While recently on vacation at Lake Tahoe I tried dispensing with my usual morning meditation practice.
I began meditating in the mid seventies. For twenty years I meditated on and off. Mostly on: I know its benefits. But since 1996, the year my mother died, I’ve devotedly practiced every day, with very rare exceptions usually due to illness.
Fifteen years is a long time to do anything continuously. I had become so accustomed to it that I began to wonder whether the beneficial effects might accrue without actually having to sit.
There, in the mountains with my family, I had little to do beyond enjoying the scenery with the people I love most deeply. Further, being away on vacation, far from my home alter and zafu I found myself in a suite of rooms that didn’t have a quiet place to easily accommodate my devotions.
After a few days of ducking into the bedroom in the mornings to meditate after my wife got up, I convinced myself that I had found the ideal situation to discover what life without a meditation practice might be like. I was willing to undergo an experiment.
For the first few days I was delighted to find out that I seemed to do just fine. I could discern no obvious changes to my mood, my outlook, my temperament, or my discernment. In fact, I told myself that I was doing everyone a favor by not disappearing every morning. Instead I could join the family for coffee and conversation in the dining room.
In the middle of the vacation we rented stand up paddle boards. As we returned the boards to the shop, I saw a canoe on special sale. I really, really wanted to buy it. In retrospect, I can see now that the force of this desire was stronger than any desire I had endured in fifteen years—a desire strong enough to intrude on my thoughts even when engaging in other activities. At the time, though, my mind was so wrapped up in the object of desire that I was not aware of my rapture.
This desiring grew each day. It became almost an obsession. Then, near the end of our vacation, when we returned to our home near the coast, I found myself having to cope with something new: anger.
I was getting peeved over small events that normally don’t even raise a ripple in the waters of my mind. I usually take in stride little things like being cut off on the freeway by an inattentive driver. Now it was enough to tick me off. I found myself taking offense and even colorfully expressing my displeasure loudly enough for my daughter to hear. This is quite unlike me.
In the last hours of our family vacation, I began to get peeved even at members of my family!
Finally, I suspected that my heightening greed and anger might be the result of this experiment with meditation-free living. I was amazed that my discernment had been so severely impaired.
My experiment was done. The day after my daughter flew home I resumed my practice. I got up early and sat. After a good long sit, I decided to listen to non-human wisdom, the kind you find on rivers.
I went out paddling alone to listen to the trees, to the birds and to the murmuring waters. Their sagacity seeped slowly in. Afflictive mental factors unwound backwards, like a skein of yarn stretching out into space. Anger cooled and mellowed back towards equanimity. Family, of all people, are to be loved.
Greedy mind loosened its tight bind on my mind. I knew I was satisfied with what I already have. My problem is that I have too many possessions! To release my belongings, to pare down, down and down some more—this is the way to approach fulfillment.
I could breathe again.
Refreshed by my breath, my mind could relax and broaden. I could feel the truest truth: inhalations and exhalations—the simplest, deepest, and most vital of all pleasures between being born and dying.
I came back to my breath, to my senses, to my contentment, and to the degree of equanimity to which I've grown accustomed.