Step One of Openness: Letting Go of Guilt
Last time, we discussed what meditation is "for": helping us tune into Openness, the wordless intimacy and peace that seems to be the deepest part of us. That core part of ourselves has many names, depending on the tradition; Openness is the term we've chosen, but the important part is the experience.
From here on out, we're going to be taking very much a how-to approach to experiencing Openness through meditation. We've felt our soul catch fire: we remember the stainless innocence of our first kiss, the flooding love at our daughter's birth, the nameless glory of a stand of aspens burning gold at sunset. Now, how do we find our way back to that deepest part of ourselves?
Openness as a Practice
This takes us into Openness as a practice. We can help ourselves toward the direct experience of Openness by taking an attitude that cultivates it. We'll call this attitude the "attitude of Openness," meaning the attitude or approach we take that best leads us to the experience of Openness itself. Taking an attitude of Openness is the "can-do" side of an experience that, at its core, is actually about who we are rather than what we do.
In this article, we'll be focusing on one immediately important piece of the attitude of Openness: letting go of guilt. First, though, it might be helpful to quickly sketch out some of the other qualities of this attitude, to give a sense for what it's like.
Gentleness is something you can practice. In this case, we're talking about gentleness toward yourself. An attitude of Openness is very much about developing the ability to relax through drama—"I can't do this," "I'm not good enough," "I'm wasting my time"—by getting into the habit of regarding yourself kindly and gently rather than harshly.
In our typical approach, we judge things as either strongly "for" or "against" whatever it is we want. Applied to meditation, this impulse to judge our experience against what we want our experience to be creates a harsh, impoverished, grasping environment that can become very stuck and painful.
It's obviously true that we need to monitor our progress: if we meditate every day for ten years and we never feel any sense of happiness or relief as a result, we should correctly "judge" that there's a problem. Still, an attitude of Openness includes training to relax through the constant, habitual checks of "How am I doing? Is this for me or against me?"—since Openness itself doesn't operate in that mode at all.
One of the most mysterious things about Openness is that it's not based in words. Rather, it's a direct experience of something that's impossible to describe—which is why people have found so many different terms, and even whole spiritual paths, to work with a simple experience of wholeness that we've all had glimpses of.
An attitude of Openness includes learning to relate directly with experiences, as opposed to with our concepts about them. For example, you might find the experience of eating a strawberry to be extremely interesting and unexpected, if you let go of the idea that it's "a strawberry," something you've experienced before. The sense of "positive innocence" that can come from learning to relax concept is very much the domain of Openness.
Hopefully we're starting to get an overall sense of the attitude of Openness: something that very gently, very kindly learns to relax through the stories and the dramas that generally keep us preoccupied.
Now let's turn to the most immediate drama we'll need to work with: guilt.
Letting Go of Guilt
One of the many mind states that obscure Openness is guilt. It's got a sense of drama, predicament: "I should be like X, but instead I'm like Y." To state the obvious, Openness isn't bound up in those kinds of conundrums.
Why are we starting with guilt? Because almost everyone who's ever tried to meditate is shocked to learn how difficult and unpleasant it can be. As a result, we're almost all working with guilt about meditation: "I should meditate," "I should meditate more," "I'm not good at meditation," and so on.
This sense of judgment around our meditation practice is one of the most common and most harmful forces that we encounter in our journey toward Openness. It's so harmful because it binds our meditation practice up in a "good boy/naughty boy" mentality that keeps us from the sense of relaxation and acceptance that meditation is actually about. More practically, it's so harmful because when meditation becomes an object of guilt, the easiest way to avoid that guilt is, simply, not to meditate—which is the approach of probably 90% of people who have ever tried meditation.
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