Cultivate is a very accurate and satisfying word for what we do in meditation. We cultivate spaciousness. We cultivate ease. We cultivate kindness and compassion.
There is a quality of patience with cultivating. You plant a seed and trust that with regular watering something will happen. There is no immediate expectation. The process involves us but is not completely a product of our will. We are tapping into the nature of things. It is the nature of things to grow. It is within our nature to be peaceful, to have more clarity in our minds and more compassion in our hearts.
At the beginning of a sitting practice, it can be useful to identify this activity of 'cultivating spacious ease'. Yes, it is an activity. Meditation is not completely passive, although it may look that way, and sometimes it may feel that way. We actively develop wise intention: to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover we haven't been present at all. We develop wise effort: that easeful balance where we are relaxed but alert. We are alert but receptive. We open to the generous sunlight of awareness and allow it to grow wisdom within us.
I have been finding that the phrase 'cultivating spacious ease' helps me to develop balanced effort. Perhaps later in the meditation I might find myself lost in thought. If the thoughts are judgemental, I might use the phrase 'cultivating kindness' or 'cultivating compassion'. Notice how different these are from 'I should be kinder,' 'I should be more compassionate,' or 'What a mean rotten person I am.' Cultivating these qualities accepts that I am not necessarily being kind or compassionate right now, but I am cultivating those qualities and with steady attention and patience they may grow within me.
Cultivation also allows for the unknown to be present in our meditation. In the garden we may cultivate seeds of one flower only to discover later, after the leaves and petals show up, that it is another flower entirely. Can we have enough spacious ease to welcome the flowers that bloom within us, whatever kind they are? In our lives we may think we know what we need, what will make us happy, what will make us feel fulfilled, but the truth is we don't have all the answers. Can we live in the questions themselves? Can we dance in the mystery of life? Our desire to have everything locked down, named, numbered and filed alphabetically, doesn't really suit the natural way of things. We may think it makes us more secure, but it's a ruse. Believing ourselves to know anything for sure only guarantees a more painful falling apart when it turns out differently from what we so firmly believed.
Cultivating spacious ease makes room for wonder in our lives: Both the questioning kind of wonder and the awestruck kind of wonder. Cultivating spacious ease makes room for our buddha nature, our own access to universal wisdom, to whisper its truth to us in our most quiet, relaxed and attentive moments of meditation. In that moment it might name the seed we are planting in the nourishing space we have created through our practice.
We are always cultivating something in our lives, aren't we? It's useful when we are in distress to ask 'What am I cultivating here?' Sometimes we are cultivating fear. We are using that hoe to dig up a lot of dirt! In that realization we might take the time to pause, access compassion and awareness, and plant the seeds that will nourish us.