An important aspect of a sustainable meditation practice involves not being attached to the outcomes of meditation. This is another ironic - or paradoxical - aspect of meditation. Since most of what one does on the cushion is training for life, it is helpful to identify how not being attached to the outcomes of meditation practice parallel how to live a life of contentment. The Buddha identified four Noble Truths:
(1) There is unsatisfactoriness in life,
(2) The unsatisfactoriness in life comes from craving for things to be other than as they are,
(3) There is a way to avoid unsatisfactoriness, and that is by letting go of craving, and
(4) There are eight practices that one can follow to put that way into action and let go of craving for things to be other than as they are.
Quite simply, the second Noble Truth explains that we suffer, because we want things to be different from the way that they are. We want to avoid things that we don’t like, and we crave the things that we do like. The simplest way to avoid the trap of unsatisfactoriness is to be happy with things as they are in a profoundly accepting way. The problem is that “things as they are” includes a wide range of circumstances, ranging from the itch that you can’t scratch while meditating to the certainty of one’s eventual demise. One can only avoid suffering by practicing radical acceptance, or by completely surrendering to the way that things are.
The Serenity Prayer
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
This practice of letting go of outcomes is sometimes called “aimlessness;” it is rooted in equanimity and non-duality (the notion that suffering contains within it the essence of its own cessation, since all things inter-are).
As Sharon Salzberg says, “It’s not that we do not care. We do and we should care. We choose to open our hearts and to offer as much love, compassion, and rejoicing as we possibly can, and we also let go of results.” Sometimes the opening of the heart allows for such rejoicing to happen even in the face of the very things that we would naturally spend all of our attention and effort being averse to, were it not for the habits formed while meditating.
The Tigers and the Strawberry
A man walking across a field encounters a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger had come, waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine in one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
If the Buddha had formulated the Serenity Prayer, he might have done so thusly:
May I have the mindfulness to see how things truly are,
The energy to commit myself to skillful intentions, thoughts, speech, and action,
And the equanimity to accept things as they are, regardless of the outcome of my efforts.
As is often the case, work on the cushion mirrors the human condition in everyday life. As you train yourself to openly accept all that happens on the cushion, the habits you form - the neural nets you build - start to be accessible in life. I encourage you to surrender to what is, both on the cushion and in everyday life.