The Dance of Meditation and Life

Musings on Meditation (VI)

This is the sixth in a series of posts on meditation. Read part I, part II, part III, part IV and part V.

Disclaimer: The world of meditation is vast and complex, just like you and me and all human beings. Different lineages, schools of thought, religions and traditions have different approaches. Feel free to to form your own opinions, get curious about what I say, disagree with me, and discover your own path. What follows is an expression of my own views, experience and learning.

This post is going to be the last in my series of musings on meditation, where I wrap up and draw together different threads and ideas from the previous five posts. Now that we have gone though the details, I want to put meditation into context: where it fits and what it’s for in the grand scheme of things. Depending on the instruction and teachings you’ve received, you have most likely internalised some idea of what the relationship of meditation and life is or should be. This relationship manifests in the kind of time and energy you devote to meditation practice, as well as the underlying meaning or purpose that you ascribe to meditation practice. Some traditions will advocate for orienting your whole life around meditation or spiritual practice, while others are more casual and hands-free in their approach. The wonderful thing is that you can pick and choose what works for you, what fits best in the shape of your life and your personality.

What I want to do here is explore some of the framing that has worked for me (as an ordinary young woman living in the modern world), and to give you an idea of the spectrum of possibilities available to you, so you can make the best choice for yourself. I have been part of traditions and approaches that start small and slowly build up until they occupy great big chunks of your life, time, energy and money (think retreats where you are meditating for 5, 6, 8 hours a day), and also part of approaches that are extremely minimal and subtle in how they fit into ordinary life (‘meditations in the moment’). From that experience, I have found that the framing that works best for me is that meditation is meant to serve life. It is part of life, part of the rhythm of human be-ing and do-ing that makes up life. Meditation is woven into the fabric of living, not something separate from ordinary life. It has a lingering effect, an aftertaste that bleeds into the activities of our daily life; and it is in turn touched and formed by our experiences and the feelings we have about them. The timing that works best for me is to meditate once or twice a day, for about 20 mins each time—but I decide this as I go, based on how I’m feeling and how much I’m longing to meditate. This is the rhythm that has spontaneously emerged from my current situation, and it will probably change in future.

Sometimes we subconsciously or even deliberately set up distinctions between meditation and life, and some of these are helpful. Other times we get caught in a trap where meditation starts to move further and further away from life, becoming more detached, more ‘transcendent’, something ‘other’. Like everything else, experience lies on a spectrum, and it is up to you to discern the appropriate balance of intimacy and detachment for you. I would, however, err on the side of intimacy and caution too much detachment, because the latter can leave you kind of spacey, literally out-of-touch, or feeling disinterested, averse to or uninvested in the matters of your daily life. This is both a bizarre and a sadly unhealthy approach to life, and it can be freaky when it goes too far. To be clear, there are painful consequences with intimacy too (like our old friends grief, heartbreak, jealousy), but the upside is that these are universal human experiences that you cannot get away from no matter what you do, and fortunately, we have a lot of tools and ways to work through them.

All in all, it is usually the case that meditation works better when it stays close to life. The precise degree of closeness varies, of course, from a total blend, to a gentle mixing, to resting side-by-side, or even a kind of orbit or dance with some space in between. The point is to not veer so far off-course with your meditation that you can’t find a way to (re)connect it to your life. Here is a visual progression of what I’m talking about:

The precise setup of this relationship is deeply individual, and varies over time. Sometimes meditation practice needs to be an oasis with clear separation from the desert of life, where we can go to get away and be ourselves, and then return to our life refreshed and energized. Other times our meditation practice will seamlessly flow into daily life, with no separation whatsoever—meditating while waiting for the bus, or taking care of the kids, or gardening. And yet other times you might have a semi-structured approach using specific timing, place, or tools, but with some flexibility and crossover between the two realms. The key thing to remember here is that after we meditate, we always come back to life. Whatever you do in your meditation, however you approach it, it exists to support its other half, which is life. So the question becomes: how can we establish a healthy and appropriate relationship between meditation and life, while at the same time maintaining a sense of natural-ness in our meditation practice? If you can find this balance for yourself, your meditation practice is set up to be a wonderful, nourishing and long-lasting journey.

