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Trying to Be a Good Meditator

by Fleda BrownNovember 15, 2011

We started a new chapter of our book, One Dharma in our meditation group on Sunday: “Purifying the Mind.” Here’s part of the opening poem, by the 13th century Sufi mystic called Rumi:

A little while alone in your own room
will prove more valuable than anything else
that could ever be given to you.

There are so many routes to purifying the mind, one might think. There are even a lot of different ideas about what “purifying the mind” means! So many ways to go and so many ways to think about what the goal is. But actually, if we’re paying close enough attention, maybe there’s only the one way, which is the way we actually go, that we’re actually led to go by our history, our inclinations, our character. As Goldstein says, “We read, explore, stumble upon, try out, are led to, and somehow connect—in ways different for each one of us—with a particular teacher or practice that inspires us.”

We stopped there to talk about our own lives, how we’ve entered and left different religious traditions, looking for what seems most authentic for us. We got a bit hung up on a sentence of Goldstein’s—“Mindfulness helps distinguish the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy.” What?? We have understood that the practice teaches us to include both what we may perceive as “good” or “bad,” not attaching and not labeling in that way.

But we do grab a child back from the street, saying “NO! This is bad for you, you can’t run out in front of a truck!” We do the same for ourselves. This is our provisional, functional way of thinking. When we see beyond this, things look quite different. It seems that we must simultaneously hold both understandings of what is Real and True.

“Different traditions talk of mindfulness in different ways,” Goldstein says, “sometimes as a quality to be cultivated, sometimes as an aspect of the innate wakefulness of mind, often as both.” This cultivation he describes as being fabricated mindfulness, as differentiated from unfabricated. Fabricated is what we do when we “try” to be mindful. Robert says he gets a headache; I get a neck-ache when I do that! When that happens, we’re trying too hard to focus. This way of trying is actually an activity of our ego, “trying” to do it right. We have to learn the right balance between trying and just sitting there. The kind of “fabricated” Goldstein’s talking about is not this. It is the sense of duality—someone doing something.

Goldstein says the two kinds of mindfulness work in harmony. The unfabricated kind is not something we create. It is our mind’s natural capacity to be like a mirror, to reflect what comes before it. Toby reminded us that this is the Buddha-mind. All we can do is train ourselves to come into full awareness that we have it.

I’d say it’s a little like writing a poem. You write and write. You sit at your desk day after day slogging away, you revise and revise. You study good poems. Your skills improve. But then a really fine poem arrives like a gift. You don’t have a sense of working for it. You know that all your work somehow went into it, but it is much more than the sum of your efforts. It comes by grace.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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