Dear Donagh,

…. I'm doing my best with meditation but it’s defeating me I have to admit now after 4 or 5 years of it.  My mind has a life of its own and I can't stay still for 5 minutes let alone 20 or 30.  I've read the answers you gave to other people who asked about meditation but I think I'm a worse case than any of them. Is there anything very simple and basic you could tell me that might help me?  I'm getting desperate at this stage....  Roy

Dear Roy,

If you are doing your best, as you say, then you couldn’t possibly do better than that at present! 

You may be saying to yourself now as you read this: “Oh I didn’t mean I'm doing my absolute best; I only mean that I'm hanging on somehow.”  But I want to say: The accusing thought of the absolute best could still be lurking there in the shadows.  Forget about your absolute best; none of us knows what our absolute best might be.  In fact, the word ‘absolute’ would be a good one to drop completely.  Have you noticed how overused it is now?  It is beginning to replace the word ‘yes’.  (“Were you out today?” “Absolutely!”) 

If it was only about the word it wouldn’t be a big problem.  But I think most people have expectations of themselves that are… absolute.  By that I mean that most people have little or no patience with themselves or with their present state.  We always want to be in a better state.  When I said to a Zen master once in dokusan, “I'm making no progress,” he replied instantly, “There is no progress.  There’s nowhere to go.  There’s no distance.”  And with that he struck his gong, which meant, “Go!”  Go back and sit in your mess for another nine hours.  Then we’ll see if you have come to accept it. 

We will never get anywhere unless we start from where we are.  Dive into the mess and don’t even think of wishing for a better place to be.  Reality isn’t somewhere else; it is right where you are.  The only thing that is hiding it from you is your restlessness to be somewhere else.  All our lives – especially in religion – we have been fed on a diet of idealism.  That is why we stay exactly as we are throughout our whole adult lives.  We cannot move on until we have made peace with the present.  And the way to make peace with the present is to forget about moving on.  It’s paradoxical, I know, but that’s the way it is. 

In Christian terms we say we die into the present moment and God raises us to new and deeper life.  “Keep back nothing,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”  The seed has to fall into the ground and die if there is to be new life.  This new life is not a project but God’s gift.  You don’t have to give yourself grades; you only have to hold your station.  Sit as if you were going to spend the rest of your life sitting in this place.  Of course the demands of practical life make that impossible in practice.  But sit with the mind of someone who is going to stay here forever.  That's not impossible.   

We are all doing our best – not our absolute best, whatever that might mean, but the best we can do at the moment.  Even a practising alcoholic is somehow doing the best that he or she can do at this moment.  Resist the urge to give yourself a grade, because in the next moment it will be a degrade.  Accept where you are; put down your roots there.  That's where reality is; that is the only place where life can flow through you.   

I find that if you have to talk to yourself about it, it is better to talk in images.  To settle yourself at the beginning of your meditation, imagine, for example, a tree.  Such stability, such strength!  Its roots go down into the earth, further than we can ever follow.  Such frightening shapes these have; but the tree draws it life and strength from them.  And, above ground, what weather a tree endures!  But through all the seasons it holds its station.  In Winter it loses all its leaves, in Spring it gains new ones.  It doesn’t take fright and try to run away; it doesn’t long to be in a better place.  Trees are our oldest neighbours, and they have much to teach us, especially about meditation.  The tree knows what the rest of us need to learn: there is nowhere to go, because we are already there; there is no distance. 

Meditation adds up to a kind of love: not sentimental or self-indulgent or even self-conscious, but strong and silent and with the humility of the earth.  St Paul wrote about being “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17).  You are already that, Roy.  May you blossom in every possible way. 


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