10. Don’t forget your life

This is my last piece of advice towards creating a healthy meditation practice. The question we are trying to answer is: what is the place of meditation in your life? This is deeper than why you do it, but very much related. What meaning does it have for you, what is its significance? This is not usually something that you can state clearly from the start, but rather a felt sense or an inner knowing that evolves and develops over time with your practice. If you are part of a religious or spiritual tradition, it may offer a pre-existing framework that has a place for meditation or prayer, in which case you have a headstart. But you still need to find a way to make that framework a living, embodied experience in your situation, so that it endures and sustains you over time.

Coming back to my previous writing about the two paths, intimacy and detachment, we could say that for those on the path of detachment—primarily monks, nuns, sages, ascetics, etc.—their life is in the service of meditation, or whatever other spiritual practice they do. They have made vows and sacrifices to put the meditative and religious experience first, above all else. Thus everything they do is oriented around achieving certain states, or fulfilling certain practices within the religious or spiritual context they have chosen. On the other hand, for those on the path of intimacy—householders, also known as everybody else—meditation is in the service of life. We meditate to get closer to our daily lives, to live better, to be more aligned with who we are, to become intimate with our life force and with who or what we love, to express our inner essence in the world through action, etc.

I invite you to get clear on the meditation/life matter, because it will save you a lot of confusion down the line, when your life and your meditation start to dance (read: clash) with each other. Like all other things, there is a spectrum of experience and it is your choice how you relate meditation to life and vice versa. This could be related to how much time you spend meditating, or the kinds of meditation you do, or just how you think about meditation. My only advice would be don’t forget your ordinary life entirely, unless you’re planning to live the life of a renunciate. The upshot is that once you have understood how your meditation practice is in service to your life, when life happens, you won’t stress about it, and you can easily adapt your meditation to suit your needs at the time. The clash becomes a dance, even if it’s at high speed, like this:

And you can go along for the ride and even enjoy it as an adventure.

When you are not clear about the relationship between meditation and life, it’s more likely you’ll encounter problems. On one side: it becomes harder and harder to get yourself to meditate, something in you doesn’t want to do it any more, you can’t find a way to meditate that works for you, you think meditation is not for me, there’s something wrong with me and I can’t meditate, or the practice itself gets stale, if not thrown out completely. Of course there will be times when you don’t meditate, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, it’s perfectly normal and healthy to take a break from it sometimes, if that’s what you need. Past commitment need not override instincts, life circumstances or innate wisdom. It always comes back to the rhythm and the natural-ness of the practice for you, in this moment.

On the other hand, you could be getting obsessed with meditating, spending too much time meditating and not enough time living, judging your life by how it affects your meditation…and so on. Many long-time meditators report a sense of uncanny peace and detachment that unfortunately also entails being unable to touch and feel the richness, the passion and the deep emotions of life. This happened to me so I can vouch that it wasn’t much fun, and made my life feel dry and boring (though I only recognized it in hindsight, when contrasted to the fullness of my life and myself now). Again, the precise balance and proportions are up to you. I’m just laying out the spectrum so you can recognize where you are, where you might be heading, and course-correct if you need to.

Note that you don’t need to be constantly evaluating your practice. You will know how you feel when and after you do it, and if it isn’t satisfying you, change something. We all go through phases where we need a different doorway, a different timing or style, maybe a different place—just follow your desires and instincts and let your meditation flow easily.

To be honest, there’s not a lot more I can say on the matter, because that’s really it. Meditation is meant to serve life. It is a natural human activity that enhances our experience of living as embodied beings in this marvelous, ever-changing universe. Being a meditator is a way to give yourself more of what you need and less of what you don’t need, naturally and from within yourself. How you meditate is unique to you and your circumstances, and it is entirely within your prerogative to sculpt and carve your meditation practice to suit your desires, needs and situation. Meditation has the power to make you better at life: a better parent, teacher, employee, friend, lover, human being. And it is a way to discover your home in yourself and in the world. The ultimate test of a “good” meditation practice is whether it makes your life better or not. Does it give you something you need (sanity, space, care, support, inspiration, energy, peace), or take away something you don’t need (fatigue, irritation, pain, sorrow, doubt, overwhelm), or both? If it does, you’re on the right track.

I hope this series was as helpful for you to read as it was for me to write. If you want to learn more about meditation, click on the image below. Also if you have questions, feedback or content requests, feel free to comment on this post or send me an email.

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