People often tell me, “I know I should meditate. But I’ve tried to meditate and I can’t do it.”
Does that sound familiar?
Information about meditation is all over the place. And there is so much conflicting advice about meditation that it is very common for people to get confused about what meditation is and how to do it.
What is meditation?
A common misconception is that “doing meditation right” means having a calm and quiet mind.
But ironically, when a person first begins to meditate, they experience their mind racing with even more thoughts! Actually, we aren’t having more thoughts. But simply because now we are sitting still, we start noticing the vast quantity of thoughts we always have!
Not realizing this, new meditators easily get discouraged and may quit right away, thinking, “I can’t meditate. It just makes things worse!”
If we were lucky enough to be taught to expect we will have lots of thoughts when we meditate –– and if we keep meditating –– the next trap is thinking we should be “getting somewhere.”
Day after day in our meditation, we see thoughts and more thoughts. We may think, “OK, I have patiently followed the instructions to be still. I understand I am noticing my thoughts the way they have always been. I get it that my thoughts are not getting worse just because I am meditating. But . . . nothing else is happening. Shouldn’t something be getting better?”
The mistake here is thinking meditation is supposed to produce something –– a product or payoff. Of course, some people only meditate to relax or become more productive at work, and those can definitely become by-products of a person meditating. But that certainly is not all that meditation does and it is not what meditation is for.
Meditation doesn’t create something new and separate from you. It only “works” if you let go of the idea of a payoff or achievement.
Think of it this way. If you spent 5 minutes a day looking at yourself in the mirror, would you expect that effort to produce some new “thing” – some payoff that would appear on the counter at the side of the sink? Of course not. What would happen is that you would become more familiar with the details of your own face – nothing more.
Real meditation is like this –– instead of looking at your face in the mirror, you are looking at your mind. As you meditate regularly, you get to notice more and more about your mind and yourself.
If you look for some payoff for meditation (“I spent this many hours, so I should have X amount of peace/love/happiness by now,”) you don’t appreciate that you are just getting to know yourself. And actually, that is the best possible payoff! As you get to know yourself, you become aware of what you truly care about. As this awareness becomes more vivid and clear, you discover you have the passion and courage to act on what is truly important to you regardless of what others may think. Then life becomes more and more satisfying. As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Even though wisdom is naturally present in everyone, to meet a truly wise person is rare in this world. For anyone who wants to uncover that wisdom, meditation is essential. With courage to get to know yourself and your mind, wisdom gradually begins to shine forth.
How to meditate
Here are 4 things that will help you meditate for real:
1. Be interested in the fact that you are alive. This may sound odd, but it’s key. In many ways, we have been trained to be numb to being alive. For now, just sit quietly and breathe. Be interested in feeling what it feels like to be alive. Let this feeling become more and more vivid. Notice all you can about how this feels.
2. Ask questions. Challenge your thoughts. Say you have the thought, “I should have a quiet, calm mind right now” (and you’re agitated and struggling because, clearly, you don’t have a quiet, calm mind). Stop struggling and ask, “Who says so?” Notice what happens when you ask this question with interest.
3. Don’t fight with anything that comes into your awareness. Just look at it, and let it go.
4. Let go of your habit of knowing what things are. Instead, ask what they are, then relax and look without expecting an immediate answer. Be like a 4 year old looking at fish in a pond. Just look and let yourself enjoy whatever you discover.
The essence of meditation is to be freshly interested in your mind and your life, just as it is, moment by moment, without judgment. Enjoy your meditation. Enjoy yourself!