In the previous blogpost ‘So much more than technique’ (9/10) I outlined employing the metaskill of ‘curiosity and wonder’ when meditation feels to have become stale or unsatisfying. The examples referred to ‘watching the breath’ type meditation.
There is a flipside of that idea that you can enliven meditation and make it interesting again. The flipside is that the meditator might have to tough it out and sit through a deal of frustration, boredom, physical pain and restlessness and other difficulties.
The second metaskill I discussed in chapter 5 of Freedom from stress … is persistence. Anyone who has undertaken long, intensive meditation retreat training knows that experience of pushing on through pain and extreme mental agitation. In the book I frame persistence in terms of the carrots, the motivation that one has developed to carry on and attain the goodies that meditation promises. It is pretty hard to persist if you have not had compelling first, second or third hand experience of meditation practice offering a substantial, positive change in your life. I think we all develop the discipline and persistence to tackle meditation seriously because either (1) we read something that presented it in a powerful, attractive way (2) somebody we respect advised us to take it on (3) we dabbled in it and had a profound or life-altering experience; we became hooked.
But, important as persistence is, I cannot overstate the value of regularly or ‘persistently’ enlivening meditation practice with curiosity and its allies, metaskills (iii) and (iv), humour and lightness AND playfulness.
Humour, keeping it light. No matter what you do meditation practice will sometimes become heavy or ‘bogged down’. Eventually, after all the struggle, an excellent breakthrough / release may be to give way to hearty, out-of-control laughter—laughter at yourself, with yourself or whatever. If you mentally step sideways it is not hard to see the comical absurdity of sitting there apparently doing nothing at all, as the ‘doing nothing’ drives you more and more bananas. If even a glimmer of a giggle pops up somewhere in your consciousness give way to it; roll around on the floor laughing. Then sit up and carry on, or just carry on at your next sitting.
I had several teachers across my formative, meditation years. One of them was Dr Sri Ramamurti Mishra (aka Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, in his later years). He could be enormously comical and often had we students in stitches of laughter. He had the most comical way of telling us to challenge our ‘thinking mind’ when it got out of hand during meditation:
“Shout at it – ‘Is that all you can do? Is that the most thinking you can do? Come on, surely you can think harder and faster than that!’ ” All delivered, if you can imagine it, in the most endearing Indian accent. He also told very funny stories before, during or after meditation sessions.
Playfulness: meditation does not have to be all hard work. It will become that way sometimes anyway since that is our nature, but intentionally we can inject some playfulness into it and it might just be a fine way to learn.
There are so many ways to ‘play’ with your breathing if that is the chief focus of your meditation today. Ultimately the main guideline is to simply let your breathing be, don’t interfere with it. However, now and again how about trying (i) taking a couple of deeper or stronger breaths and then letting it go, relaxed, as completely as possible (ii) squeeze two or three outbreaths out a little more strongly and feel the complete letting go after each outbreath as the breath comes back in effortlessly—feel the contrast between DOING the breathing and LETTING it happen.
In a body awareness (body scan) type of session play with the direction and sequence with which you move through the body. Play with the process of lightly or strongly tensing a muscle group before letting it go, if you are employing that technique. Meditation that employs words or a mantra offers great opportunity to play with the voice, rhythm, pauses and more. We could go on. The section on playfulness in chapter 5 of Freedom from stress … does just that with many examples and suggestions on infusing your practice with playfulness. It makes a difference. It can take that edge of rigidity and following self-imposed rules too harshly, out of it. That rigidity and self judging is something that many meditation students suffer from at times in their progress or across their lives.
So, good luck with your play—keep smiling … and laughing.