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The Courage to Meditate

by Fleda BrownDecember 12, 2011

It was a happy thing that many of us brought our cushions Sunday night, since our local group had to sit on the hard floor of the back classroom of the Unitarian Church. We couldn’t use the carpeted sanctuary because of a concert. It was a good group, though,12 or 14 of us—I didn’t count—and the conversation was pretty lively. Diane got us focused on two pages of One Dharma, the section called “Courage: Strength of Heart.” Goldstein mentions that usually the Pali word viriya is translated “effort,” but sometimes “courage.” It was “courage” that prompted most of our discussion.

We talked about how just the simple—or NOT so simple!—act of attention, of looking directly at our world, takes courage. We like to hide.  We like to run away into our fantasies and our stories. To really see is often difficult. The courage of simply being is what Goldstein emphasizes.  “Courage draws nourishment from patience, one of the perfections of the Buddha,” he says.

We talked about all kinds of patience. Several people are beginning to read some difficult Buddhist texts. Mary Elizabeth mentioned how off-putting it is to read material that is hard to understand. Mahinda said it seems that the path the Buddha laid out is not really so hard to understand:  we are to have a wholesome attitude and perform wholesome actions. But Karen added, “Do we really know what the eightfold path means?” In other words, the depth of what seems simple may take a deep look to see it clearly.

I thought of this column I write each week. I want it to be clear and interesting and accessible, but the teachings, after the surface layer, as we go down into them, are not easy. They require concentrated attention. We start this way, being intrigued, curious enough to read a column on meditation, and then as we begin to sit and as we begin to really stay with the sitting, it gets harder. All of it–the sitting and the study–begins to actually require courage. I guess we don’t say that too often to beginners. No one said that to me when I began. I wanted to become less anxious and began the practice to calm down, to relax. Which was a darn good reason. It’s enough. As my first teacher Shinzen Young said, “We take whatever level of the teachings we can use at first, and as we begin to go deeper into the practice, we begin to understand things we heard long ago and didn’t get then. “Oh!” we say, “Now I understand.”

That understanding increases with our willingness to stay with it.

I remembered reading about a study of how Asian children learn compared to Western children. The Western children read a difficult math problem a couple of times, and generally if they didn’t get it,  they’d say, “I can’t do this,” and ask for help.  Asian children tended to read the same problem over and over and over dozens of times, until they finally “got” it. I was thinking of the way I’ve approached some difficult texts, how the words have to soak slowly down under my resistance and/or my confusion.  What’s true for our reading is also true for our lives, it looks like.

I really appreciate the way Goldstein ends this chapter, so I’ll quote it here: “An engaged interest starts to permeate our lives as we investigate aspects of ourselves that have gone unobserved for so long. What is a thought, that strange, ephemeral phenomenon that can so dominate our experience? What is an emotion, whose power sweeps over our minds and bodies? Who is knowing all of these things? What is the mind itself, this awareness, this power of consciousness? When we look for it, we don’t find anything, and yet it continuously and effortlessly knows.” As Glen said last night, echoing Goldstein, “This is a great mystery.” Goldstein goes on past that statement, to add, “which we can intimately touch with our understanding.”

That’s what we hope for, and based on all of the teachings, and on our own experience, it’s what we CAN ACTUALLY EXPECT to happen: if we stay with it, we CAN touch the mystery with our understanding.

Next week we’ll start the chapter called “Lovingkindness.”


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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