In response to our request for questions about practice, we received the following letter. Jack Kornfield wrote the reply.
I’d like to see more discussion of the general theme of “motivation.” This crucial subject has been touched mucho times, but it seems central to almost everything else. Particularly when away from the retreat scene, it’s easy to skip daily meditating sittings, because mindshit emerges with all kinds of reasons why something else is more important to do, and once again, mindshit prevails (not always, of course).
In your superb story on Thich Nhat Hanh you quote him as saying, “Some people think that to sit quietly for half an hour is very boring and uncomfortable. But other people enjoy this half hour because they have another way of looking . . . .” I presume, of course, that Nhat Hanh is referring to using being bored, being uncomfortable, as gifts for meditation, but based on his book, Miracle of Mindfulness, I think he’s also referring to what the neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) people fondly call “reframing.”
Perhaps combining “another way of looking” with “how to convince the mind that sitting is the most important activity of the day, around which everything else is peripheral” would be a challenging future discussion topic for teachers.
Sun City West, Arizona
Yes, you’re right, the essence of Buddhist practice is discovering “another way of looking,” discovering contentment instead of grasping, seeing impermanence instead of security, seeing what is actually here instead of relying on habitual thought patterns, expectations, plans and memories. But when you say, “It’s easy to skip daily sittings because mindshit emerges with all kinds of reasons why something else is more important to do,” does that mean sitting is the “real” practice for you? “Another way of looking” might teach you that what is important is what is right in front of you. What happens when you are sick or your best friend is in trouble? What is your practice then? Sometimes the problems are the best places to practice. Some of the times I’ve learned the most have been through my own pains and failures, my really big mistakes. One Zen master called practice “one continuous mistake”—maybe he meant life itself. So even if, at times, our problems appear as “shit,” we can also learn to see them as “manure for Bodhi” and plant the seeds of trust, patience, equanimity or understanding right into them. Then practice is built on what is, instead of what we expect or imagine.
Of course, it’s wonderful when our motivation comes from the heart, from our deepest longing for truth or our heart’s movement to connect with and open to life. But motivation, like everything else, is impermanent. If one gets idealistic about daily sittings, one will surely quit in a short while. They never meet our expectations. Daily practice is like a mirror. Sometimes it is like visiting the zoo. Monkeys, parrots, sloths . . . all the animals are there. The only consistency is that we sit and watch. We take the time to stop and listen—to hear the dance of body, heart, mind and, maybe, we touch a moment of balance or silence or kindness that stays in our hearts for the day.
But we will not always be highly motivated to sit. So be it. We can observe that too! Sometimes we are happy or sad, sometimes inspired or just plain tired. Because motivation changes, we need to take strength from outer forms: sitting groups, sangha friends, books, retreats, seeing the suffering in the world and remembering the heart of compassion. Sometimes we start with our will and effort, sometimes from need, sometimes from our deepest lovingkindness. Whatever keeps us opening is all right.
And on days we don’t sit and our motivation flags, it’s also important to see what’s there, what driving force keeps us busy, what it is we try to avoid by not sitting. Take a mindful look at discouragement, or busyness or doubt and how these conditions catch up the mind. It is very interesting to see what’s cooking when we don’t want to pay attention. If we can learn to examine this, practice will never be boring.