You’d think it’d be easy. After all, you’re just sitting there doing nothing. But ask anyone who’s ever tried it: meditation can be hard. That solitary trip inside your mind is actually, for many of us, a wild and uncomfortable ride.
The mind abhors a vacuum, which explains why so much of our mental energy is wasted ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or distracted by our devices and other forms of entertainment and stimulus. We don’t like being alone with just our thoughts.
How far are we willing to go to avoid such torture? In a series of studies in 2014, scientists at the University of Virginia put individuals in a room with only a chair and asked them to be alone with their thoughts for 6-15 minutes. Most subjects found this to be difficult and over half reported being unhappy. In fact, 67% of the men and 25% of the women self-administered an electric shock before completing the task—preferring shocking themselves to the boredom of being alone with nothing to do.
Science is finally catching up to what contemplatives have known for millennia—that the techniques for focusing attention and calming the mind have untold numbers of benefits to our mental and physical health. The practice of meditation is one of the single best ways for people to work with their minds and cultivate the type of mental balance that improves emotional stability, physiological responses to stressful events, allows you to more accurately perceive reality, and helps you achieve an overall happier disposition. But learning how to meditate does take motivation, practice, and a willingness to work through discomfort at times.
What is meditation?
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what meditation really is, how it works, and what it all means. So it’s good to get clarity around some basics if you are still looking to develop that motivation for cultivating a regular practice, or if you are a beginner who is not sure whether they’re “doing it right.”
A really good primer written from the perspective of a self-described fidgety skeptic is Dan Harris’s hilarious and very readable book “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.” I’m going to share a few of his words and ideas below. I think it’s useful to approach meditation from this point of view because it addresses many of these misconceptions, and in doing so I think he makes an even more compelling case for why it’s both beneficial and possible for everyone to meditate.
Don’t do something, just sit there
Meditation is simply sitting (or some other position, we’ll cover that later) and observing your thoughts. It is paying attention to what’s going on in your mind, what that ubiquitous “voice inside your mind” is saying, with curiosity so that you can learn a little more about yourself. The aim is to be an observer to what’s going on without reacting to it, projecting meaning onto it, judging it, and identifying with it.
There are many different types of meditation, but the most basic one is to just pay attention to your breathing. Why? Because the breath is an automatic thing your body already knows how to do without your mind’s input. It’s pretty noncontroversial, it’s pleasant, and it provides a convenient focal point for stilling the mind. (Remember the quip about the mind abhorring a vacuum? Watching your breath gives it something innocuous to do.) The practice then really becomes paying attention to when your mind begins to wander, and then bringing it back to focusing on the breath.
Dan Harris has some really helpful things to say on this point, so I’ll quote at length from his book (bold emphasis added is mine). I also so love his image!
"Every time you catch yourself wandering and escort your attention back to the breath, it is like a biceps curl for the brain. It is also a radical act: you’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and you are actually focusing on what’s happening right now.
"I have heard from countless people who assume they could never meditate because they can’t stop thinking. I cannot say this frequently enough: the goal is not to clear your mind but to focus your mind—for a few nanoseconds at a time—and whenever you become distracted, just start again. Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding.
"I think this pernicious clear-the-mind misconception stems in part from the fact that meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever. The traditional art depicting meditation, while often beautiful, can be badly misleading. It usually shows practitioners with beatific looks on their faces. Examples about in Buddhist temples, in airport spas, and in this picture [at left] of a man in a loincloth I found on the Internet. Based on my own practice, this image [at right] better captures the experience of meditation:"
The mere act of recognizing you have become distracted is the goal—to catch yourself wandering. And when it happens, you should rejoice. Say to yourself, “Yay, congratulations, me! I’m so proud that I caught myself wandering. I rock! Now I can get back to my breath.” It’s important to pat yourself on the back for noticing these wanderings because if you don’t find joy and reward yourself in the catching, you’ll lack the motivation to keep catching yourself and will judge yourself for having “done it wrong” or not being the type who can meditate, and you’ll ultimately give up. When you catch yourself and come back to the breath, you are training your mind on how to come back to a place of calm and consistency—and when you master this practice sitting alone quietly on a cushion, you are better able to take this skill into the real world when you have some heavy stuff flying your way upsetting your balance.
What isn’t meditation?
Meditation isn’t ridding your mind of thoughts
First, that’s not realistic, nor is it possible. So if you think you can’t meditate because you can’t stop your mind, then I’m happy to tell you you’re wrong. If you had no thoughts to look at and work with, what would be the point of meditating?
Second, it’s not the thoughts themselves that are bad. It’s the grasping to them, projecting our fears or anxieties onto them, our identification with our thoughts (such as, “I am angry” rather than “I feel anger,” or “I am scared” rather than “I feel fear”) that causes us to suffer. So the goal in meditation isn’t to abolish all thoughts, it’s learning how to observe them for what they are (just thoughts) and let them evaporate, ceasing to upset our balance.
We are not our thoughts. This realization—and the freedom it brings—is the biggest gift meditation gives us.
