Meditation: The Art of Awakening

Updated May 21, 2020

A story is told of the Buddha when he was wandering in India shortly after his enlightenment. He was encountered by several men who recognized something quite extraordinary about this handsome prince now robed as a monk. Stopping to inquire, they asked, “Are you a god?” “No,” he answered. “Well, are you a divine being or an angel?” “No,” he replied. “Well, are you some kind of wizard or magician?” “No.” “Are you a man?” “No.”

They were perplexed. Finally, they asked, “Then, what are you?” He replied simply, “I am awake.” The word buddha means “one who is awake.” How to awaken is all he taught.

Meditation can be thought of as the art of awakening. Through the mastering of this art we can learn new ways to approach our difficulties and bring wisdom and joy alive in our life. Through developing meditation’s tools and practices, we can awaken the best of our spiritual and human capacities. The key to this art is the steadiness of our attention. When the fullness of our attention is cultivated together with a grateful and tender heart, our spiritual life will naturally grow.

For many people, some healing of mind and body must take place as we start to sit quietly and meditate. To begin our healing, we must develop a basic level of calm and attention. We must find a way to hone our attention systematically and give ourselves to it quite fully. Otherwise, we will drift like a boat without a rudder. To learn to focus clearly, we must choose a prayer or a meditation practice and follow this path with commitment and steadiness, a willingness to work with our practice day after day, no matter what arises. This is not so easy for most people. They would like their spiritual life to show immediate and cosmic results. But what great art is ever learned quickly? Any deep training opens in direct proportion to how much we give ourselves to it.

Consider the other arts. Music, for example. How long would it take to learn to play the piano well? Suppose we take months or years of lessons once a week, practicing diligently every day. Initially, almost every one struggles to learn which fingers go to which notes and how to read basic lines of music. After some weeks or months, we could play a chosen type of music. However, to master the art so that we could play music well, alone or in a group, or join a band or an orchestra, we would have to give ourselves over to the discipline for a long time. It is the same in learning computer programming, oil painting, tennis, architecture, any of a thousand arts; we have to give ourselves to it fully and wholeheartedly over a period of time—there has to be a training, apprenticeship, cultivation. Nothing less is required in the spiritual arts. Perhaps even more is asked. Yet through this mastery, we master ourselves and our lives. We learn the most human of arts, how to connect with our true self.

Jack Kornfield, PhD, one of the leading Buddhist teachers in the West, is author of 16 books and a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Center.

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