You can hardly open a magazine or self-help Web site these days without seeing an article telling you to meditate or learn to be more mindful. Many people have added meditation to their mental list of things they should be doing to be happy and be better at everything. Exercise, eat right and meditate – three pieces of advice everyone wants to follow and everyone struggles at times to follow.
Let’s start with some basics: what meditation is, and reasons to engage in this practice. Then we’ll talk about reasons not to engage in it (because everything isn’t best for everyone all the time).
What meditation is
Meditation is a set of techniques aimed at training the mind in specific ways to create certain benefits. All training is specific, and meditation is different from training yourself to do calculus or read French literature. Meditation techniques involve focusing the mind on an object or a series or set of objects – usually beginning with the breath but also encompassing things as far-reaching as sounds, body sensations, thoughts, visualizations of gurus and deities, and empty space – in order to cultivate useful mental states and cognitive abilities.
What specific things are we training with meditation? I call them the 3 C’s:
- Clear seeing
- Calm acceptance
The first C will be pretty obvious to most readers, as mental focus is probably the most famous benefit of meditating (think Zen archery and martial artists breaking bricks). The ability to place your attention on a thing and keep it there is desirable in a lot of ways. If you have a job that requires you to do boring or repetitive tasks, it probably is a struggle to stay focused. Concentration skills also help you tune out unimportant information or distracting stimuli, allowing you to stay engaged in a conversation with your long-talking in-laws or your 5-year-old. Being able to remember why you walked into the kitchen would be nice as well, yes?
The second C, clear seeing, is a bit different. Here we’re talking about the ability to see things as they actually are, not how we want them to be. With training in clear seeing (generally called vipassana or insight in the Buddhist tradition), we stop buying our own bullshit stories about why we do what we do. We see through the stories we play in our heads about who we are and who we should be. We learn to be with what is really happening right now. For example, if you get stuck in a traffic jam or someone else scoots into the parking space you were eyeing at the grocery, it’s tempting to get into a long story about who is right and who is wrong here (pro tip: you’re probably not right, nor are you totally wrong). If you get caught in ideas about how no one can drive and traffic jams shouldn’t exist and that was “your” parking spot, you are having what the spiritual author Eckhart Tolle calls an argument with reality. Imagine, instead, that you could see the situation as cars on a road, with drivers who sometimes make good decisions and sometimes make poor ones. Suppose you saw the traffic as other humans also doing what you’re doing – trying to get somewhere for reasons that matter to them – rather than as something that happened to ruin your day. Meditation can help with this.
The final C, calm acceptance, could really be 2b, in that it’s a logical extension of clear seeing. This concept is what Buddhists call equanimity. It is accepting all experiences equally, without rushing to judge them as good or bad. This is where compassion lives. This aspect of training is the real key to happiness. If you could see your experiences as simply experiences (dropping the “your” and with it the emotional stake in them), how much more joyful might you be? If you could address the problem of your leaky roof without spinning out about fairness or unfairness, if you could hear someone’s criticism of you without it turning into an argument, if you could enjoy the food on your plate regardless of whether it was seasoned to your liking…how might that be?
All these things are possible with meditation training.
The warning label
Full disclosure, I stole “the warning label” phrase from Vince Horn at Buddhist Geeks. Google him, and watch his video on this because he does a much better job than I will at explaining it.
But here goes my explanation. Meditation is wonderful in many ways. It can make us more calm, loving, and joyful. However, there are times when it isn’t advisable to start a meditation practice. It’s best to meditate while sober, and not in any acute psychological crisis. Some problems are better addressed via medical care or therapy. Meditation can’t solve everything.
And regular practice WILL stir things up. I did a 10-day retreat a few years ago where I literally cried for the first nine days (not constantly, but at least once a day). Every other long-term meditator I’ve met has a similar story. It is said that if you haven’t cried deeply, you haven’t truly begun to meditate yet. When you cultivate clear seeing, you see flowers more clearly – this one always surprises me, but for real your visual awareness will improve acutely with lots of meditation – but also you see your flaws more clearly. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron shares an analogy of a pond. She says we imagine that meditating will make our minds quiet like a still pond. This is true, but in the stillness we can now see the old tires and the rusty refrigerator and the dead fish at the bottom of the pond. Meditation will not allow you to lie to yourself or ignore your pain. It will bring it all up to be dealt with. This is beautiful. This is not to be missed. It is the reason the lotus flower is often used as a symbol for the meditative path. We see the pretty flower on top of the water, but to get there it first had to push up from the muck and the darkness and reach toward the light. If you’re ready, the path is here for you.
How to start
First, consider the question of why you want to meditate. Having an intention and knowing what it is will help you in any difficult endeavor. So what do you want? More concentration, more clarity, more equanimity? The whole enchilada of nirvana, liberation from suffering? Excellent, write down your goal somewhere so you don’t go astray, and keep reading.
To begin a meditation practice, you simply begin. Any meditation is better than none, so please don’t think you can’t do it if you can’t do a 10-day retreat or meditate for an hour every day. Even 5 minutes, done daily, will make changes in you. More is better, of course, but some is better than none.
Pick a time of day that you think will work, and don’t be afraid to try something else if your first plan doesn’t work. Try 6 a.m., try 10 p.m., try noon! Meditate in the bathroom or in bed or before starting your car. Try it sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. Try it all until you find what fits for you. Take a class or listen to guided meditations at first. There are many good apps for this, including Insight Timer, Headspace, Calm and Buddhify.
If you don’t use an app or guided meditations, the basic instructions are thus: Set a timer for the amount of time you intend to meditate and sit down in a position where you’re stable and comfortable, with your back straight. Bring your attention to the breath either at the nostrils, the upper chest or the belly. Notice all the sensations you find in the spot you picked. When your mind wanders, bring it back. Repeat until the timer goes off.
It’s that simple, but it’s not easy. Your mind will wander a lot, and this will make you think you’re meditating wrong. You aren’t. Anything you start paying attention to, you will notice more of. You will notice more mind wandering than you think is normal. You’re normal. Your only job as you meditate is to catch the mind wandering (yay! you noticed! congratulate yourself!) and bring it back every time. This is the entirety of the practice.
I also suggest that you use mental noting to help with focus, such as saying to yourself “breathing in” when you’re breathing in and “breathing out” when you’re breathing out and “thinking, thinking” when you notice mind wandering. Start with just these three notes at first. I’ll write more on noting in a later blog. Feel free to email me with questions about this or about anything else I’ve written.
Good luck in your practice.
May you be well. May all beings be well.