This is perfectly reasonable. We sense that meditation can bring us more ease, more contentment, more equanimity in the face of life’s challenges. And the good news is that it can do all of those things and more.
The challenge is that, when most of us envision what inner peace might look like, we imagine ourselves in a tranquil state of perfect emotional contentment in which we feel good, relaxed, and restful—and that everything is as it should be.
And, more often than not, we are envisioning that peaceful feeling based on other moments in our lives when we felt really good and content and peaceful inside. So, naturally, we think, “Well, I felt that way before, and I want to feel that way more often. So if I meditate, maybe I can achieve this deep contentment and feel more peaceful all the time.”
So when we sit down to meditate, we have this picture in our mind, this sort of emotional blueprint of perfect inner peace that we’re trying to replicate or recreate–our “inner peace blueprint.” And sometimes, we might even succeed in our quest to create that exact feeling of peaceful tranquility.
As a spiritual teacher, I often have students who, upon having this experience, will come out of their meditation and report to me with excitement: “Wow, I was really there today, I really got there, I got to that inner peaceful place I’m trying to always get to. It felt so good, I could’ve stayed there forever.”
The problem with approaching meditation in this way is that the profound inner peace of genuine enlightenment has very little to do with those feelings of relaxation and tranquility most of us are chasing after and trying to hold on to.
And as long as you are using meditation to try to generate and sustain a peaceful, serene feeling state, you will be missing out on the much more profound opportunity for contentment that meditation can bring to your life.
The contentment that meditation points us toward, the radical inner peace that authentic spiritual practice brings about is a contentment of a completely different order. It’s a contentment that is there no matter what you’re feeling. It’s an equanimity that’s there whether you are feeling incredibly upset or angry, deeply sad, ecstatically joyful, bored to tears, or anything else you could possibly feel.
The profound contentment of spiritual awakening emerges when we discover a wholeness and fullness of being—an unconditional, uncontainable freedom that is present no matter what’s happening. That’s the radical possibility of enlightenment, of spiritual transformation. And understanding this can serve as the basis for a very different kind of meditation practice.
What would it mean to meditate in a way that was aligned with this profound easefulness, this radical, unconditional contentment?
When we realize that meditation is not about achieving a stable feeling of serenity and inner calm, it opens the door to a profound meditation that is not about trying to catalyze any particular feeling state.
In this practice, we make room for any and all feeling experiences to come and go during our meditation, without preference or resistance.
This practice of radical contentment is not about relaxing your mind or your body; nor is it about getting rid of any and all emotional reactivity. The ease and contentment that spiritual awakening points to is about being at ease no matter what you’re experiencing. It’s about finding a part of yourself that is already deeply content with what is, even when you have a busy, active mind, even when you’re feeling a lot of emotional reactivity going on, even when there’s physical tension in the body.
Practicing resting in this fundamental contentment means making room for everything that could possibly happen in your meditation. This means that even if your mind seems to be a “monkey mind” generating disturbing thoughts, or you’re feeling emotional tension about something happening in your life, you’re practicing being at ease in the face of all of it.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that what I’m pointing to is an utterly radical proposition. Indeed, this practice runs counter to just about every human instinct we have.
You may find it inconceivable to simply be at ease no matter what you’re feeling, no matter what your mind is doing, no matter what your body feels, to just be utterly content and at ease and have no problem with any of it. But I would suggest that it only seems preposterous because we have been taught to think of being content or at ease as an emotional state.
In the way we normally speak about inner peace and contentment, we mean being emotionally content, or feeling peaceful.
But spiritual awakening is not about being emotionally content. It’s much deeper than that. It’s about being existentially content. It means you are content at the deepest level of your being. You are content with existence as it is, without prejudice.
One of the simplest ways to practice this ultimate contentment is to just refuse to make a problem out of anything that happens during your meditation. When we do this, we usually pretty quickly start to notice our lack of contentment. We start to notice all the subtle ways that we’re not quite right with reality, that we’re not quite content with what is, that we’re not quite sure that we’re okay with what’s happening.
And that’s what this practice is designed to get up underneath and, ultimately, turn on its head–this fundamental existential discontent or angst which is almost always the substrate of human experience. It’s almost always there, under the surface, in the background, driving our choices in life. This sense that there’s not enough, “I’m not enough, life is not enough, this moment is not enough yet.”
The good news is that a peaceful meditation is not the holy grail. Something much bigger—and more profound—is possible through meditation.
What’s possible is the cultivation of steadiness in the face of every changing life experience. This heightened capacity is much more significant than any superficial and fleeting “peace” that may or may not occur in meditation. It’s a kind of calm that is deeper and more enduring. Fully embraced, it is nothing less than liberation itself.
Imagine the freedom in remaining consistent no matter how difficult or uncomfortable circumstances become—a relationship to your feelings that is unconditional. That’s one result meditation can bring about–and it has very little to do with feeling good during the meditation.