Day 17: Bless This Mess

Every time we sit down to meditate, we’re trying to stay aware of the present, but our thoughts are always stealing us away. We come back, and then get carried away again, then come back again, and so on.

It inevitably begins to feel like a battle, or at least a slow process of transforming our experience from chaos to order. We want the concentration and focus, and we don’t want the distraction. Over time, we hope to find deeper and more stable stretches of concentration, and get rid of the distraction and wild thinking altogether.

I find it very helpful to take a wide-angle view of the whole mess, both the mindfulness and the chaos of the mind, and cultivate a fondness for it as a whole. 

When we first sit down, the mess is very prominent. I don’t know about you, but at the beginning of most sessions I’ve got a twisted frenzy of things going on: phrases of dialogue echoing in my mind, bits of songs, pulsing bodily sensations, restlessness, worry, boredom, and desires of all kinds.

Our normal results-oriented impulse is to think of this state of affairs as a problem, like some horrible ball of Christmas lights we need to untangle. We’re tempted to latch on to whatever semblance of peace and mindfulness we can find in it, but we keep slipping off.

The fact that we’re brimming with so many different kinds of experience all the time is a testament to what finely tuned beings we are. We can sense a thousand aspects of reality at once: distant voices, pangs of self-consciousness, grade-school memories, air in our nostrils, the desire for cookies, blood moving through our feet, and many more, all at once. 

That we even have the capacity to notice such a vast palette of sensation is quite amazing. Because the mind's palette is so rich and diverse, it appears rather messy when we turn our attention towards it -- much more like a frenzied Picasso than a soothing Monet.

It is tremendously helpful, especially at the beginning of a sitting session, to notice and allow this messiness as a whole, the same way we do with background sounds. It’s a beautiful and endearing feature of being human, this wild, barely decipherable moving collage of sensations and feelings. If you can open up to the mess as something that’s fundamentally okay, you can explore the present with much less resistance and difficulty.

Mindfulness really is a loving act. We are bringing acceptance to the present in the same way good parents love their children despite their flaws, and even their occasional (or frequent) outbursts of meanness or selfishness. We’re bringing that very same forgiving, parental attitude to our practice. It’s no stretch at all to think of this as love.

We naturally prefer some parts of our experience to others, but essentially we are learning to bring unconditional love to experience itself. At the outset of any meditation session, before the details begin to settle out and invite closer investigation, the most appropriate description of our experience might be that it’s a hot mess.

Know the mess, love the mess. It’s not a mistake, or a defect, or a tangled ball of Christmas lights, or anything else that needs to be broken up or sorted out. It’s the feeling of being alive and aware, and knowing it.

Today’s practice:

Sit for fifteen minutes if you feel up for it. Otherwise set your timer for a length of time you are comfortable with.

When you first sit down, see if you can sense the whole mess itself: the rich chaos that comprises all of your competing thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses. Open up to the messiness of it, remembering the principle of Receptivity from Day Three. Let it swirl through you and around you for a few moments, before beginning your normal process of noticing sound, the body, and the breath.