Day 6 Meditation
Two of the forces that we’re looking to cultivate in our practice are tranquility and energy, also known as calmness and alertness, or relaxation and investigation. Regardless of the meditation method, we work to bring these elements together so we can practice with balance and ease. This can be as practical as understanding how to cultivate alertness in a sleepy sitting or learning ways to settle when we’re too energized.
Experimenting with how we apply a meditation technique can offer insight into the rest of our life as well. So often we are simply focused on the task at hand without taking much time to consider the way we are approaching the work. Striking a balance of calmness and alertness often makes whatever we are doing more sustainable, more effective, and more enjoyable – whether it’s in our formal sitting, having dinner with family, or at work.
Especially at the beginning of a meditation period, as you enter into stillness, you may feel as if you have two voices in your head. One says, Nothing’s happening here, might as well sleep and the other says Nothing’s happening here, let’s make something happen. Either you can’t keep your eyes open, or you’re wired, your mind flooded with ideas and plans. Both conditions can be quite instructive, and both are also temporary.
Question & Answer
Q: When I meditate, I’m very antsy. Then I start beating myself up for it, which just makes my restlessness worse. What can I do?
A: Restlessness is the flip side of drowsiness, a signal that our system is out of balance because of a tranquility deficit. A student once asked me, “Has anyone ever died of restlessness?” I told her, “Not from just one moment at a time of it.” And luckily, that’s how everything happens—one moment at a time. If your restlessness is taking you away from following your breath, make the restlessness the temporary object of your meditation. The first thing to do is look for what you’re adding on to the restless feeling—those secondary thoughts like, I shouldn’t be feeling this. This is no good. I’m so out of control. Everyone else is in control. I’m the only one who isn’t. If only I were stronger (more patient, smarter, kinder), I wouldn’t feel this way. When you’re in high-energy mode, it’s easy to go off on a judgment jag. Instead of chastising yourself, try observing the physical sensations that accompany these thoughts and the emotions that arise; notice them and name them. Perhaps restlessness is composed of frustration, boredom, fear, annoyance.
Welcome back. Two of the forces that we’re cultivating in meditation practice are tranquility and energy, calmness and alertness, relaxation and investigation. In any method of meditation, we work to bring these together, to bring them into balance.
So it’s said that from the beginning, this is reflected in our posture. If you’re sitting, you want to have your back straight without being stiff or tense, which would be too much energy. You also don’t wanna be slumped over so that you’re nearly bound to fall asleep. You want to be upright, not have too much tranquility or relaxation. So we sit straight without being tense, and here too you can close your eyes or not, and center your attention on the feeling of the normal, natural breath. Notice the play of energy or interest on the one side and calmness or relaxation on the other.
How are you with the breath? Are you way far back without really caring what it feels like? Mentally come forward a little bit. Feel the actual sensations of the nostrils, of the chest, or of the abdomen. Do you have sort of a death grip on the breath, thinking, “If I hold on really tight, “my mind won’t wander,” when it fact, it will actually wander more? Then maybe you need to relax a little bit. If you can feel yourself in the place in the middle with tranquility and alertness, you’ll see how just one breath is tremendously fulfilling. We’re not overriding it. We’re not shrinking back from it. Rather, we’re meeting it completely.
Sometimes in my own practice, I use this image of holding something very fragile, very precious, like a piece of sculpture made of glass in my hand. If I were to grab it too tightly, it would shatter and break, but if I were to get lazy or negligent and my hand would fall open, it would fall off and break. So I just cradle it. I’m in touch with it. I cherish it, and so too we are with each breath. We don’t wanna grab it too tightly, nor be too loose, too energized, or too relaxed. We meet this moment, and we meet this breath. We cherish it one breath at a time. If you find yourself getting way far back or disinterested, mentally, energetically come forward. If you’re too far forward, too tense, trying too hard, settle back. Let the breath come to you. If you feel you need to adjust the balance. Don’t worry about it. You needn’t question yourself. Am I too tight? Am I too loose? But let your intuition arise. Then come back to the place in the middle. It’s just one breath.
If you have too little energy, you’ll get sleepy, sluggish, dull. You can sit up a little straighter. If your eyes have been closed, you can open them. Maybe take a few deep breaths to allow the sensation to be more intense, and then once again allow the breath to become natural. Aim your tension toward just one breath. It’s the whole universe. Nothing else matters. If you have too much energy, you’ll feel restless, agitated, worried. If that happens, see if you can feel the sensations of one breath, as though your hands were in water and you felt the water swirling around, all the different sensations. So too with your mind, your attention, you can feel the sensations of the breath that will soothe you and ground the energy. You can feel just one breath.
And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes and relax. See what a greater sense of coming into balance feels like in your day.