Training the Mind for Realization

When I was first establishing my meditation practice and studying Buddhism at the Shambhala Center of New York, I remember telling a teacher that it was hard for me not to berate myself for realizing that my attention had wandered, that it was actually getting in the way of returning my attention to the breath. His response was I might instead try being grateful I had noticed.

Of course, like most of the pithy tidbits of wisdom encountered in Buddhism, this shift from blame to grace is easier said than done. However, as is also often the case, the longer I’ve lived with my teacher’s advice, the longer I’ve spent on the cushion, the more comfortable I’ve become with this moment of noticing I’ve been in a trance, and I’ve been able to watch that familiar judgment materialize only to dissolve into nothing. And with each passing year, I appreciate the profundity of what it might mean to make this shift more generally, to “make friends with yourself” (to borrow Chögyam Trunpa’s famous words) both on and off the cushion. After all, the time spent cultivating mindfulness in a meditation practice should be laying a foundation for a more awake existence as we stand up and immerse ourselves in the chaos of our daily lives. Ideally, realizing that our attention has wandered is training for all sorts of realizations.

Often it’s pleasant: sometimes realizing my attention has wandered leads to seeing the beauty of the sunlight streaming in my window with fresh eyes; sometimes it leads to refocusing on the task at hand with new energy. Other times it’s soul-destroying: sometimes realizing my attention has wandered leads to seeing how blissfully ignorant I’ve been of the misfortune of someone right in front of me; sometimes it leads to understanding how impossibly far I am from the person I would like to be. It’s really difficult, being grateful for all realizations equally, and I hasten to say that I don’t manage it much of the time. But something that has made a difference for me more recently has actually been a realization about realizations.

When you think about it, aren’t realizations in and of themselves kind of amazing? Isn’t it a bit mind-blowing that humans are capable of synthesizing both the external stimulus of the world and the internal chatter of their minds’ constant commentary into a moment of insight that helps us understand our existence in a completely different way? Isn’t that something to be grateful for, even when the insights make us uncomfortable or sad? While I’ve certainly felt homesick for the security I felt pre-realization many a time, I would never wish to “un-know” any insight. Even at their most painful, I’m noticing more and more how hard won these little glimpses at truth are, how much tenacity and resilience is required, how long they take to incubate, and perhaps most affecting, how mysteriously beautiful they are compared to the long-winded, contrived stories I spin denying their truth.

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