and pay deliberate attention to the 3 parts involved – lifting our leg, moving it forward and placing it back on the ground. Lift, move, place. Lift, move, place.
On doing this, I realized how everytime we lift our legs, we are actually unbalanced. When we place our foot down, we regain our balance. Walking, then, is the process of falling into the next step – a continually process of losing and regaining one’s balance. If this is hard to believe, try standing on one foot for a while.
We are all exceptionally good at walking, but not at paying undivided attention. Yet focusing the mind involves the same process – of momentarily losing one’s focus and regaining it.
Studies have examined the minds of long-time meditators who can maintain intense focus. They found that their minds are also prone to wandering. The key difference here is that they have trained their minds to regain focus as soon as it wanders away – much like we regain our balance with every step.
Walking and paying attention are both dynamic acts of continual recovery.
On a sandy beach,
A gentle wave
Engulfs it slowly
Again and again
To the vast expanse
Wither it comes.
When you sit down
To observe the waves
They turn deliberate,
Slow and deep,
Until thought takes hold.
The surf splashes on
As it always did.
A storm approaches
The waves grow
In size, fury,
Lashing the shore
Only to subside
To an innocent calm.
Ebbing and flowing,
The waves change
Slowly as nature
But surely as time
Year after year
To dampen into
We all know that our physical capabilities can be fundamentally expanded.
Despite being physically mature, we know that we can, through physical training, we can further our physical capabilities. Several adults lose tens of kilograms, learn to swim, train hard and manage to compete in triathlons well into their middle age. Our physical capabilities aren’t fixed – they can be expanded through physical training, and our culture celebrates the people who achieve this.
However, when it comes to our minds, we believe that once we are grown up, there is little scope for fundamental change. We believe children’s minds to be malleable, capable of learning new languages and being trained in wonderful new ways. Yet, we believe our own minds to be hardened and incapable of much change. There is no equivalent in the mental realm, of an unfit person finishing a marathon. There are no cheering crowds at the finish line either. Therefore, even when we realize that our minds are flawed in certain ways, we believe that we just have to live with those flaws.
Yet, there are ways to train our mind and fundamentally rewire our brains, just as we can reconstitute our body. Meditation is the tried and tested practice of training our minds, thereby enabling them to accomplish feats that we once thought were impossible.
Physical exercise, which is now universal, was once reserved only for a small percentage of the population. A time will come when a practice of meditation, which is now rare, will be nearly universal.