The Fractal Moment: An Invitation to Begin Again

Sunday, May 17, 2015 - 6:19am
Photo by Syahmir

The Fractal Moment: An Invitation to Begin Again

There’s no doubt that the idea of “letting go” — the advice to “let it go” — has become more popular in recent years. Especially in light of the popularization of meditation and mindfulness, it seems people are starting to see that there is a profound power in the act of surrender.

In a layman’s example, people are starting to realize that gripping tightly to stress doesn’t make you happier. But, there is a difference between surrendering and succumbing, between letting something go and hurling it away from us.

Letting go is gentle, but it is not characterized by passivity; it involves intention, patience, and a willingness to challenge habits of mind.

In other words, letting go isn’t so easy — whether it be letting go of an annoyance at work, a nagging thought during meditation, something you regret in the past. Similarly, it’s difficult to let go of good things — an amazing day with a friend, a wonderful meal, an engaging book — in order to move on to be open to the next good thing.

In this regard I’ve often thought of meditation as being like a fractal, where one small part of something is a tiny, perfect replica of the whole. Coastlines are jagged whether viewed from the immense distance of a satellite, the far distance of an airplane, or standing just above them on the overhanging bluffs. The entire leaf of a fern resembles a magnified version of one of its own smaller parts. Mountains have the same rough, irregular forms whether we see them from a great distance, or look at them close up in chunks of granite.

The moment our attention wanders away from our chosen object in meditation — a sound, a visualization, a mantra, the feeling of the breath, whatever it is — we are guided to gently let go of whatever has distracted us and begin again by returning awareness to that object.

(Syahmir / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

That’s the fractal moment: practicing letting go and beginning again in that micro setting is the replica of having flubbed something at work and needing to begin again, or having strayed from our deepest aspiration or chosen course and having to begin again, or finding that we have fallen down and needing to stand up and begin again.

In actuality, meditation is simple, but not easy: you rest your attention on something like the breath in order to stay present, and, as thoughts carry you away, you begin again an incalculable number of times. That is why meditation is a practice. It is this practice of training one’s attention that makes meditation so powerful.

Conditioning tells us that if we would only berate ourselves enough, blame ourselves enough, and consider ourselves failures enough, we’d accomplish a lot more. In truth, those habits usually leave us exhausted and demoralized. If we were to look at how we accomplish the most, make the most progress in any endeavor, or put out the most sustained effort in seeking change, it’s a very different environment that brings us closer to our aim.

This isn’t laziness or losing standards of excellence; it really is taking a good look at two things. First, nothing in life is a straight shot. We are often making at least slight mistakes, or slipping somehow from our sense of purpose, and need to begin again. And second, feeling drained and depressed from harsh self-judgment doesn’t help us get the job, any job, done faster and better. When we really take a look, ease in letting go and kindness in starting over is a lot more effective.

There is joy and an important sense of renewal in each effort to begin again. In this way, meditation is not about the creation of a singular experience but about changing our relationship to experience. How do we react when uncomfortable thoughts emerge? And how do we react when we notice that we’re distracted by these uncomfortable thoughts? Can we begin again without rumination and regret?

(Syahmir / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

When thoughts drift during the micro world of meditation, we learn that there is no benefit to be gained from berating ourselves, or from wishing fervently that we had been focused on our chosen object (say the breath) the entire time. We strengthen our minds and our meditation practice each time we recognize these distractions, let go, and begin again. Because it is a fractal of life, meditation is a dynamic practice, one that involves cultivating the art of self-compassion, of learning to relate to ourselves in a new and more forgiving way.

The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation for the practice of self-compassion — to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism. Beginning again is a powerful form of resilience training.

Each time we become distracted or lost in our judgments, assumptions, and other thoughts, we can return to the moment, the most portable and dependable resource at our disposal. We see that no matter what, we can always begin again.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Monday.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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Thank you for this reminder.

Sharon is my Goddess ... She makes it so simple despite how complicated I try to make it ... It truly is not about beginning, it is about beginning again!

There is something so forgiving and refreshing in the idea of beginning again, from day to day or moment to moment.

I really enjoyed this article....going to go begin my morning again. :)

Thank you for this posting. It caused me to find the words I wanted convey to bring some closure to a very troubling issue with my adult son.

This is one of the most accessible explanations of meditation I've ever seen. I will be returning to it again and again. Thank you.

Pam, you chose the perfect words to express what I was trying to formulate in response to this great explanation. Thanks.

