In the early stages of training in mindfulness meditation, the meditator is instructed to learn to focus the mind on a single object, most frequently the breath. It doesn’t have to be the breath, of course, but the breath is omnipresent, and its regularity and easily-felt presence make it an ideal object of attention. Why this emphasis on learning to keep the mind focused? Let’s take a look at two ancient Buddhist metaphors that explain the importance of this kind of single mindedness.
First is the metaphor of the still lake. Imagine that the water of this still lake is penetrated by a single stone, sending clearly visible ripples outward. How obvious is the impact of this single stone! Its weight, the force of its entry, the implication of the energy it has added to the lake are all easily apparent. Imagine now that instead of a lake the body of water is a rushing stream, and the same stone, with the same weight, force of entry, and energy properties is tossed into the onrushing current. The implication of its energy is impossible to discern, given the swirling energy already present. In a similar way, the person whose mind is still can penetrate into the meaning of the entry of any stone, of any event, whether an internal thought, feeling, or sensation, as well as external events like social encounters, changes in job status, or even a simple shift in the weather. When the mind is an onrushing stream, events, whether internal or external, enter into the stream but their impact is very difficult to discern. The still mind notices all entries, and is open to responding with the greatest possible skill.
Second, the metaphor of the glass of muddy water. Allow it to sit and be still for an extended period of time and the dirt within settles to the bottom, leaving crystal clear water above. The clarity of this water, like clarity of mind, allows all to be seen and understood. While the water is aswirl there is no clarity in the water, as there is no clarity in the mind that is overactive and troubled. The still mind, able to concentrate and be at rest is able to abide in clarity, free to notice and discern with wisdom and sound judgment.
Learning to keep the mind focused is usually not easy for beginning meditators. In truth I’ve been meditating for a long time and my mind still flies off into “popcorn brain” from time to time. But the effort is worth it. Having a peaceful mind is its own reward, but you will especially appreciate the still mind in those moments when life’s stream of events becomes an onrushing stream around you, or like a glass teeming with muddy water. The historical Buddha’s fundamental insight, that unpleasant events inevitably arise, means that with cultivation of a tranquil, still mind we will always be able to respond with great skill to whatever perturbations come our way. Our mindfulness practices open the gateway for living with great wisdom, able to endure difficulties with resilience and compassion.
Finding meditation training difficult? Or ongoing practice a challenge to remain motivated? Imagine your mind as a still lake, or a clear glass of water. See those images in your mind as you settle onto your cushion, then allow your mind to absorb those images and simply be the stillness, be the clarity.