This is a reflection on some of the formative moments in the earlier part of my meditation journey.
5 minute read.
I’ve been thinking recently about the moments in my own life and practice when things were not going so well and there was a small shift that put me back on a better course.
These key moments feel pivotal in finding a practice that worked for me and transforming my experience. I’m calling them inflection points because it feels like a moment in time where things could have kept tracking as they were or getting worse, but some event helped to push things in a different direction (I’m not knowledgeable in mathematics so please go easy if I’m using this term incorrectly, the best I could do is Khan Academy and it seems to support this use ^_^).
My background is that I went through an extended period of depression and anxiety and then came to practising meditation to try and shift how my mind operated so that I would not suffer so much. I remember a moment of realising, after coming out of a period of strong depression, that objectively my life was great and subjectively it was terrible. If I wrote down a list of the things in my life, it was great on paper, yet I was miserable. I realised there was something in how I was relating to these experiences, rather than the experiences themselves. I knew then I’d have to work with the mind as the thing that was turning these good things into suffering. So I had strong motivation to practice and a sense that this could work, but it took a number of key moments of support to get on track with practice.
1) Being given a copy of The Mind Illuminated.
I had grown up with Buddhism around (my Dad’s family is culturally Buddhist) and knew that meditation was a thing, I just didn’t know you could actually learn how to do it as a skill. I’d done yoga asana classes where there was a 3-minute meditation. A therapist had told me to meditate but gave me such unclear instructions that I found it basically useless. When depressed I also had an experience of reading about mindfulness, deciding to try it, found that it made things much better for a short period of time, and then being frustrated at being unable to consistently replicate that experience.
I was chatting with a friend about meditation, who knew much more about the topic than I did, and he gave me a copy of The Mind Illuminated. I started reading it and was shocked. I was amazed at the descriptions of stages and the progression of training the mind. More importantly I was glad to finally have some clear instructions on how to get started. Finally there were practical instructions around creating a space, dedicating time, motivations, and preparing for practice. There were clear instructions on how to follow the breath and cultivate stable attention. It was incredibly motivating and inspiring and helped me to first establish a practice.
2) Committing to consistent practice.
After reading The Mind Illuminated I still was only practising for short periods of time, mostly 10-15 minutes. Looking back, I think I just didn’t know any better. This is just what was around me at the time, in yoga classes, when I talked to others, in the meditation apps, etc. I probably thought the advice in TMI to sit for longer didn’t really apply to me.
Reviewing my journal from the time, I can see that I was sitting for short periods of time and judging my practice as good or bad based on whether I felt calm or if I could follow the breath the whole time. It was a frustrating process.
One day while casually cycling to go play pick up basketball, my friend asked me how meditation was going. When I said that I didn’t really feel like much was happening and that I wasn’t clear on what to do, he casually suggested that I sit longer. He said that it might just take more time for the mind to settle and that sitting longer might help to train the mind. This was just the spark I needed. I started sitting longer, although it took a while to take hold, eventually getting to 30 minutes after a couple of months, and then 45 minutes after about eight months of practice. I started noticing changes. It was like the previous meditation didn’t do enough to pass the threshold. Now I was actually seeing changes in the stability of my attention and the clarity of the mind week to week.
Looking back at my journal I can see that there was a shift from judging the practice to appreciating the awareness I was cultivating. I started approaching it more as something I could do each day to train the mind, no matter how the sits went. I started really being glad for the opportunity to practise.
3) Finding community.
It was at this point that meditation started working for me. I was practising more and finding that it helped me to at times feel better throughout the day. I was calmer and my mind was clearer. I started changing how I related to events and situations. My relationships started improving. I became more resolved to practice as I noticed how beneficial it was.
I was doing postgraduate study and decided that when I finished I’d give myself a gift of going on a 10-day retreat (I think most people would go on holiday or buy a Nintendo Switch, which might say something about me 🙃 ). The retreat was highly beneficial but was also somewhat destabilising as the insights were challenging to integrate, so I decided to start trying to learn more about meditation. I thought about getting a teacher. I read more dharma books and started following r/themindilluminated and r/streamentry. I came across Tucker Peck’s posts and found them to be clear and insightful. Perhaps more importantly, they were funny! I thought having a teacher like that would be good for me, so I reached out. I started meeting 1:1 with Tucker and found this to be incredibly helpful. It got me out of some ways that I was stuck or heading the wrong way. There were critical moments where I was practising with Wrong Effort or seeing things in a really deluded way that having a teacher helped to quickly course correct.
I also started going to eSangha (an online class for advanced meditators) regularly and have found that the community there to be totally amazing. I’m so grateful that it is today possible to form deep relationships with people halfway across the world. I made friends that I’ve talked with most weeks for years. For my practice, the friendships here have really encouraged me to be dedicated to practice and be honest with myself and others. It helped to find inspiration from hearing about how other people were practising. It helped to demystify the process and provide support and accountability. The Buddha says that the whole of the path is noble friendships and admirable companions, this seems like good advice to me!
Looking back, I can see a number of phases in practice where it would have been easy to drop off. I also feel incredibly grateful that I have continued my practice as it has changed my life for the better in many significant ways. I’m lucky that I found something that helped me and suited my personality at the right time. I’m also super grateful that I had a friend to provide a few helpful tips. Stumbling upon these inflection points of being reoriented into a positive direction helped me to stay on track and find cumulative improvements. I can also see that the whole process would have been easier if I found community and support earlier. Reflecting on this is an encouraging reminder of why I’ve decided to teach and dedicate myself to helping others with their meditation practice.
I’m curious to put the question forward – what have your inflection points been? What moments have been valuable to orient your practice in a positive way? Feel free to write me!
If you’re looking to find ways to go further in your practice, you may be interested in the Deepening Meditation Course that I run with Upasaka Upali.