There is an attitude often found amongst meditators that a desire to become ‘better’ at meditating is somehow against the spirit of the venture. But of course, if you could simply open a hatch on your brain and turn up the dial, everybody would choose to be more skillful at meditating. The issue is not simply wanting to get better, but becoming frustrated with the obstacles one runs into; a distracted mind, a painful body, falling asleep, difficult emotions. It may seem that these are two sides of the same coin; that the goal of advancing one’s skill as a meditator must carry with it a degree of aversion towards the obstacles to that advancement. This, I think, is a misconception.

In Ancient Greece there was a craftsman who wanted to create a mosaic out of shells. So he set out along the beach, searching for shells to use. But every time he found the perfect specimen, he crossed his arms with a sigh, grumbled about the work he’d have to do with it, and then stomped on it. Hearing this story, we would certainly have cause to wonder about the mental health of the craftsman, if every time he finds something helpful to his goal he destroys it. And yet, many of us find ourselves in this exact mental state, every time that these obstacles to meditation arise.

After all, if you are searching for shells, you should pick one up when you find it, and if you are practicing meditation, you should use a distraction as an opportunity to return to the breath with gratitude and joy. This is the very means of making progress! One cannot learn to retrain mental habits without running into some mental habits to change. Likewise, if you find a difficult emotion, you can use it as an opportunity to practice non-judgemental awareness, and if you find a pain, you can use it as an opportunity to turn towards discomfort with compassionate acceptance, and open more fully to the pleasant aspects of experience. Of course, if you find that your mind is calm and content, then you can use this as an opportunity to further deepen the skills of meditation, but holding out for this state of mind and disregarding all else is like searching the beach for a fully completed mosaic.

A sculptor needs clay to practice her craft. A swimmer needs water, a hiker needs a slope, and a meditator needs the habits of the human mind. Instead of seeing these things as obstacles, you can see them as the very means to make all the progress you have hoped to make in meditation. When you can find this perspective, a drive to make progress becomes synonymous with a full engagement with the fascinating and joyful process of an unfolding meditation practice.

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