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Admit what you don't know

It is possible to really hold yourself back by not wanting to admit your failings, in both meditation and life.


My father has a good story about this, which I heard several times in my childhood. It relates to him learning to drive, presumably in the '70s. It took him five tries to pass, because it took him until his fifth try to figure out the reason why he kept failing. Which was that he couldn't drive. The reason was not, as he had previously thought, that he was having a bad day, or that the weather or traffic wasn't right, or that the examiner didn't like him. Rather, it was that he wasn't very good at driving. So, armed with this useful insight, he went away and worked on his driving, and passed his fifth test with ease.


This kind of problem can be a major hindrance on the meditative path, too. Because, like most things, it involves hard work in order to develop knowledge and skill, and you won't do the work if you won't admit what you don't know and can't do. This became clear to me recently.


I made a good friend a few years ago through meditation, and he and I have kept in close contact ever since, comparing notes, discussing ideas and issues, and sharing skills. At first, we were at about the same level - there were things he knew more about, and things I knew more about. But then, over time, something disconcerting happened: he pulled ahead of me. This coincided with my becoming a parent. While I was telling him about how hard it was to practise amid all the nappies and sleep disruption, how my meditation felt dead, repetitive, and unrewarding, he was telling me about bliss and insight; about techniques I hadn't mastered, experiences I hadn't had, and benefits I hadn't got.


It was infuriating. And so, my mind insisted, it couldn't be true. He must be prone to exaggeration, or self-deception. These things couldn't really be happening to him. Or, if they were, they couldn't really be worth anything. These were false insights, empty experiences. Or, if they weren't, I must surely have something of equal value. Wasn't my unsatisfying, boring practice just as good, or perhaps even better in some way, for all its tedium and apparent lack of progress? Wasn't the path actually about being with difficulty, or doing nothing and going nowhere, or something? Or finally (and most poisonously) wasn't the whole thing probably a load of rubbish anyway, in the end? I mean, could meditation really do that much for you? Could it really change you in a profound, lasting way, so as reduce your suffering and improve your behavior? I wasn't so sure. I didn't seem to be able to do it, so I didn't see any reason to believe that anyone else could.


This unwholesome pattern broke apart when I spoke to a meditation teacher who also knows my friend. I was talking to this teacher on Zoom, and amongst other things I referenced my unhelpful envy and resentment of my friend's practice. His answer was straightforward: Don't compare yourself, he said. For some people it comes easy; for the rest of us it's hard.


Which upset me considerably. Because I had been disingenuous in raising the issue: I didn't seriously want help with my envy and resentment, so that I could become a better meditator and a better person. Rather, I wanted to be told that there was nothing to be envious of. Don't worry, I wanted to be told, your practice is just as good as his. He's kidding himself. And when I didn't hear that, I was crestfallen.


But this was just the jolt I needed, because it opened my eyes to how much I was getting in my own way. Because if it was too painful to admit that my friend had something I didn't, then I couldn't possibly go after that thing. I couldn't motivate myself to make the effort. I couldn't watch how he did it and learn from him. And, worst of all, I couldn't even admit it was possible. I was in the unfortunate position of denying that it was even worth making an effort with meditation, because to do so would disturb the very ego that we meditate in order to transcend. I had fallen into Doubt, which traditionally is the gravest of meditative hindrances.


So, once I had got over the initial shock of having to admit that my friend might truly have made more progress than me, my practice took on new life. I looked and saw how he did it: he took his practice seriously, and worked at it. He read and he thought, to figure out what needed doing and how to do it. He talked to others, in order to learn from them. And, above all, he put his thinking into practice, working at his meditation systematically and with commitment, motivated by the sincere belief that it was worth doing. And if he could do that, why couldn't I? And so now, while I still don't quite have his confidence, his commitment, or his results, my practice is a lot better than it was.

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