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I regularly teach and facilitate meditation. I do this in high schools, to provide students and teachers with tools to manage stress; with a Buddhist group, to help members settle into spiritual practice; and with those in recovery from addiction, which is also how I got into the practice: trying to stay sober, meditating for my life.
I’d describe meditation as a practice that doesn’t solve any problems, but helps with almost all of them. Everything you face in life is easier if you can face it calmly and without fear. That’s the kind of presence meditation helps us cultivate: a combination of attention and calm. I think until we start doing meditation, or something like it, we don’t realize how habitually we run away.
That’s an important part of the practice of meditation: realizing it doesn’t actually fix anything. You come to the practice because you want to get over your breakup or stop being so stressed out at work, let go of someone you lost or get better at standing up for yourself. And you want immediate results, so you sit and you sit, trying to be peaceful and present, trying to concentrate on your breath. You light incense and read spiritual books, and maybe you feel a bit better for a little while, because you’re doing something nice for yourself. But for the most part…nothing happens. At the end of the day, you’re still the exact same person, with all the same hang-ups and neuroses, living the same strange, complicated, and painful life.
What meditation does is allow us to be more intimate with our pain, and with ourselves. We practice facing ourselves and our lives, honestly and calmly, rather than trying to hide. Some situations do require us to flee to survive, and others necessitate that we stand up and go to work to fix things. But we can’t do either effectively if we haven’t looked at — really looked at, really accepted — whatever we’re dealing with. So that’s how I think of meditation practice: a way of looking at it, really seeing it, staying steady, not running away.
The Myth of the Empty Mind
Though the practice of meditation has been life-changing for me and others with whom I practice, I try not to talk about it too much. I’m worried about looking like I’m trying to preach to or convert people. But whenever I mention it, people are always interested. Always. They want to know more about it: where you go, how you do it, how it works. I think people can see when you’re grounded, when you’re calm, when you’re living a basically purposeful and joyful life, and they want in. They want to experience that kind of focus, and peace, and power. Now more than ever.
While the majority of people I encounter express a desire to try meditation, they also feel that they’ll never be able to do it. Mostly they’ve never tried it, or maybe they’ve tried it once or twice, on their own, in secret, without getting any direction or support, or without sticking with it long enough to get comfortable. So they think they’re not cut out for it.
When I ask about their experience, a lot of people think meditation means something like “stopping thinking.” Actually, I thought that for a long time too, because that’s how a lot of early Western books on meditation presented it, and that misunderstanding has kind of stuck around as the basic definition of meditation. You sit down, you “stop thinking,” you have a serenely empty mind, you bask in clarity, emptiness reveals itself, you “get enlightened,” and then you’re happy and inspired forever.
Since none of that actually happens, and because you can’t really stop thinking, people who assume that’s what meditation is are set up to feel like they’ve failed. They think they have the wrong kind of brain, one that “thinks too much” (particularly true of self-identified “smart” people), or they feel that they don’t have the kind of discipline needed to become a meditator.
Same Person, Same Life
Meditation does take discipline, but not because the activity itself is strenuous. (You literally just sit there.) Rather, it’s hard to do because taking up anything new and sticking with it is hard — especially when it doesn’t seem to deliver any immediate results. You might feel good after you meditate — momentarily more calm, relaxed, or accepting — but you’re still basically the same busy, stressed-out, self-conscious person. You get up from meditation with a good feeling, but it hasn’t solved any of your problems. You’re still the same person living the same life, and in the beginning, the effects can be imperceptible, making us feel like we’re wasting time.
I think it makes more sense to think of meditation the same way you think about working out: When you do it you feel good, but there’s not any immediately tangible result. You don’t go to the gym once and come home in shape. You go to the gym a thousand times; sometimes you go a few times a week, then you lapse for a couple of months and feel bad about yourself, then something makes you go back again, and so on. Getting fit and healthy is never completely accomplished; you have to keep doing it, in some form, for the rest of your life. So maybe think of meditation like that. Take it slow, be consistent, keep showing up, and don’t be too attached to seeing immediate results.
