We are Not Starting with a Clean Slate

Excerpt from "Fruitless Labor," by Gaylon Ferguson, Tricycle, Summer 2009:

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Our entire life has been training. The question is: training in what? This question means: training in which direction? If we train ourselves to reach for a snack or pick up the phone to text-message whenever we feel frightened or bored, this is definitely training. The next time we feel uncomfortable we will also tend to reach for some comfort outside ourselves, eventually establishing a deeply ingrained habit, another brick in the wall of our mental prison. Are we training in how to distract ourselves from inner discomfort or anxiety? Are we training in numbing ourselves in the face of fear, or training in waking up? Training in opening the heart, or training in shutting down?

When we first sit down to meditate— and later when we return to the cushion—we can immediately recognize that we are not starting with a clean slate. If we’ve fallen in love, then the glow of passion and romance will deliciously perfume our meditation experience. If we’ve had a particularly stressful week at work, then our Saturday morning meditation session may have some of the irritating flavor of recent conflicts and disagreements. We may find ourselves replaying difficult conversations repeatedly—in a tape loop of irritation...

The wildness of mind that we experience when we sit quietly noticing our body and breathing for five minutes is the result of everything we’ve been doing before those five minutes. Frequently we discover that our minds do not rest in radiant contentment for the entire meditation session. Why not? Because we have been training for years in desiring, reaching, grasping, getting, and then wanting more, and then, of course, more—all reinforcing the underlying feeling that this moment is not enough. This pervasive feeling of something lacking, something missing (“not enough, not enough, when can I get something else, something different, something better?”) is itself a powerfully motivating force. This is what we notice when we simply sit quietly with ourselves for even a few moments: we experience the accumulated momentum of mental noise, booming and buzzing. We notice how strongly we are trained to want something different from what is happening. We notice that our minds are very well trained in dissatisfaction and distraction. Almost always our focus is on something else—not this. We seek another moment of greater happiness— not this moment. Contentment seems always elsewhere—never here.

Read a longer excerpt from Natural Wakefulness by Gaylon Ferguson...