Breaking the Habit

It’s difficult to put into words why exactly I was drawn to meditation. I grew up in a secular household with no particular religious inclination, and didn’t know many people with an interest in meditation, let alone a regular practice. Still, for many years I had an on-again, off-again interest in meditation, and had on more than one occasion given it a try. Without much guidance or structure though, I never developed a regular practice and my understanding of meditation remained quite simple. Fortunately, when I arrived in Taiwan for a six-month stay, I brought with me a newfound interest in meditation. After learning about Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM) and their International Meditation Group (IMG), I decided to attend one of their weekly meditation sessions run in English. After nearly six months of regular practice, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly meditation means to me and where it fits in my life. Having said that, developing a regular meditation practice has been an extremely engaging, thought-provoking, and introspective process that has served as a kind of mirror for my life and my place in the world. It is something that can be taught in a half hour but practiced for a lifetime, and is one of the simplest and yet most fascinating things a person can do.

What surprises me the most about the six months I spent learning about and practicing meditation was how much I learned about things other than meditation. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I started practicing meditation I had a fairly narrow view of what I wanted to learn about: simply how to meditate. I was concerned mostly with concrete details: how to sit and position my body, what to focus my mind on, how long I should meditate for, what to do if my body started hurting, and so on. I had forgotten that often when we learn something new we’re exposed to a very broad and varied range of new experiences and ideas. When we learn how to swim, for example, we learn about pools or about the sea. And soon we learn to quickly identify the smell of chlorinated water or we taste the saltiness of the sea for the first time. We learn about swimsuits, about swimming goggles, lifeguards and beaches, and so on. Sure, we learn the actual physical motions needed to get our bodies moving smoothly through the water. But those actual movements soon become secondary to the feeling of your body submersed in water or to the feeling of waves carrying you towards the beach. The same is also true of learning a musical instrument: you must learn the techniques needed to play an instrument — the fingering, the various positions, the musical notation — but learning how to play music goes well beyond the actual physical movements and skills. You’ll start by learning the basic techniques, but soon you start learning entire songs, or you might start playing with other musicians, or learn about music theory — all because you started taking those first basic steps.

My six months learning about and exploring meditation have been very similar. I started attending DDM’s meditation group to learn about the basics of meditation — information that was helpful and interesting in its own right. But I soon found that meditation served as a doorway to a rich and engaging exploration of my life and the world around me. I started reading some of the literature about meditation and Buddhism that was provided at each meeting. I learned about Master Sheng Yen’s life and his ideas. I learned from my fellow practitioners, who had already been practicing for months and years, and I had the chance to attend a couple of day-long meditation retreats at some of DDM’s monasteries. I met some of DDM’s monastics, I listened to their Dharma talks and I learned about their views and got to ask them questions. I started thinking about my life differently. I saw in a new light my relationships with my family, my friends, and people in general. I reconsidered my relationship to food, to natural resources, and to the environment. In short, I started to break some of the habits that I had picked up throughout my life, and I slowly started to develop new ones.

And that, in a word, is why I meditate: to break the habit. To see what happens if I try to stop living my life habitually, by just going through the daily motions, and try to start living more fully, more aware, more engaged and more present. This might mean breaking the habit of chewing my food while staring at my phone, or it might mean breaking the habit of turning on the air conditioner without thinking about what’s powering it. It might mean breaking the habit of walking without being aware of the steps my body is taking, or it might simply mean breaking the habit of breathing without realizing that each and every breath actually and currently sustains me. I might explore what it means to break the habit of trying to work on three things at once, or I might explore what happens in my relationships when I don’t react out of habit if someone says something that upsets me or that I disagree with. Whatever form it takes, meditation has been for me a lens through which I can reconsider the habits I’ve (often unconsciously) developed in my life, and refocus on new habits that can redirect my life.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer to why I meditate will change with time. I expect it to change. But for now, that’s where my meditation practice has led me to. I haven’t converted to Buddhism or given up eating meat yet, and in many ways I’m still just the same person I was when I first arrived in Taiwan. The changes I’ve observed in my life since I’ve started meditating might be described as small but meaningful. But to be honest, even if I couldn’t tell what difference meditation made in my life, there is one thing that I am certain about: I had the opportunity to try something new and thought-provoking with some wonderful and welcoming people who willingly and openly shared their practice with me, whether it was in the meditation hall, during a meditation retreat, or simply over lunch after one of our weekly meetings. That, in and of itself, would be reason enough to do it all over again.

(Shared by Simon)

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