My meditation teacher, Sri Chinmoy, often said, “We can’t have a feast every day.” He was referring to meditation not food. Every day isn’t a banquet of delicious experiences. The ability to sit through the bland times, when nothing much seems to be happening, is an important discipline for every meditator to develop. You won’t succeed without it.
It is questionable how valuable vivid experiences actually are in meditation. Sometimes beginners have nice experiences, some that are quite blissful. These can be encouraging and inspire further practice, but they can also lead to harmful expectations. It is almost always the case that the peace and bliss of a new practice will fade. Then comes a period when nothing seems to be happening. This is not only normal; it is beneficial because it discourages immature expectations that would inevitably lead to future disappointment.
A Word of Warning – if your aim is to have lovely visions and be immersed in bliss 24 hours a day, you are headed for pain, not bliss. The real and lasting blessing of a meditation is the gradual development of a calm and clear inner being. This self-knowledge comes gradually, so have patience and don’t overburden your practice with foolish expectations.
A very great meditator, and one of the first truly modern mystics, was a man named, Vivekananda. He came to America from India intending to be a delegate to the 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions. Despite being uninvited, he quickly became the most popular speaker at the convention and later a national celebrity when he toured America. His appeal was lay not in his mysticism, but that he possessed all that is best of the human spirit. His books on spiritual yoga are classics and I highly recommend them.
Vivekananda insisted the aim of every yoga was ‘character.’ He might have said, ‘God Realization’ or ‘Enlightenment,’ but he chose the word ‘character.’ Perhaps it was because very few attain these highest goals in meditation, but everyone who engages in the practice sincerely moves toward them alone the path improving character. But what is this ‘character?’ It is who we ultimately are and it possesses the strength of being that allows our wisdom and compassion to come forward and reveal itself to the world. Wisdom comes with peace of mind and mental clarity. Compassion comes with the stabilization of our emotional life. This opens the heart to love and gives rise to a natural feeling of oneness with our fellow human beings. If character is the aim of your meditation practice, your practice will be well grounded and you won’t be seduced into a constant hunt for blissful experiences. Instead, you will find the true basis for a happy and meaningful life.
These are the times when our mediation is limp and there seems to be no inner movement. This is an appropriate topic for me to write about because, I am in the midst of my own doldrum, right now. The pandemic has eliminated several of my external activities. Initially, I didn’t mind. It resulted in more time for meditation and I just shifted gears, so to speak. That initial burst of inspiration has now faded, but I am not discouraged because I’ve experienced this many times in my nearly half century of practice. I now recognize it as a necessary part of the practice. I know from experience that, if I faithfully continue to practice through the winter of this discontent, new inspirations will eventually come. “Beneath the bitter snow, lies the seed that in the springtime, with the sun’s love, becomes the rose,” as the song goes.
I realize, however, that for those enduring their first winter of practice, there may be some anxiety about that seed, so I want to offer you some helpful ‘dos and don’ts,’ the most important being to keep faith in yourself and to remain steadfast in your practice. If you do, the sun will indeed rise again and that sleeping rose will bloom forth when the time is right.
Things to Do and Things Not To Do
To Do: Keep at it. Every climb up or journey forward encounters resistance. Just push on, even if it seems hopeless. Hopelessness is a state of mind, not a reality. Perseverance wins in the end.
To Not Do: Don’t neglect your altar or meditation space. If you use flowers, don’t let them wilt and just droop. Keep everything fresh and in perfect order. Even if your sittings are dull, a clean bright space will keep your spirits up.
To Do: Increase your practice commitment. There is a well-known Zen saying, “Meditate twenty minutes a day, unless you’re too busy – then, meditate an hour a day.” This is good advice. To break through the doldrums, we sometimes have to double down on our effort. There’s no better time to up your game than when meeting resistance.
To Not Do: Don’t get discouraged and fall back into old habits. Remember why you took up the practice in the first place. Just remembering will keep you moving forward. Sliding backwards just doesn’t work. The past is always worse the second time around.
To Do: Get creative. If you can’t meditate, then chanting or singing inspiring songs is the next best thing. You can also read sacred or inspiring books. If done with good concentration, this can be almost as good as meditating. The important thing is to consciously spend time with your inner being. Whatever you do, maintain your standard, as if you were sitting in formal mediation.
To Do: Meditation, singing, chanting, reading – if you are too distracted to do these, then do walking meditation.
To Not Do: Spend a lot of time watching TV or cruising the Internet. These two activities will hinder your ability to meditate if indulged in to excess. There is something about being absorbed in electronic media that scatters our consciousness. If you don’t believe me, try meditating after an hour or two of TV or YouTube. Then, compare with your morning meditation done before you engaged with media. After engaging with media, take a walk or do something physical before sitting in meditation.
The Biggest ‘To Do’ of All: Keep faith in yourself. All difficulties pass. Just calmly and confidently observe your inner being, without anxiety or harsh judgement. Just have patience and persevere. All will be well.