This is a term I have a lot of fun playing around with, and a pitfall of practice I have run into many times. It involves a central paradox of practice. We all arrive at the decision to practice mindfulness meditation with certain goals in mind, certain things we might want to achieve, be it a more desirable state of mind, or ideas of self-improvement. It is hard to think of a more human reason to practice, and certainly at first we need some special motivation to sit ourselves down on the cushion and face our wild and often unruly mind.
However, when we come to actually sit down and practice, it is important to leave any thoughts about achieving something, about progress, growth, or self-development, in short our ‘goal-seeking mind’ at the door. If we do not, then we may begin using the practice to try to bring about certain desired changes in ourselves or our experience. This can lead to our practice becoming a source of striving and ultimately suffering, or what I like to call ‘experience farming’.
For example, let’s say we sit down to satisfy our desire to feel something else, or become something else: to be calmer, less anxious, more compassionate, more grounded. And so we sit down on the cushion, watch the breath or the body and wait expectantly moment after moment for these desired experiences to shoot up from the soil; experiences that gratify our efforts, make us feel like we have achieved something or just make us feel like good little meditators. I remember during my first silent meditation retreat one of the teachers warned us about ‘experience junkies’, people that return again and again to retreats just to try to experience and re-experience the highs of the practice.
When on a particular day we see the fresh green shoots of peace, joy, stillness, equanimity pushing up out of the soil we might say to ourselves ‘ooh ahhh, I’m really getting the hang of this’. But then, when on another day we find only weeds growing, we might say ‘oh I’m just no good at this’. We find weeds to be a particular problem, things like distraction, negative emotions, discomfort in the body, so we hastily try to pull them out. Weeds simply aren’t what we think we are looking for. We think perhaps we are doing something wrong. Maybe my posture isn’t exactly right… if only I can just focus more intensely or for longer on the breath… but it’s no use. We become restless, more and more frustrated at things not going the way we want them to.
Whilst of course our sitting and our mindfulness practice will certainly achieve something over time, greater calm, ease, joy, inner transformation etc., if we become fixated on this, thinking there is something to be achieved in each sitting, or by striving after some idea of how we want the practice to go, then we completely lose the balance of the mind and it becomes even harder to practice.
A good farmer can’t ignore the changing conditions in which their field is found, the season, the weather, the type of soil, the wildlife etc. All of these things are constantly changing. They understand that things change and so they can only do their best to provide the right conditions for things to grow. Our minds are just the same. It sounds odd, but we shouldn’t take our experience so personally.
Mindfulness practice is a process of letting go and not one of ‘acquiring things’. As meditators we don’t need to place great emphasis on the changing weather of the mind, sometimes it is delightful, sometimes it is less so, but showing up again and again we learn to trust the process, no matter the weather. When we sit down and practice, we simply do not know what experiences will arise. And there are no experiences that should or shouldn’t arise. Meditation is a space to learn how to settle back, let go and simply open to our human experience, allowing it to unfold as it is, without ourselves getting in the way. Letting go of ourselves, of our desires, expectations, judgements and so on, is precisely how to provide the best conditions for things to grow.