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Meditation: Why It's Called a Practice

Often in my classes the subject of practice comes up. How often should one practice meditation? How long should you "sit"? Why do I have so much trouble practicing on my own? What can I expect in terms of "results?"
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"Flowers keep us close to the earth and show us what repetition can do. When we are good planters and caretakers we see results- not just once, but many times in many ways...
But the garden in the mind stretches much farther than just flowers and vegetables. It needs the same careful cultivation- never letting the weed of illness or strife or discord take root. This garden blooms year round and we should refuse to let it become a weed patch."
- A Cherokee Feast of Days, Vol. 2, Joyce Squichie Hifler

Often in my classes the subject of practice comes up. How often should one practice meditation? How long should you "sit"? Why do I have so much trouble practicing on my own? What can I expect in terms of "results"?

While every question is legitimate, I can't help but notice the irony in the need of all of us for analytical, left brain structure as we approach the question of meditation practice- something which by nature is designed to loosen the grip of left brain thinking and transcend constricting patterns of thought. Meditation is a practice that is more about surrender than about achieving goals. We are cultivating our inner self, tending to the weeds and fertilizing the plant with our loving intention. Meditation requires attention, nurture, dedication and certainly a measure of faith. While some results are both measurable (by science) and felt tangibly by regular meditators, it is often only in retrospect that we see and understand the growth of our consciousness, the changes in our actions.

For instance, I recently explained to a "beginner" class that meditation can often provide you with a critical five second delay- like those used on TV to screen objectionable material. What a gift to have that moment between thought or impulse and speech and action. Suddenly we have a choice in that moment and can use it wisely in our relationships. But we may not realize we have it until it seems to appear magically in the midst of an encounter- lifting us from the scripted response.

And who decided our growth has to be linear? Spiritual cultivation, it seems, is a journey more like ascending a spiral. We find ourselves coming back around again and again to the same issues, the same life challenges, but hopefully with a different perspective, a little more detachment, compassion for ourselves and others, and acceptance. We build on a core of self knowledge by coming face to face with what makes us uniquely human - our anger, our fears, our shadows. Do our "negatives" go away with meditation? No. But we get to know them. With grace and practice, we may even learn not to feed them.

As Westerners, we're instilled with the idea that we must work at things in order to "get ahead". Surely the record-breaking Olympic events of this past summer showed us what discipline and practice can accomplish. It also graphically shows us that "winning" can be determined by something as small as a finger nail against a timer and "losing" a matter of a split second loss of focus and the fall from a balance beam.
In meditation, not only do we not have a map or a firmly measurable goal, we are asked to let go of such notions and simply be in the moment. The lack of immediate feedback and the need for tangible results can be frustrating. We start evaluating our progress and some of us give up altogether. We won't win any medals. But we won't lose anything either except perhaps ego and illusions. And like those Olympian contests, it is the small moments, one after the other that can make all the difference.

So go for the gold. Keep repeating the method, the mantra, the return to focus with intention and dedication. Sometimes that dedication yields a delightful surprise when we find ourselves in a state of peace, equanimity and contentment. Other times we sag in the face of the enormity of our challenges, when we glimpse around the bend in our winding road and see the distance left to travel.

Throughout the course of our cultivation, it is the return to self, to practice that is both the beginning and end of each moment in the journey. For this we ask especially for the gifts of faith and patience.

Kay Goldstein, MA teaches meditation and writes poetry, fiction and articles addressing the challenges and joys of daily living and spiritual practice.