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Mindful : December 2017
Am I Doing This Right? Here’s the latest installment in our ongoing series of helpful answers to common meditator questions. Is it really natural to meditate? I doubt our cave-dwelling ancestors stopped to sit in silence with their eyes closed. Why do we think this is a normal thing to do? You’re absolutely right: Our ancestors were way too busy hunting and gathering to bliss out in meditation. But then again, isn’t that the point? They lived literally hand to mouth, always looking over the horizon for the next predator or inspecting the flora for the plant that could make them deathly ill. We are the descendants of anxious, hyper-alert survivalists. This means, of course, that we come by our tendency to be worried, ruminative, and cautious naturally, through no fault of our own. But just because we have inherited high-alert brains that see threat and danger in every email, downtick in the market, and obnoxious driver on the freeway, it doesn’t mean we are power- less over these old tendencies. We now know that the brain is highly train- able and changeable. Through repeated activ- ities like meditation, compassion cultivation, and practicing gratitude and appreciation, we can rewire our brains in the direction of more adaptive behavior. We can train our formerly cave-dwelling brains to be more open and receptive, and less reactive and suspicious, and that helps us man- age the “survival” demands of modern life. That said, it’s also valuable to consider some of the benefits of the more basic existence enjoyed by our ancient, and even our more recent, ancestors. Nowadays, with every con- venience at our fingertips or a short ride in the car away, we can lose touch with our bodies through underuse, and live in our heads. Enter meditation, which can also be a way to help get back in touch with this big old thing that our modern-day brains are carrying around. I keep waiting for some big insight or “ truth” to be revealed in meditation, but I get nothing. What am I doing wrong? You may have gotten off track in your practice if you have somehow confused clear, steady presence with transformative insights and profound realizations. This is not to say that sometimes these heady phenomena don’t arise in the course of practice and life, but what the deeply experienced meditators say is that they only arise when you let go of trying to capture or pro- duce them intentionally. In many ways, our meditation practice is about peeling away the layers of our habitual way of seeing and interacting with the world, so that what is true and right and closest to our nature can emerge naturally of its own accord. Trying hard to find the insight that will make it all come together to the sound of a trumpet fanfare will generally lead to frustra- tion. It actually distracts us from being right here. As the trite but nonethe- less helpful saying goes, “A watched pot never boils.” The same is true of medi- tative epiphanies. The best way of getting somewhere in meditation, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said many times, is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all. Illustrations by Susan Haejin Lee PRACTICES | the mindful faq 40 mindful December 2017