What’s the Best Attitude for Meditation?

The Sutras often ask us to have a maternal attitude toward things, including meditation.

Approaching meditation with a stern, analytical, or goal-oriented mindset is as counterproductive as nodding off or daydreaming—maybe even more so. Goal-oriented meditating can fool us into thinking we get it when we really don’t. Really, that thought, “I get it!” is a sure sign that we’re upside down.

Even the most demanding practices like koan work don’t have to be approached with a sledgehammer. The more walls we knock down, the more we’re gonna surround ourselves with. It doesn’t end, there’s always another barrier to breakthrough. Best to not go down that road. The only wall that needs to concern us is that sledgehammer.

When we approach practice maternally, everything goes quickly, smoothly, and doesn’t push us to the brink of madness. If we view our practice the same way a mother views her only child, then we’ll always stay on the right track. A militaristic, balls-to-the-wall mindset will only confuse, frustrate and discourage you.

When we start off, we carry the method with us. It’s a part of us. We’re no longer alone or doing things just for ourselves—we have the practice. The things we do in life can help or harm it, the same way that the things a mother does can help or harm her fetus. So we nurture it and care for it, and we’re gentle with ourselves on its behalf.

You could easily reformat the Noble Eightfold Path into a book about pregnancy. It shows us how to be healthy and alleviate stress so that we can carry wisdom to term.

As we practice, we’re gonna experience cravings, aches, and mood swings. This is natural. To get through it, we just have to remember what it’s all for: bringing the method to life.

Eventually, our minds will grow from scattered to concentrated and we’ll start to experience some tranquility and a few insights. These are like the baby kicking. Over time, this tranquility will start to persevere more in day-to-day life, and we might find that we’re looking at things differently than we used to. Some of the things that seemed so important yesterday might seem trivial now. This is when it gets easier to change our harmful habits and set down outdated or inapplicable views.

Then, the first taste of samadhi—one-pointed mind. This might be an earth-shattering experience, but it’s not awakening. It’s our water breaking and contractions, it’s a sign that we should dedicate more time than usual to the method by having at-home retreats or going to a formal retreat. That’s akin to going to the maternity ward. When you have a quick glimpse of samadhi, that means it’s time to make practice a priority. It’s possible to waste this momentum and fallback to the scattered mind. I’ve had to start over again several times.

But if we can keep at it, then that one-pointed mind will deepen until body and mind both fall away, and wisdom comes flashing through the space. This is birth. This will probably feel life changing, like an end of sorts. But this is actually the beginning, a short glance at Bodh, at no-mind, at shining silence.

This is a time to rest, but not to linger in that rest. Now the practice is our lives, and it still demands that same maternal care. Now we can set down the books and philosophical debates, and put awakening to work in the world. This is the beginning of the Bodhisattva path.

As we keep going, we watch it grow and mature. We wonder how we could’ve ever lived without it. There will still be difficulties, the same ones we’ve had since the get-go: judgments, memories, attachment, aversion, and expectations. And our foothold in samadhi isn’t guaranteed. It’s still possible at this point to slip, even though that might seem impossible.

When even the idea of difficulties, and gain and loss have disappeared, that’s, “Home-leaving,” like our only child setting off on their own. This is the fruition of no-mind. We give away our own awakening. That’s complete awakening. To a Buddha, there’s no such thing as awakening, delusion, or Buddhas.

Then the practice is over, but those maternal instincts remain for the rest of our lives. Everything is just how it was before we started practicing, our lives are the same—except we’re no longer in them. Life lives itself, and the world keeps turning even as our minds do not.

So practice does require effort and diligence, but not the kind of effort we’re used to. It’s not a static, frantic, goal-oriented effort. It’s easy effort, like the effort it takes to look up at the sky, or to sit by a stream without checking our cellphones.

If we bring our battle axes into practice, we’re gonna lose. We can’t win at meditation anymore than we can win at life. Winning is gently setting down ideas like winning and losing the same way we’d set down the Marlboro Lights and vodka when we’re pregnant.

The severe Zen masters who took cut off their students’ fingers to prove a point are long dead. Their methods are dusty fossils, and their biographies mostly works of fiction. I’ve never met anyone who’s actually benefited from having a stern, militaristic approach to their method or firm views about the teachings. Mostly, they just stress themselves out and bother people.

This journey might seem daunting, but there’s no quick fix to a lifetime of pain. Zen was actually created to be a shortcut compared to the more traditional Buddhist paths that came before it. In most Mahayana schools, the practice was expected to take not one, but thousands of lifetimes to complete. Zen was designed to shorten it to one, or even shorter, right now. Paradoxically, the way to do this is to take it nice and easy.

As Basho wrote: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing; spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”

And Farong quipped, “No need for hard work or skill; Keep to the actions of an infant.”

That doesn’t mean we should sit around in our dirty diapers all day. Sheng Yen explains it as:

“Being like an infant means having no ideas of right or wrong, good or bad, and no conception of progress or no progress…

“Practice should always start in a relaxed manner without seeking any benefit, without looking for progress. If you can begin like that, you’ll move forward quickly.”

Buddha-nature is Tathagatagarbha. That literally means, “Buddha womb,” or, “Buddha embryo.” That tells us everything we need to know about how to approach the practice.

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