- It’s a bit chilly, I’d better close the window / put on a sweater.
- Darn, I forgot to turn off my cell phone.
- Better get a glass of water in case I get thirsty.
- That other hand position might be more comfortable.
- What a great idea! (Where’s my pen?)
Sitting down to meditate is an invitation to re-initiate the cycle of samsara again and again. Our situation is never quite right at any given moment; there is always a little something we could do to improve it. We are engaged in an endless, bootless quest to perfect our external circumstances, rather than relax and really get to know what’s in front of us right now; and meditation can be just one more arena in which to play out that scenario.
Lama Norlha Rinpoche told me shortly before three-year retreat began, “If you follow the first thought, the second thought is inevitable.”
That brings us to a good working definition of meditation: being aware of every thought and impulse that enters our mind, but declining to follow or act on it. From this process we learn something very useful that we can apply throughout our daily life: every thought and impulse fades away automatically if left to its own devices. (How I wish I could remember that all the time!)
So…if you feel a little chilly, what will happen if you don’t get up and put on a sweater? If it’s a minor discomfort, you may find that chilliness is a fleeting feeling; it might disappear, it might come and go; if you put on a sweater, you might even be too hot and have to take it off again! This applies to most feelings of minor discomfort or dissatisfaction that arise in meditation, or in daily life; it’s amazing how many things will take care of themselves, at least in the short term, if you just let go of the thought. (Caution: in cases of significant or persistent physical discomfort or pain, no need to risk illness or injury…go ahead and fix it. Just use the little things to practice on.)
What about that cell phone—if it rings, will the disturbance invalidate your meditation? My own experience suggests that, on the contrary, the ringing phone may bring you back from a reverie and remind you to go back to your scheduled meditation already in progress. When I lived near a busy street corner in Brooklyn circa 1980, my meditation schedule seemed to be coordinated with that of a regular passerby who, every morning, would stop and linger on that very corner with his boom box (a 1980s word for a very large audiotape player). At first it was annoying, but after awhile I realized that the boom box, which always caught me unawares, was the very reminder I needed—every day—to apply myself to meditation instead of my habitual daydreaming or planning. (I’m not suggesting you leave your cell phone on on purpose…just that it may not be worth getting up to turn it off if you forgot.)
As for the great idea: that’s one of my personal favorites. The solution to a problem, an idea for an article or project, something you absolutely must not forget at the grocery store…meditation provides just the environment for bringing such treasures to the surface. It becomes a bit less compelling when I ask myself, what use will it be when I am grief-stricken, disabled, or dying? Sticking with my meditation will develop inner resources to help me at those times—long after I’ve forgotten whether I had all the ingredients for tomorrow’s dinner.