If You Don't Enjoy the Practice, You Won't be Successful in Meditation

2019-08-31

Recently I've been making pretty good progress with my meditation.

I've been using a book called The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa which was recommended to me by a crypto investor called Chris Burniske on Twitter.

Initially I was taken by the book because I'd noticed how calm and eloquent Chris was on a podcast. He was on the What Bitcoin Did podcast and was being assaulted by the maximalist presenter. I was struck because he was able to hold his own incredibly well, and maintained this elongated calm as he spoke. I didn't realise he was a meditator at that point but once he said he'd done a couple Vipassana retreats, it all clicked into place.

I started reading the book in March and went fairly deep.

I like the book because it's much more practical than any other meditation I've heard to date. Not just practical, in fact, but quite technical. Which makes sense to me because meditation is a technique. Whilst Vipassana instruction is very practical, it doesn't provide that much guidance with regards to the specifics of how to avoid mind-wandering, but this book by Culadasa really does. For example, I've really enjoyed that it dedicates an entire first chapter to creating a daily practice. And another important section to shifting your attention from time to time between the breath, the external world and the mind. This is extremely effective but I'd never been taught it before.

One of the parts of the book which has really made an impact on me in the past few days is the idea of 'looking for the joy', and how completely essential I've realised this is to making progress.

The gist of the idea is this. At any given time the mind is scanning for whatever will bring it the most immediate satisfaction – be it positive or negative. It's just looking for a strong signal. That could be a loud noise going on outside the window. It could be the work you need to do later today, or the memory of a painful conversation you had with a loved one a few months ago.

This scanning mechanism makes your mind extremely fragile to distraction during meditation. And this is basically the battle in the early stages of being a meditator — trying to get some kind of stability such that your mind naturally rests on the meditation object, be it the breath or something else.

What I learned from the book which is so interesting is that you can radically accelerate the process of stabilising your mind by consciously looking for positive, pleasant experiences and events. You gotta accentuate the positive.

To the Vipassana meditator or otherwise general Buddhist, they may be a little wary of this, because it sounds an awful lot like craving. But it is subtly different as this is not seeking for positive experiences, it's just recognising them and highlighting them to yourself when they happen.

In the book, the author suggests that the reason for doing this is because it is an antidote to impatience. He says that impatience is a destructive mental state which often leads to a decline in practice quality and often to giving up.

I think this has happened to me many times before. I've meditated for weeks on end but got this vague sense that I'm not really making progress, and naturally just stopped doing it.

In fact, I think this has happened to me with lots and lots of different things. Martial arts, various projects, learning Italian — loads of stuff. So it feels really powerful to me to try to understand it and make it work in the context of meditation, hoping that it'll spread out to other spheres of my life.

So, concretely, what does he suggest doing whilst meditation?

The best way to avoid or resolve impatience is to enjoy your practice. While this isn't always easy, a good start is to consistently focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of your meditation.

He goes on to suggest that you—

  • notice when the body is relaxed and comfortable
  • notice when the mind is focused and alert
  • savour a fleeting sensation of physical pleasure and the satisfaction of following the breath for a full cycle

He also notes that you should look for these things actively, even when they're not strong feelings or seem unimportant. Naturally as you focus on them, they increase in strength.

As I say I've been doing this for 2 or 3 days and I think my meditation has seen some pretty incredibly improvements in that time. Radically more stability. The kind of stability that I'd only see after a few days of meditating on a Vipassana retreat.

And what's more, it is getting to the point where the whole thing doesn't feel like a huge effort anymore. There were moments when I came to feel like the whole thing was really quite enjoyable.

It's early days but I'm pretty optimistic about how this small thing might change my practice and unlock much deeper sessions.

I'm also quite optimistic about what other things I might be able to apply it to. With work, for example, I tend to not be able to work nonstop for very long periods — I can typically go for a couple of hours and then really need a break, particularly if it's work I don't like. Maybe I can begin to use this technique to become more productive and limit the energy overhead of working?

Maybe I can apply it to running, which I similarly get tired of after a few weeks of intense practice. Looking for positive sensations as I run rather than focusing on the pain. Similarly it could work for language learning, yoga, etc etc.

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