Whether we’re studying Buddhism or doing Buddhist
practice, we should realize that the essence of the practice
is discovering how we misperceive reality. We actually have
a misperception of reality. And what we’re doing through
meditation is training in being able to perceive reality
Enlightenment—full enlightenment—is perceiving reality with an open, unfixated mind, even in the most difficult
circumstances. It’s nothing more than that, actually. You
and I have had experiences of this open, unfixated mind.
Think of a time when you have felt shock or surprise; at a
time of awe or wonder we experience it. It’s usually in small
moments, and we might not even notice it, but everyone
experiences this open, so-called enlightened mind. If we
were completely awake, this would be our constant perception of reality. It’s helpful to realize that this open, unfettered mind has many names, but let’s use the term “buddha
You could say it’s as if we are in a box with a tiny little slit.
We perceive reality out of that little slit, and we think that’s
how life is. And then as we meditate, if we train in gentle-
ness, and if we train in letting go, if we bring relaxation as
well as faithfulness to the technique into the equation; if we
work with open eyes and with being awake and present, and
if we train that way moment after moment in our life—what
begins to happen is that the crack begins to get bigger, and
it’s as if we perceive more. We develop a wider and more
It might just be that we notice that we’re sometimes
awake and we’re sometimes asleep; or we notice that our
mind goes off, and our mind comes back. We begin to
notice—the first big discovery, of course—that we think so, so much. We begin to develop what’s called prajna, or
“clear wisdom.” With this clear wisdom, we are likely to feel
a growing sense of confidence that we can handle more, that we can even love more. Perhaps there are times when we
are able to climb out of the box altogether. But believe me,
if that happened too soon, we would freak out.
not ready to perceive out of the box right away. But we move
in that direction. We are becoming more and more relaxed
with uncertainty, more and more relaxed with groundlessness, more and more relaxed with not having walls around
us to keep us protected in a little box or cocoon.
Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attain-
ing something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment
is when the blinders start to come off. We are uncovering the
true state, or uncovering buddha nature. This is important
because each day when you sit down, you can recognize that it’s a process of gradually uncovering something that’s
already here. That’s why relaxation and letting go are so
important. You can’t uncover something by harshness or
uptightness because those things cover our buddha nature.
Stabilizing the mind, bringing out the sharp clarity of mind,
needs to be accompanied by relaxation and openness.
You could say that this box we’re in doesn’t really exist.
But from our point of view, there is a box, which is built from
all the obstructions, all the habitual patterns and condition-
ing that we have created in our life. The box feels very, very
real to us. But when we begin to see through it, to see past it,
this box has less and less power to obstruct us. Our buddha nature is always here, and if we could be relaxed enough and awake enough, we would experience just that.
So trust this gradualness and welcome in a quality of patience and a sense of humor
because if the walls came down too fast we
wouldn’t be ready for it. It would be like a drug
trip where you have this mind-blowing experience but then you can’t integrate the new way
of seeing and understanding into your life.
The path of meditation isn’t always a linear
path. It’s not like you begin to open, and you
open more and more and you settle more and
more, and then all of a sudden the confining
box is gone forever. There are setbacks. I
often see with students a kind of “honeymoon
period” when they experience a time of great
openness and growth in their practice, and
then they have a kind of contraction or regression. And this is often terribly frightening or
discouraging for many students. A regression in your practice can create crippling doubt and a lot of
emotional setback. Students wonder if they’ve lost their
connection to meditation forever because the “honeymoon
period” felt so invigorating, so true.
But change happens, even in our practice. This is a
fundamental truth. Everything is always changing because
it’s alive and dynamic. All of us will reach a very interesting
point in our practice when we hit the brick wall. It’s inevitable. Change is inevitable with relationships, with careers,
with anything. I love to talk to people on the meditation path
when they’re at the point of the brick wall: they think they’re
ready to quit, but I feel they’re just beginning. If they could
work with the unpleasantness, the insult to ego, the lack of
certainty, then they’re getting closer to the fluid, changing,
real nature of life.
Hitting the brick wall is just a stage. It means you’ve
reached a point where you’re asked to go even further into
open acceptance of life as it is, even into the unpleasant
feelings of life.
The real inspiration comes when you finally join in with
that fluidity, that openness. Before, you were cruising with
your practice, feeling certain about it, and that feeling can
be “the best” in many ways. And then wham! You’re given a
chance to go further.
Excerpted from HOW TO
MEDITATE: A Practical Guide
to Making Friends with Your
Mind (c) Pema Chödrön.
Reprinted with permission of
the publisher, Sounds True Inc.
For more information about
Pema Chödrön, including a list
of her published works, visit pemachodronfoundation.org.