Last week we explored what meditation is and how simple it is, even though it’s quite difficult…
While meditation is simple, an even more extraordinary thing about it for me is that you cannot do it wrong. Truly. There aren’t that many things in life about which you can say that. The key instruction for meditation is to rest your attention on your breath, but there are also a few other components that can be helpful—
Find a seat. You can sit on a chair or sofa, on a cushion on the floor, or lie down, or stand up, or even walk slowly. You can cross your legs or not. There is no official right way to sit, though some traditions do prescribe a particular seat. You should sit in a way that is as comfortable for your body as possible and then not worry about it. When the spine is upright, energy can flow more easily throughout the body, so if you’re able, try to sit upright, unsupported. But if that’s not possible, don’t do it! Just sit the way you can. Meditation will work no matter how you sit or stand or lie.
Close your eyes, or keep them open or partly closed. I find that closing my eyes helps me keep my attention inside, but not everybody feels comfortable meditating with their eyes closed. If that’s you, keep them open! Meditation will work whether your eyes are open or closed.
Stay still. Our regular, day-to-day lives are active. We’re almost always doing something. It can be hard to tune into the sensations in the body while we’re engaged in activity. Meditation is a time we carve out of our day to turn our attention inward in order to develop a way of experiencing our lives independent of the stories in our minds. So it’s helpful to try to stick to whatever seat we’ve chosen for the duration of a meditation session. The body may feel like shifting position, or taking a drink of water, or scratching an itch, or even stopping the meditation. That’s okay! That’s normal! That’s human! And if you really need to move, then move. The meditation will still work. But if you can hold off moving in the face of a strong impulse to move, and just observe what that feels like in the body (usually it doesn’t feel great!), you will gradually find that impulse quiet down, and your awareness of your body will sharpen. And even if you can’t hold off moving for the whole session, see if you can hold off for 1 more breath, or 3, or 5. And use those breaths to look closely at what it feels like in your body to hold back from moving when you feel a strong need to move. That is a very powerful practice.
One thing you discover through meditation is that as you develop a deeper relationship with your body, it will tell you what it needs and wants. You probably already know what that’s like if you like to drink coffee. Your body tells you clearly when you need your coffee and when you’ve had enough coffee. Same with eating and going to the bathroom. We’ve learned the language of the body in those areas, and meditation teaches us the language of the body in other areas that most of us are not well trained in. Your body will tell you how it wants to sit, when it wants to be upright, or when it’s okay to sit through an uncomfortable impulse to scratch an itch or shift position, but you need to practice being in your body for a while to start to learn how it communicates about those things. So you just sit in the most comfortable, most accessible way for you at the time, shift when you need to, eyes open or closed, etc., and let your body tell you when it’s time to do it another way. The more you let yourself be guided by what you feel in your body, as opposed to what your mind tells you, the more trust you will develop that you are reading your body correctly. And since you really cannot injure yourself in meditation, it really doesn’t matter how long it takes to develop that trust. Just try it, and keep trying! This is training ourselves to be authentic.
The key to meditation is fixing the attention on the breath (or other object, such as mantra, sound, flame) and coming back to the breath when you realize that the mind has pulled your attention away into thinking. As I’ve mentioned, I like to use the rise and fall of my abdomen with the inhale and exhale as my anchor. Bringing my attention to my breath means feeling the moment-by-moment sensation of my abdomen expanding on the inhale and the moment-by-moment sensation of my abdomen contracting on the exhale. It means being “in” that expansion and contraction, as if those sensations are the sum total of my experience of my beingness as they’re happening. I spent years “focusing on my breath” from my head without realizing I was not actually in my body, but rather watching my breath with my mind. Those years of meditation did pay off, but when I realized the difference between watching or following my breath and being in my breath, my practice really took off. I sometimes talk about this as traveling from my head down to my abdomen and taking up residence there, in the rise and fall with the breath. It does feel like travel: being in my head feels like a completely different place than being in my breath.
Once you find your breath, the practice is to try to stay in your breath. The mind will inevitably pull you away into thinking, and that’s normal. When you realize that, just let it go and come back to the breath. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to do that (it will usually be a lot). Only being able to stay in the breath for one or two inhales and exhales throughout an entire sitting is not a failure, it is not laziness, and it is not an indication that meditation isn’t working. It’s not a “good” meditation if you can stay in your breath for a long time, though it certainly will feel good, and it’s not a “bad” meditation if you spend the entire time fighting against an agitated mind, though that usually feels bad. There is no judgment in meditation, because you cannot do it wrong! Of course that doesn’t mean you won’t judge yourself—most of us do at times, and some of us do almost all the time, like me. But when you find yourself judging your meditation or yourself more generally, try to recognize that that is nothing more than yet another thought. It’s hard to stop that kind of thought, but practicing coming back to the breath when you realize you’re caught up in that kind of thinking can really help. It offers an alternative way to experience your life, and the more you practice it, the stronger you get at it.
It also doesn’t matter what the thoughts are about. Spiritual, lofty, uplifting thoughts are not preferable to angry, sad, or anxious thoughts, even though they certainly feel a lot better. In meditation, a thought is a thought, and we work to let all thoughts go so we can stay in our bodies. If you find the spiritual, uplifting thoughts compelling, you can certainly explore them after the meditation is over. But for the time you’ve set aside, try to be neutral toward your thoughts and determined to let them go no matter how seductive they are.
The reason it doesn’t matter how many times you get lost in thought, or what the content of the thoughts is, is that what makes meditation work is the coming back to the breath when you realize you’ve been thinking. It’s not being in the breath, but rather letting go of thoughts as they arise so that you can come back to and stay in the breath. That’s what does the work, so it makes no difference what a thought is about or how many thoughts you have, so long as when you realize you’re thinking, you make the effort to let that go and come back into the body. That’s what has the power to open up access to deeper levels of being.
And that’s why there’s no way you can meditate wrong. Even if you spend most of the time you’ve set aside thinking about a work problem, or rehashing an argument with a parent, or planning what you’re going to have for dinner, or indulging in lustful fantasies about someone (who doesn’t do that now and then?), so what? When you realize that, do the best you can to let it go and come back to the breath, and your meditation will be productive. And if you discover that you’ve literally spent the entire time lost in thought, don’t judge even that. Just let yourself see and feel how powerfully your mind grabs control of your awareness, and resolve to work again the next time you sit. That in itself is a very, very powerful practice, and the time you spent in thought will not have been wasted.
I’m writing all of this because many people think they might benefit from meditation, but find it intimidating or just too hard. Many people say things like, “I just can’t meditate; I can’t quiet my mind; I can’t sit still for so long.” All of that is understandable, and most (or all) seasoned meditators have struggled with those feelings. I have tried so many forms of meditation, delved deeply into many of them, and believed each time that the way I was being taught or guided at that time was the best or most right way to do it. It turns out that none of that was right—that was all a story my mind made up to make me feel good. I have no regrets; in fact, I recognize that I couldn’t be where I am today without having done all that I did in the past. But I’ve come to a place where I see clearly that the precise form or practice doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that you do it. Period. So give it a try! And reach out if you encounter difficulties or doubts. No one can do this practice entirely alone for long. But everyone can do it, and no one can do it wrong.
If you want to give meditation a try, you can use a short guided meditation I’ve recorded here.