Meditation can be thought of as the art of awakening. Through the mastering of this art we can learn new ways to approach our difficulties and bring wisdom and joy alive in our life. By meditation’s tools and practices, we can awaken the best of our spiritual human capacities. The key to this art is the steadiness of our attention. When the fullness of our attention is cultivated together with a grateful and tender heart, our spiritual life will naturally grow.
Some healing of mind and body must take place for many of us, before we can sit quietly and concentrate. A basic level of attention is needed to begin our healing, to begin understanding ourselves. To deepen our practice further, we must choose a way to develop our attention systematically and give ourselves to it quite fully. To learn to concentrate we must choose a prayer or meditation and choose to practice with commitment and steadiness. This practice instills a willingness to work with our quiet time day after day, no matter what arises. This is not easy. Many people would like their spiritual life to show immediate and cosmic results, much like flipping the remote to a television or changing an app on our phones. But what great art is ever learned quickly? Any deep training and knowingness develops in direct proportion to how much we put into it…. meaning we reap what we sow.
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Think about this for a moment. Have you every tried to learn a musical instrument? I have recently picked up my flute again that I used to play in my junior high school days. How long will it take to play well again? In my early years, it took months of lessons once a week, practicing every day. I remember struggling to learn which fingers go for which notes and how to read basic lines of music. After some weeks or months, I could play simple tunes, and perhaps after a year or two I could play a chosen type of music. But to master the art, to be a part of the orchestra, I had to give myself to this discipline over and over, time and again. So if we want to learn something fully, to be the master of it, we would have to give ourselves to it wholeheartedly over a long period of time—training, an apprenticeship, a cultivation.
Nothing less is required in the spiritual arts including yoga and meditation. Perhaps even more is asked. Yet through this mastery we master our lives and ourselves. We learn the most human art, how to connect with our truest self. Geshe Michael Roach, author of The Diamond Cutter, calls spiritual practice manual labor. It is a labor of love in which we bring a wholehearted attention to our own situation over and over again. In all sorts of weather, we steady and deepen our prayer, meditation, and discipline, learning how to see with honesty and compassion, how to let go, how to love more deeply.
Whether a practice calls for visualization, question, prayer, sacred words, or simple meditation on feelings or breath, it always involves the steadying and conscious return, again and again, to some focus. As we learn to do this with a deeper and fuller attention, it is like learning to steady a boat in waters that have waves. Repeating our meditation, we relax and sink into the moment, deeply connecting with what is present. We let ourselves settle into a spiritual ground; we train ourselves to come back to this moment. This is a patient process. St. Francis de Sales said, “What we need is a cup of understanding, a barrel of love, and an ocean of patience.”
For some, this task of coming back a thousand or ten thousand times in meditation may seem boring or even of questionable importance. But how many times have we gone away from the reality of our life? —Perhaps a million times! If we wish to awaken, we have to find our way back here with our full being, our full attention.
St. Francis de Sales also said: “Bring yourself back to the point quite gently. And even if you do nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back a thousand times, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”
In this way, meditation is very much like training a new puppy. It takes awhile, with several attempts, to use the hand signal of down and say, “Stay” for the puppy to understand what to do. Does the puppy listen all the time? It gets up and runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. “Stay.” And the puppy runs away over and over again. Sometimes the puppy jumps up, runs over, and pees in the corner or makes some other mess. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they create even bigger messes. In training the mind, or the puppy, we have to start over and over again. When you undertake a spiritual discipline, frustration comes with the territory. Nothing in our culture or our schooling has taught us to steady and calm our attention. One psychologist has called us a society of attention spastics. Finding it difficult to concentrate, many people respond by forcing their attention on their breath or mantra or prayer with tense irritation and self-judgment. Is this the way you would train a puppy? Does it really help to beat it? Concentration is never a matter of force or coercion. You simply pick up the puppy again and return to reconnect with the here and now.
Check back next week for more on the art of meditation.
J. Renée DeTar earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wichita State University in communicative disorders and sciences and liberal studies. She is the founder and director of Yoga Teacher Training of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Yoga Studies, a subsidiary of ReneeYoga since 1991. She offers yoga teacher trainings and spiritual events in Kansas City, MO. She has two children, David and Jamie, and lives with her significant other, David Schafer in north central Missouri on a sustainable farm.
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