A Monk, Philosopher and Psychiatrist on What Matters Most
Practice Makes Perfect
We all have a mixture of shadow and light within us, but that doesn’t mean that we are doomed to stay that way forever. Our habits only remain the same if we do nothing to change them. Saying, “I am the way I am, take it or leave it” is quitting the race before reaching the starting line. That approach comes from considerably underestimating the transforming power of our mind. Our ability to control the external world is, to be sure, very limited, but the same is not at all true of our inner world. What always amazes me is the incredible effort people make in everyday life pursuing goals that are as vain as they are exhausting, but they make no effort at all to find that which brings happiness.
Training Your Brain with Meditation
Many people think that it’s too long and difficult a project to train the mind. But by the same token, it takes years to learn to read, to write, to teach, to get an education, to learn a profession or to master an art or a sport. For what mysterious reason should training the mind be an exception to that? If we want to become more open, more altruistic, less confused, and find inner peace, we have to show some perseverance.
On the physical level, athletic endeavors rapidly encounter unsurpassable limits. Through training, some people learn to run faster and faster and to jump higher and higher. But, in fact, they gain no more than a few hundredths of a second or a few centimeters. It is completely out of the question for a human being to run a hundred meters in four seconds, or jump higher than four meters. On the other hand, I don’t see how there could be any limit to love and inner peace. Once our love for beings has reached a certain level, there is nothing to prevent it from becoming still more vast and profound. The natural limitations that are applicable to the quantitative are in no way applicable to the qualitative.
The Importance of Daily Practice
There is no other way to transform ourselves than persevering in daily practice. That might sound tiresome, but as Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche used to say, if you get bored in meditation, it’s not meditation’s fault. It’s just simply that we have to deal with our old habits, our distraction, and our resistance to change. Buddhism puts the accent on repetition and regularity, on the analogy of water falling drop by drop that finally fills a big vase. It’s better to do short but frequent meditation sessions than to do long sessions quite far apart. The neurosciences show clearly that regular training brings about change in the very functioning of our brains. This is what’s called neuroplasticity.
So now, how can we maintain our meditation practice in the midst of life’s daily activities? First, it’s important to set aside some time every day, even if it’s only a half hour. If we meditate early in the morning, that imparts a certain ‘fragrance’ to our day, a fragrance that pervades our attitudes, our actions, and our interactions with others. We can also refer back at any moment to this first experience of our day. Any time we have a free moment, we can reimmerse ourselves in it and prolong the continuity of its beneficial effects. These moments help us situate the events of daily life within a vaster perspective and experience them with greater serenity. Little by little, by the force of habit, our manner of being will evolve. We will also be able to act more effectively in the world around us and contribute toward building a wiser and more altruistic society.
Excerpted from In Search of Wisdom, by Matthieu Ricard, Christophe Andre, and Alexandre Jollien. Sounds True, June 2018. Reprinted with permission.