Wisdom shared... My gratitude!

So liberating! To be free to start over and over and over. Yes!

Thank you Sharon. The first thing I did after reading this was to bookmark it. Practice will be different tomorrow morning and I look forward to begin again and again and again...

I loved this blog!

I say this, I know this, but when reading it here -- I could feel it in my heart. As always, thank you.

After 40 years of practice of vipassana meditation, "beginning again" has become as familiar as breathing. I regard it as the single most important guideline to all who engage in this profoundly liberating practice of "just being."

I always like of resuming the meditation after distractions, rather than beginning again. My mind gets in my way with the thought of STARTING OVER. The distraction when viewed as an interruption then allows me to resume the meditation, which also allows for me to arrive at a conclusion with much satisfaction of completing my meditation as desired.

This “just start over” teaching has come to be for me a kind of sublime answer to my woes. Starting over, as you teach, is becoming more and more a mature response and a re-engagement with the wonders of the present moment, the "bloom of the present moment." Thank you Sharon so much.

sometimes I want to "waller" in my own self pity, challenges, inadequacies instead of tacking of hard task of meditation.

The teachings offered by Sharon have comforted and guided me for over ten years. It is this gentle teaching on recognizing and returning that has helped to reshape old habits of critical and shame based self evaluations inhaled from both family of origin and culture.
When I remember this gentle practice it allows me to extend it to all those around me-known and yet to be know-who struggle with the very same inhalation of perfectionism, entitlement and self abasement. We really all are struggling at a core level with the same poisons. May this gentle teaching remind us all that we are at rest in our basic goodness.

Do we learn to let go so that we can bring ourselves some benefit?
Or do we learn to let go so that we can be here, truly inhabit the living present?
I ask myself this. The letting go to actually be here is allowing the whole self to stop. Balance between mind, body & heart returns, and we find we are encouraged to go further and open. Opening is what it's all about.
Letting go to get the specific benefits of meditation is enough to create a nice experience, but not enough to stop. Stopping isn't necessarily nice. And even if one can stop, it takes enormous courage to open. When you're open you're aware of your connections to an ancient web-of-life that includes a million species. This is wonderful and awesome and it's loving you while you're being aware of it, but it's frightening at first until you make friends.

I had the chance to meet you this week-end at Lerab Ling in France during an inspiring conference. You mooved us all whith your speech, insights and presence. I am glad to read you here. May you be well.

Letting go can be scary. Unhealthy attachments offer such convincing masks of support and safety. I love the opportunity to reframe it as beginning again. Or reconnecting. Again and again :)

Heaven sent, upon the angelic wings of Sharon's words of love, I thank you. I am truly in this place....to offer self-compassion and to turn away from self-judgment and rumination. To practice "practice." I am deeply, warmly, openly grateful.

Bless your heart forever, Sharon, Mary

What's powerful about this practice is you can have self compassion all the time.

Thank you for this. Just the encouragement and guidance I needed right now. Peace

I visualize a crystal with its myriad reflecting facets. Each time I/my mind gets distracted by flitting glimmers, I slide back to the solidity of the whole, which is my intention, my faith that this moment, in all its perfection, is all that exists. After that,I begin again, and again. Thanks for the metaphor, Sharon.

Yes. Thank You. Starting over is the most courageous kind of starting.
Begin Again.

Thank you! :)

I often tell my young students that the wonderful thing about school is that the sun will set on this day and we get to start again on a new day.
And I will be here on the new day with you.

The simple statement of how meditation is about changing our relationship to experience is extremely poignant.The world isn't going to change, so I had best.

Wow. Thank you so much for posting this article. This is exactly what I needed to read right now in my life. I am going to keep practicing.

Thank you, Sharon, for this great explanation of what meditation does for us. I'm sharing it with all my friends. Thank you again!! Also now following you on Twitter.

Your prose inspires me... thank you for the beautiful article

This essay is very helpful in idea and explanation. I also enjoyed its lovely metaphor, clear prose, and quiet tone. Reading it is like a good meditation, and I plan to read it again! Thank you!

Such a lovely and helpful perspective. Reminding me that each moment of discomfort or discouragement is also an opportunity to kindly forgive myself and begin again with ease and gentleness is most appreciated. Each and every moment being a microcosm of the the larger whole helps me see more clearly that breaking one stick at a time is more effective, and quite acheivable. I see each moment and each new begining again as that stick.