The early morning sun splays shadows on a snow-covered statue of the Buddha resting at the base of a tree.

A mentor once challenged me to simultaneously feel both gratitude and anger. Go ahead and try it. I’ve never been successful, and I’m not sure it’s possible. The inverse, of course, is also true. When “negative” emotions take root, it can be very hard to feel their opposite. It’s as if we have two basic energetic tracks in our mind/bodies: the “positive” emotions like happiness, joy, gratitude, love, etc., and the “negative” ruts of anger, frustration, hurt, fear, etc. From this dualistic paradigm, it’s easy to imagine an answer that is both simple and attainable: I’ll just cultivate the positive emotions and let go of the negative ones. I’ll train my emotions to be like one of those amusement park automobile rides, where the central guide rail allows even young children to drive a car and stay on the path.

Last night, a friend was lamenting his inability to meditate. “I keep trying, but my mind is just too busy. I think my mind isn’t well-suited for it,” he suggested. For anyone who’s taught meditation, this is a familiar narrative. It arises from a basic misconception of the purpose of meditation, which most assume is to experience a quiet mind. We believe that somehow, by assuming the correct posture and closing our eyes, we can bend consciousness to our will. We imagine that, like the amusement ride, we can let go of the wheel of thoughts (and suffering) and simply ride silence like a middle rail and keep the mind on course.

The real “work” of meditation is the art of letting go, and through that constant process of noticing our thoughts and returning to the present, a thick, Teflon coat gets applied to our tenaciously sticky mind. In a sense, it’s the exact opposite of the central guide rail; it’s a gentle slope on both sides of the lane that subtly coaxes us back onto the road. When we notice “thoughts,” (which include emotions), we are invited to let the thoughts go and return to the present moment with the energy of a feather landing on a pillow. This is not a cringe moment; a thousand thoughts during meditation offer a thousand opportunities to return. That is powerful work!

Over time, the state of our mind will indeed change. It won’t be a linear process, and one of the greatest challenges is allowing it to continue to unfold without grasping. However, the real fruit of our practice has nothing to do with the time we spend meditating in silence. Rather, a moment arrives when we’re in the heat of an argument and we realize “this, too, is just a thought.” We relax our grip, little by little, and find it ever-slightly easier to let go of being right. Or, as another mentor used to put it, “we yell less loudly at our children.”

Eventually, we will come to realize—on a very deep level—that there never was and never will be a guide rail. That path is an illusion. We don’t have two emotional tracks in our mind, the good and the bad, that allow us to choose one over the other. It is all one life—one experience—and the real gift is learning to live with hands that relax their grip more easily and a mind that lets go more often. As we do that, we begin to see how much the mind craves control, and falsely believes that a tight grip and a strong hold on thoughts are what keep us safe. Yet the exact opposite becomes our strength: rather than discovering an ocean of calm, we discover that the waves never were a problem, because we are the ocean itself.