It is important to sit with the clear intention to be present. At the same time, we need to let go of expectations. In a very real sense, what happens when we sit is none of our business.
The practice is to accept whatever arises instead of trying to control our experience. What we can control is our wise effort to be present with what is. We can spend a lot of our sitting time dwelling on memories of past sittings or fantasizing of those to come.
When we read or hear about the benefits of meditation, it is tempting to dwell on the stories of wonderful outcomes instead of doing the work of actualizing these possibilities ourselves. There can be a big gap between what we have read about and what is actually happening. Sitting is a way of putting our bodies behind our aspirations.
-Narayan Liebenson Grady, "The Refuge of Sitting" (Winter 2003)
James: Nothing breeds discouragement with our meditation practice more than having expectations of how it is "supposed to be." That is why I like this quote about using meditation to just be present with your mind in whatever state you find it in. To become aware of our mind and what it is reflecting from inside our subconsciousness at any given moment is enough practice to work on for a lifetime. As much as we like to think we have things figured out in this existence the reality is that most of us are clueless, and bumbling through life like an inexperienced boy scout crashing through the forest.
In keeping with the analogy, I was always told when I was a boy scout that if I ever got lost to just sit down next to a tree and stay in that area. It makes it easier for people to find you as you aren't a moving target and you don't waste energy needed to sustain being lost for an indefinite period of time. Spiritually, we are lost in the woods. The woods being samsara while staying put in one place is akin to sitting down to meditate and center our mind in one place. When our mind is resting in the present moment we stop wasting energy chasing expectations and come to terms with what's really going on in that spinning washing machine like mind of ours.
Only when we accept what is bubbling up from our subconsciousness can we truly understand what is causing our suffering. Yet (as the quote warns us) don't expect every meditation session to ease your suffering. It seems that meditation is a bit like a box of chocolates (as Forest Gump would say) "You never know what you're gonna get." Sometimes meditation can make you feel a bit worse before you feel better because it will dredge up a long hidden obstacle. But don't freak out and stop meditating--it's good to dig up that shit because you're now aware of it and being aware is useful because you know where to focus your energies. Regardless of what happens when you meditate, it's all beneficial. There is nothing in life that isn't beneficial. It's our mind that says otherwise but the mind is exactly where the problem lies in the first place!! We can't rely upon the very mind that deludes us to bring us back to reality.
The mind might not want to reflect on something painful and seek to cast it aside as unhelpful but perhaps that's the exact reason to NOT cast it aside but to focus extra attention upon it. Perhaps the mind casts it aside because it knows that to focus upon it would mean it would have to see things differently and it doesn't want to do that because old habits are hard to break. Yet habit energy is what propels us incessantly through this cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Habit energy is another way of saying karma.
The mind isn't our friend--It's a delusion in an of itself, so of course it's going to try and distract us with doubt, which is one of the five hindrances Buddha taught to be aware of. Meaning, even BUDDHA faced those obstacles to meditation or else how would he be aware of them to warn us? So, you're in good company in facing obstacles to your meditation practice--that's what I try to keep reminding myself. Buddha and countless other greats in Buddhist history faced similar trials. So, in it's basic form meditation is simply about watching the mind--keep a eye on it to see where it has led us astray and where it would continue to like to lead us astray. Above all else don't feel bad if you can't always formally meditate because awareness can be had while doing anything. Washing the dishes mindfully or taking a mindful walk around a park. That's the beauty of Buddhism--it can be practiced anywhere. Not just in a formal meditation posture.
ADDENDUM: Special thanks to Philip Ryan over at Tricycle for the quote.
~Peace to all beings~