Despite the minimal instructions for meditation—sit still and pay attention—it somehow becomes much more: watching for this, avoiding that, practising this technique, taking that attitude. A new avenue of self-improvement.
Each of these attitudes comes with its own expectations that can drag us away from the core directive of meditation: doing less but seeing things more clearly.
The idea of “less but clearer” was something I recently came across again in Pema Chodron’s poignant When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, which I highly recommend if you’re struggling with any kind of upheaval in your life.
Less is not easy. Less can be scary, at first. There are fewer distractions and nothing to hide behind. Just you, the cushion and reality.
Doing less turns down the noise so that what remains can be seen more clearly. In this rare and special place we are able to apprehend the fundamental characteristics of reality—those themes that are present regardless of what we're contemplating: the arising and passing of all things, the dissatisfaction in clinging to them, and the lack of a solid self orchestrating it all.
Insight grows us we return to this, over and over.
Doing less requires courage: to face just what is here. That is not easy when there are any number of fears and anxieties swimming around in our hearts. But facing them is never quite as daunting as it seems, and each time we call a truce, we strengthen our relationship with ourselves. Pema Chodron calls this unconditional friendliness with ourselves. This attitude of friendliness towards that which seems threatening is why writing your worries down helps so much.
Doing less also means faith in the revelatory nature of our basic experience. We trust in our ability to grow in wisdom, through seeing the simple truths again and again, without layering on justifications or admonitions.
But doesn’t clarity require effort, require more? At first, it seems so—we need fewer interruptions, more concentration, more awareness.
But consider this: how much effort does it actually take to be aware of things as they are? When you look around yourself, do you have to work to allow things into your vision? Is it any different with sights, sounds and feelings? Reality is freely given and it will readily paint it's picture if only you stop standing on its toes.
So next time you’re struggling with the weight of expectations in meditation, remember: less, but clearer. You’ll have a more spacious and trusting relationship with yourself, and what’s more helpful than that?