I’d even suggest that meditation isn’t something you ever get better at. I started sitting five or six years ago, just for a few minutes at a time, and there were all sorts of thoughts in my brain that I couldn’t get to go away! Now I sit for 20 or 30 minutes nearly every day, I do six-day silent retreats, I’ve written and spoken about meditation, I’ve read a hundred books about it, and I’ve discussed my practice with many wise and insightful teachers. And when I sit now…all those thoughts are still there. I sit down and I’m instantly distracted, and so much of the practice is just letting those thoughts and ideas and feelings and preoccupations go, coming back to my body, coming back to my breath. I might be more comfortable in my practice, but my practice isn’t “getting me anywhere.” Practice never gets us anywhere.
Failure Leads to Freedom
That doesn’t mean you’re “bad at it.” It’s because meditation isn’t practicing for something. It’s not practicing to get better; it’s practicing just for the sake of practicing. Its purpose is just itself.
And maybe this notion of practice, this notion of doing something for its own sake, without any point or goal, is one of the great gifts of meditation. Because we realize that that’s the only way we can do anything well: not by aiming at a result, not by shooting for something in the future, but by doing that thing just to do that thing. Mushotoku: not aiming at an outcome or goal.
Paradoxically, you usually have to meditate for a while to realize that it’s not getting you anywhere: that it’s not fixing you or the world, that you’re not even becoming a noticeably better meditator. You stick with it and keep failing and eventually, you just embrace it and give up the notion of ever getting anywhere. And that’s when your life really will change, and you really will become more free. It’s also when your practice will start to get easier, and even become something you enjoy.
With that in mind, here are my four practical tips to keep you sane and grounded as you get started:
1. Clear a space. Finding your way to meditation on a daily basis will be that much easier if you don’t have to move furniture, compete with the noise of traffic or a TV, or worry that your partner, roommate, or co-worker is going to walk in on you. If you can, get a decent meditation cushion to sit on (or just find the equivalent around the house: couch cushions, pillows, a thick folded-up towel), clear a corner of a room where you can sit, and choose a time when you can do it with reliable privacy, on a regular basis. Make it easy for yourself to show up to your practice, and get as much out of it as possible when you do.
2. Stop trying to stop thinking. When you do find your way to your meditation cushion, the next step is to set out with a realistic expectation. You can’t “stop thinking”; you can practice letting thoughts go. The way to do this is by finding an alternative anchor for your attention — something other than your internal narrative. Classic examples: your breath, your posture, the ambient sounds around you, a single word or mantra, a candle, or a photograph of someone you love. With one of these anchors, you have something you can return your attention to when your mind starts to wander:
- You notice that you’re lost in thought and no longer paying attention.
- Without judgment, you let go of those thoughts.
- You return to your breath, your body, the space that you’re in.
Inevitably, it will happen again, and maybe next time you’ll notice a little sooner, or with a little less judgment, or be able to return to your breath that much more gently. That’s progress. That’s the whole practice.
3. Don’t fix anything. Meditation will not make you a better person or resolve all the issues in your life. At least not if you set out to accomplish those things. Rather, look at your meditation as a time to relax and be truly, completely present. It’s not supposed to be stressful or feel like work; you are not trying to add one more supposedly self-improving chore to your life. Above all, you’re not looking for one more way to feel bad about yourself because you can’t do everything right. Enjoy your meditation! This is your break from your thoughts and all the endless stimulation and stress you’re constantly being bombarded with, both from within and without. Relish the simple magic of doing something for no other reason than to do it.
4. Start small and do it daily. You don’t need to flee your life to become a mountain hermit or take up residence in a Buddhist monastery in order to meditate. Meditation is not another vehicle for your ambition. Rather, it is a way to practice showing up for yourself, your life, and the people in it. It also isn’t an endurance sport, so don’t concern yourself with whether you’re sitting for long enough. Start with an amount of time that’s comfortable for you: maybe two to five minutes at first. This will make it easier to stick with the practice, and over time, when you come to crave more time on the cushion, you can increase it. But don’t set an impossible goal for yourself and then give up when, inevitably, you fail. Keep your practice small, sweet, and humble.
And remember: As with anything important, the work of meditation is slow, patient, and never complete. So don’t rush it, and definitely don’t wait.