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Submitted by Maya Rook on Thu, 6/7/2012, 1:14am
Twenty-three days left until dathün. I can feel my mind tempted to mildly freak out.
From one perspective I know it’s a bit silly to get anxious about going to a month-long meditation session. I mean, come on—I’ve done this before. It’s just four weeks of meditation. But from another perspective, I’ve done this before. What’s waiting for me this time on that cushion? Will my mind explode from a total immersion in meditation? Will I end up being known as "that girl" who both laughs and cries during every session? And how exactly am I going to wake up at 6 am every day?
These thoughts are all relatively pointless as there is no way of knowing what dathün will be like this time around (except for that 6 am wake up, I suppose). What I do know is that one of the worst ways to prepare for a dathün is to project all sorts of expectations, hopes, or fears onto it. So rather than actually freaking out I’m taking this preparatory time to strengthen my sitting practice, study the dharma, and reflect on my last experience at dathün.
Having a regular, disciplined practice has always been difficult for me. While in the shrine room I can be very focused, but once I break the habit of going to the cushion I struggle with returning. This tendency, of course, is not unique to me. Establishing a regular practice can be quite frustrating for many individuals. Meditation is not all fluffy rainbow sparkles (although sometimes your mind can take you there). It is truly amazing how many ways one can distract oneself. First one needs to get to the cushion, and then there’s the challenge to actually stay present while thoughts emerge ranging from beautiful fantasies to extreme self-doubt and criticism to nightmarish fears.
But there is one simple Buddhist phrase that sparks as a reminder when I find I have strayed: if you lose your mind, come back.
It really is that simple. Whether distracted during meditation or from one’s larger commitment to Buddhism, there are always choices. Always. Each moment is an opportunity to engage in the present moment, yet so often the mind wanders and rambles without focus. On the cushion a thought may arise and break one’s focus. The distraction can carry one away into a daydream and overtake the clarity that’s taken so much time and effort to cultivate. When I encounter such diversions I’m faced with an opportunity to respond: I can drift away on that dream, beat myself up for being distracted, or try to forcefully push the thoughts out of my mind to no avail.
Or I can come back, and just be present. Just because the mind might be lost momentarily doesn’t mean it is lost forever. Ultimately there’s nowhere to go to except back to the present moment.
I remember the first full day of my last dathün. I sat on a zabuton cushion in the shrine room of Karmê Chöling in my designated space—front row, all the way to the right. The shrine and timekeeper were in front of me, the rock garden to my right, and my fellow participants to the left and behind me. I settled into shamatha practice when out of the calmness of my mind crept an inkling of doubt: what are you doing here? You have a whole month of this left? How the hell are you going to do this? You are not going to get through it. Are you kidding me? How absurd!
Uneasiness and fear followed behind the doubt and they melded together to form a vicious attack on my attempt at a steady breath and radiant mind that was now slipping away in their presence.
And then something clicked. I simply acknowledged, yes, this month is not going to be particularly easy. I knew that coming in. I can make this time more difficult by punishing myself, spending the next four weeks doubting if I can do it or not. Or I can just do it. Because no matter what actually happens in this space, I am here.
I’d momentarily lost my mind—it wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. But I didn’t crumble into an emotional, self-doubting mess on the zabuton or run from the shrine room.
I took a breath. I came back. And I’ll keep coming back for more.
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