When the men I volunteer with at the Essex County Corrections Facility begin meditation practice, many find it hard to relax. And many talk about having racing or oppressive thoughts that make it "impossible" to meditate. Yet, in a matter of weeks, those students who consistently apply the meditation instructions report a greater sense of peace and wellbeing. These students make fairly rapid gains because they use meditation throughout the day with the right effort, and with the right attitude.
Successful inmates use curiosity and intelligence to find ways to stay present that work. Some inmates find it difficult to focus on the breath, so they focus on other feelings in the body. Or they are attentive to sounds far and near. One inmate played a game in meditation. He talked about seeing his mind as a dog chasing thoughts. He simply called his dog back to the present each time it wandered away.
The inmates who stick with the practice discover that keeping awareness relaxed, open, interested and curious is right effort. And the willingness let go and always begin again is the right attitude.
Meditation, We're All the Same
Of course, as meditation students we all face the same kinds of challenges as the inmates. We have aches and pains in our bodies. We have traumatic memories, fears, hopes, and sometimes we have racing thoughts, just like the people I meditate with in jail.
For example, one of my most consistent students at Sweeping Heart Zen has been working with persistent physical tremors for over a year. These tremors send shakes through her body all day. The 'shaking' as she sometimes calls it, is bothersome, worrisome, and, understandably, deeply troubling at times. Yet, she sees her situation as workable and open, just as it is.
From the beginning, her doctors told her that the tremors are the result of anxiety and that, in time, they will pass on their own. So, with this in mind, my student has patiently observed the 'shaking' just as it is, in each session of meditation.
Yet recently, as a result of her own persistent observations, this student realized that, yes, she'd been observing the shakes in meditation, but she'd been tensing her body to try to still the shaking, too. So, rather than adding tension and stress, now she is exploring using walking meditation and Qigong as her physical support for meditation.
This is an example of right effort. We patiently and gently observe what's happening. We're not intense, but we are curious about what works now, and we jettison what's harmful or of little value now. We stay interested as we uncover what's beneficial. It's meditation as exploration.
This is the right attitude. We don't give up on ourselves in the face of difficulties. We discover that every moment is fresh and alive and that we can always begin again.
Another Perspective and Links
Without the right effort and attitude we get tired and grow frustrated. We might give up. Thich Nhat Hahn says,
I don’t want intensive practice, I want regular practice, diligent practice. There are those of us who practice very intensively for a few weeks and then after that abandon the practice. But there are those of us who practice regularly, not intensive but continuously, that will bring good results. That is why I prefer the word diligence.
Here's a link to this talk by Thich Nhat Hanh: stillwatersanghamn.wordpress.com/2014/09/09/right-diligence/
And a link to more posts on meditation at sweepingheartzen: sweepingheartzen.org/category/buddhist-practice/mindfulness/
Please join us for meditation at Sweeping Heart Zen anytime. Here's our calendar for July: sweepingheartzen.org/events/
Very best wishes,