Meditation is not praying
Another misconception is that meditation is some form of praying. It is not. There are many different types of meditation designed for various purposes: some involve merely watching the breath, some involve focusing on a particular object, some focus on paying bare attention to your direct experience of whatever is happening at the moment, some involve thinking about your intention to cultivate a particular quality. Some people utilize particular rituals or practices as a way to focus their minds, such as reciting mantras. But the practice of meditation is not to pray to a deity or for a particular outcome. Again, meditation is about watching the mind, not praying. This means that anyone can meditate, as it is not involved with any spiritual tradition and requires no set of beliefs.
Some people meditate sitting before an altar. What is that about? Many people find that setting up some type of altar helps define an area for this specific purpose, so they can come into a relaxed atmosphere and state of mind. They might have candles on it, or a picture of a loved one or a role model, or maybe some fresh flowers. There is certainly no need to have one in order to meditate; you can meditate literally anywhere (and you should!). But you might experiment with this so that you have a place that helps you to conceptually designate it as your meditation space—a place meant for quiet reflection and relaxation. It could be just a nice corner of a room, sitting in front of a window, or outside in a garden. You may find that an altar or some other intentionally-designed/decorated/carved-out space can help attract you to the practice and keep you coming back.
Tips to get you started (or keep you going)
Frequency and duration: in general, it’s better to do a little bit more frequently than a lot sparingly. To really see the benefits, you need to come to understand how your mind works—what do you ruminate about? What are the qualities and frequencies of your thoughts? When you more closely investigate what’s behind them, do they comport with reality or are they more conceptual projections? It’s hard to really get to know your mind if you don’t sit with it frequently, so doing longer sessions just once a week or every few weeks won’t really tell you much about your patterns.
Much better to do small “sits” daily or every other day. Even if all you do is 5-10 minutes 6 times a week, you’ll reap more benefits than if you squeak out a 45-minute session once a month. Dan Harris argues that even just a minute per day is enough to reap some benefits (listen to a great 7-minute interview with him on NPR, where he says time is the #1 obstacle for people getting into meditation).
Posture: you don’t have to sit in the lotus position to meditate. You can sit upright in a chair or you can lay down. Some people kneel on small wooden meditation benches. Some people walk in slow, regular steps with their hands gently folded in front of their body. You don’t have to close your eyes; you can have a soft, low gaze that looks at nothing in particular, or focus on a candle. You want to be reasonably comfortable so your body can be at ease yet attentive. Don’t get so comfortable that you fall asleep (which can sometimes happen when laying down), nor so uncomfortable that you are in pain or aggravate an injury which then distracts you. The position that is best is the one that works for you. The two that work best for me are sitting cross-legged on my meditation cushion, or sitting upright in my desk chair that overlooks a beautiful view of the water from my office. Laying down for longer sessions tends to make me fall asleep so I avoid it.
Time and place: especially if you are just beginning to meditate, find a quiet space where you are unlikely to be disturbed. You might have to find a place in your home where you won’t be interrupted by kids or pet or loud street noise. Time of day factors in too—find one in which you won’t be disturbed by housemates, kids, spouses, or other people or responsibilities. Inside is usually best so that you can control your environment, but outside can be particularly pleasant if the weather is agreeable and you are safe and unlikely to be disturbed. I have a range of places that suit me depending on the day, the weather, and my mood. Most times it’s a little corner space in my bedroom at my altar, but sometimes it’s sitting upright in a chair in my office, and in the summertime I like to sit cross-legged on my front porch where I have a lovely fountain and rock garden. While some noise can be a useful tool to work with in terms of opening up to and then drowning out distractions, in general you’re likely to relax more and focus better in a peaceful setting.
What is your overall disposition? For some people, meditation comes fairly easy. They can drop into a comfortable state of relaxation, and if they are following a guided meditation they can easily follow the instructions and direct their attention as dictated. For others, it’s much harder. There are a lot of thoughts going through their mind. Each time they try to follow their breath they are soon whipped away, thinking about what to have for dinner, or reliving an argument they recently had, or fixated on how much their neck and shoulders hurt, or wondering when in the world their timer will go off. I have been all of these types of meditator some time.
However you are, it’s totally OK. Whatever you are faced with is what you are dealing with, and if you happen to be among the more agitated type, it doesn’t mean that you can’t meditate or that meditation won’t help you. The value is in the process itself. The more you do it, the less agitated you will be (though it may not ever fully go away), and you will learn more about your mind—how it works, how it affects you, and how to control it to serve you better out in the real world.
You’ll also find that setting aside time for yourself is so precious in these busy times. It’s a generous act of self-compassion to tend to your inner life and find some peace and quiet amidst our daily crises large and small.
Apps, classes, and online guided meditations
There are great apps that can help you get started with this, like Harris’s and 10% Happier and Headspace. Many yoga classes begin with a couple of moments of meditation or quiet reflection. Community groups and local spiritual centers regularly offer meditation classes or group meditation sessions (which many find helpful), and of course there are tons of guided meditations on the Internet. Check out this in-depth collection from the Cultivating Emotional Balance curriculum that I’m currently getting certified to teach.
I encourage you to give it a try, and don't give up if it seems too hard. It will get better and more enjoyable with time. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions, issues, or requests for guidance.