As I'm sure you've noticed, I've been away. I needed a break. I took some time to empty my mind of everything Buddhist and simply live my life. I was holding onto Buddhism too tightly and needed to let go for awhile, so that I didn't loose perspective. It was a great reminder that even Buddhism itself can be an attachment. The time-off has reinvigorated my mind, my writing and commitment to the Dharma.
Today I wanted to write about meditation guilt. What do I mean by "meditation guilt?" Well, often the perception in western society of Buddhism is a religion centered upon meditation. Hollywood gives the impression that Buddhists are epitomized by a statuesque monk sitting endlessly for hours. While that is partly true, most can not maintain the commitment and practice of monks--they are essentially the professional athletes of meditation. If we expect to meditate like the monks do then we are surely setting ourselves up for disappointment, disillusionment and failure.
Traditionally, meditation hasn't been as central to the average Buddhist's life as is often the case in America. Kusala of the "Urban Dharma" blog elaborates:
For the most part, laity in immigrant Buddhism, like laity in Asia, don't engage in meditation -- a practice for the ascetic monks who are imitating the Buddha's lifestyle of renunciation. They don't expect to become enlightened beings like the Buddha.Yet it seems a lot of "American Buddhists" are obsessed with meditation. I think some feel that meditation is a bit like prayer in Christianity. The perception being, if you aren't meditating daily then you are somehow "failing" as a Buddhist. The truth, of course, is that expecting to meditate daily like the monks is like expecting yourself to run a marathon without the time, body and training that regular runners can afford to give to their fitness. Monks have the luxury of not having a job and living in an environment where all worldly burdens are stripped, enabling the kind of focus and dedication needed to maintain a steady, meditation regime.
Does that mean meditation is pointless for non-monks? Or, that we shouldn't meditate? No, not at all. I think any monk would encourage meditation but I think we have too many expectations about meditation. We have to be realistic if we are going to stay committed to the Dharma, long-term. We expect ourselves to live up to a standard that few can do, and when we can't do it we punish ourselves with guilt. The guilt is truly unnecessary when you simply accept that you don't need to worry so much about enlightenment in this lifetime. Unless you are a monk, most of us Buddhists are just trying to be a better person for not just family, friends and strangers but for ourselves, too. Meditation is a wonderful way to re-calibrate and remind ourselves to stop and enjoy the moment. As well as the beauty and peace of being alive, in this moment, together--as one.
If a lay Buddhist finds they can, and want to meditate daily then by all means continue. I encourage meditation as a beneficial tool in dealing with the chaos of societal demands for greed, hatred and delusional thinking. However, don't expect yourself to be the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh or even the average monk. I am of the belief that the number of monastics is low compared to the general population because their karma has prepared them for this moment for countless lifetimes. We don't have to become monks or "marathon meditation masters" to benefit to be faithful Buddhists.
Use this life to become better people, so that perhaps in a future life we will be ready, able and willing to reborn into better circumstances. The beauty, compassion and optimism about Buddhism is that we can be reborn anew each lifetime, so that we have plenty of opportunities to develop along the path of enlightenment. I think a lot of convert Buddhists (who are former Christians, like myself) still harbor the absolutism of that belief system. We haven't fully abandoned the subconscious fear of "not getting it right" in this one lifetime. In Christianity, of course, there is only this lifetime to "get it right" and if you "fail," that's it--no more chances. I think we still harbor that "all or nothing" mentality as newly converted Buddhists, which is often carried over into our expectations of meditation practice.
If you can meditate daily then obviously you'll get more from such a regular practice, but even irregular meditation can bring benefits. The key is to not feel guilty because you can't meditate like the monks--not many can. You aren't a "bad Buddhist" if you can't formally meditate daily. Besides, there are numerous forms of meditation, such as walking meditation. As you walk, you focus on your breath to be fully present in the moment and aware of the oneness between yourself, the natural world and those you encounter upon your walks. As well as being aware of how we are apart of the greater family or sangha of humanity. It is an active form of meditation that the physically restless often find easier and more beneficial. If you need other suggested ways of meditation, look into the writings and teachings of Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh.
~I bow to the Buddha within you all~