Infinite Mistakes

I used to teach an undergraduate course that included nine hours of basic meditation instruction coupled with guided practice. Some of the students choose to meditate for thirty consecutive days and maintain a daily meditation diary as a class project. Their diaries reflected how difficult it was for them to understand what they “should be doing” during meditation, despite repeated instructions. It was hard for them to let go of their culturally acquired ideas about meditation—ideas that meditation meant blocking out external stimuli, or stopping thinking, or becoming blissfully calm:

“It was hard to tune out sounds and noise around me. I was distracted by the singing of birds outside my window.  Feeling frustrated…”

“Today’s meditation wasn’t as peaceful and quiet as the previous day’s because of waves of thoughts…  In the beginning I don’t think every single meditation will be completely perfect.”

Their diaries illustrated the expectational sets they brought to meditation: expectations about mental control, goal-oriented striving, and dualistic thinking. They often felt like “giving up” because their expectations set them up for “frustrating” experiences that convinced them they’d “never get it.”  Those misconceptions might have been nipped in the bud through more frequent check-ins and feedback, but that was hard to do in a class of forty students, and there’s only so much students seemed to learn vicariously through the experience of others.

How much of this kind of floundering goes on in the zendo?

Years ago, a wise mentor told me I was allowed to make every mistake twice.

“Why twice?” I asked.

“The first time, it’s because you didn’t realize it was a mistake; the second time it’s because you didn’t realize it was the same mistake again.”

I now think my mentor’s advice wasn’t generous enough. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, paraphrasing Dogen, used to say that human life was shoshaku jushaku— “succeeding wrong with wrong” or “one continuous mistake.”

This seems more to the point.

As meditators, we’re allowed an infinite number of mistakes—recognizing the same mistakes over and again constitutes the essence of our learning curve—learning over and over how to let things be without intention; learning over and over how to be present with everything that comes without judging; learning over and over to open up to the world without dividing “inner” from “outer,” or “me” from “not me.”

If you’re just starting out, try as best you can to remember that meditation isn’t about control, or stopping thinking, or unending bliss or, arriving at a place of perfection. It’s about opening to life as it is. You will probably fail at remembering this again and again. Be patient with yourself and with the process. When it feels like you’re accomplishing nothing, know that meditation isn’t about accomplishing anything.  When dinner cooks in a pot, the dinner isn’t accomplishing anything. 

Nevertheless, it’s transformed.