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The other night, while out at a bar, my friend Corrie offered a confession: “I tried meditating,” she began, “but it didn’t work for me.” Over the 14 years I’ve been teaching meditation I have heard people say this sort of thing before, so I had a few follow-up questions about the amount of time she gave the practice.
“I tried it three times,” she said, “but I couldn’t get good at it; I just started thinking about all the things I had to do afterward.”
I wasn’t going to be so rude as to get into this with Corrie while we were at a crowded party, but there are two red flags that come up for me whenever I have this conversation. The first is that she expected to try meditation a few times and have it be a quick fix for whatever might ail her. The other is the idea that when she got lost in thought she was, all of a sudden, “bad” at meditation. Corrie is not alone—I have found that a lot of people want to try meditation but quickly get discouraged after a few attempts.
The first issue many people have when beginning meditation is that they expect a quick payoff. Thinking you will see the benefits of meditation after three 10-minute sessions is like saying you went to the gym for a half hour of cardio and are completely shocked that you failed to lose 10 pounds.
Meditation is a very gradual and arduous venture. In our age of instant gratification, where you can order a book, a dinner, even a car online and have it delivered to your door relatively quickly, the idea of the benefits of meditation taking weeks and months sounds anachronistic. Yet there is no way to express ship your meditative awareness. You need to put in the time, day after day, before you begin to see the results.
Meditation is a bit like learning a new musical instrument. At first it’s awkward—you’re just figuring out where to put your fingers and how to play simple notes. Then once you’ve done that for a little while you can play scales and simple songs. Within weeks you can play more complex songs. Before you know it, with regular practice, you’re playing “Free Bird” in an awesome garage band. The same goes for meditation—it becomes easier to do and you start to see its effects in your everyday life, but only if you do it regularly and stick with it over time. Meditating once a week or once a month is the same as picking up that musical instrument that often: You’ll often find yourself back at square one trying to remember what you’re supposed to be doing.
The second red flag I mentioned is the set notion that one is supposed to get “good” at meditation. When you sit down to meditate all you are doing is becoming more familiar with who you already are. Some parts of you are peaceful while others are completely neurotic. That’s just the way things are. If you sit down to meditate and you rest with the breath and find a sense of calm, awesome. But if you sit down and think through how you’re going to answer that annoying email you have to respond to, that doesn’t mean you are “bad” at meditation. It just means you need to gently bring yourself back to the object of your meditation and start anew. In my experience, any meditation is good meditation. It helps you observe every aspect of yourself, which can be painful or pleasurable but it’s always a worthwhile endeavor.
Meditation is a bit like making a new friend, except that you are the new friend. If you sat down across from a new person for 10 minutes a day, three days in a row, you wouldn’t think that you’re besties. You would exert yourself further, applying patience and curiosity and spending longer periods getting to know them better over time. The same can be said for our mind. If you haven’t spent much time getting to know yourself, meditation might seem intimidating. But, gradually, with effort and time, you will be able to befriend yourself more fully.
When I first started meditating I had the opposite problem from Corrie: I was adamant that I wanted to start a practice and would sit regularly in meditation, but had come to believe I probably was not doing it right. It wasn’t that I thought that meditation didn’t work for me so much as I thought I wasn’t doing it right. I sat across from many senior teachers and would ask remarkably annoying nit-picky questions about the breath, posture, and how to hold the mind. These senior teachers would indulge me for a question or two but then ultimately look me in the eyes and say, “Well…it sounds like you should keep meditating.”
Decades later I’m happy to say that this advice holds true. If you don’t think you’re good at meditation (like me) or you think it simply doesn’t work for you (like Corrie), keep doing it. You might just need the time to relax into the practice. You don’t need to try out a million different types of meditation in the hopes that one will bring you to instant enlightenment. Sometimes you don’t need to do anything different at all; you just need to keep going. It’s a slow road to walk down, but it’s a worthwhile journey to become more present, kinder, and self-accepting.
Photo by Gabriel Messuti
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