There’s no wrong way to meditate. There’s no wrong experience to have when meditating.
I just want to get that out of the way up front, so that if you read nothing else of what follows you’ll at least have read those statements.
When I write about non-pop culture topics on this blog it’s almost always something I myself am struggling with. Writing about spiritual principles helps me as I attempt to live by those spiritual principles, it gives me focus and allows me to explore the principles that might, in any given moment, be hard for me to get with. So if I’m writing about forgiveness I’m probably angry at someone.
Today I’m writing about meditation. That’s because I’m trying to get back on the meditation wagon; I fell off pretty badly for a few months and I could really see the difference in my mindset and the way I felt day-to-day. I’m now working to recapture a good daily practice, and to get back to sitting in sangha, and after just a week back on the horse I feel slightly more centered and okay.
I’ve been hesitant to write about meditation because I am not a meditation teacher or expert. I have been meditating for less than two years, with one big gap in that time when I fell out. I have been on a silent retreat and have sat in different types of meditation, but I’m just a baby when it comes to a meditation practice. As a result I’ve been leery of writing too much because I don’t want this to be the meditation equivalent of one of those “We made my sister who never saw STAR WARS watch the whole OT” articles I dislike so much. You deserve to read about meditation from someone who knows their shit!
Sadly, you have me. So I’ll just do my best to talk about MY practice; everything I relate here is my personal experience and should be approached as such. Also, everything I write here is based on my personal understanding of meditation, which might be slightly different from the understanding of popular meditation figures in the culture.
Meditation is sitting still in a formalized posture and maintaining focus on one thing. That’s it; there’s no bigger mystery to it, no magical element or hyper ritual that needs to be done. You can meditate in a temple or on a Greyhound bus, you can meditate at home or in the middle of Disneyland. Technically you don’t even need to be sitting, but let’s talk about the baseline stuff here.
There’s no wrong way to do meditation. There are no states to achieve. There are no outcomes to reach. If you’re doing zazen – meditating in the Zen tradition – there will be some strictness about posture, but many other traditions don’t care all that much. There are recommendations and best practice guidelines, and you’ll notice a difference if you follow them, but you don’t have to worry too much about your posture if you’re new. Just get sitting.
The meditation I practice is called vipassana meditation, aka insight meditation. It is similar to other forms of meditation, especially an object-focused meditation called samatha, but works fundamentally differently.
Here’s how you do vipassana sitting meditation: you sit in a comfortable upright posture (at home I sit on a cushion, at sangha I sit in a chair) and close your eyes. You bring your attention to your breath, usually by focusing on the spot where your breath enters your nose (although you can pick any part of the breath that you like). This follows the Buddha’s teachings in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Foundations of Mindfulness:
Ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.”
Know when you are breathing in, know when you are breathing out.
When you’re doing this, thoughts will arise. They just do. You don’t fight them, you simply attempt to watch them as they drift past. You are aware of them, but do not get caught in them. You label them, perhaps – ‘angry thought, lustful thought, sad thought’ – but don’t follow them. If you do follow them it’s okay. You can’t meditate wrong. If you follow a thought, get wrapped up in a thought, simply come back to your breath when you realize you got wrapped up.
I like that part – it’s a moment of mini-awakening, to arouse yourself from the shackles of a thought and return to clarity in the moment and to be aware that you got caught up in anger or sadness or hunger or whatever. It is energizing to me. It feels like a preview of what it would be to be awake all the time.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing, basically. As you do this more and as you get more experienced at letting your thoughts drift by without engaging them you begin to have the opportunity to examine those thoughts; this is where the insight part comes in. You begin to see the ephemeral nature of every thought, and you begin to see the roots of the thoughts – what spawns them, and how ephemeral that spawning itself is. You become less attached to thoughts, and eventually the thoughts have less power over you.
You become an observer, a person sitting in a movie theater watching these thoughts projected on the silver screen, and you realize that even though the bandit points the gun at the camera at the end of The Great Train Robbery he can’t actually shoot you. It fundamentally changes the way you relate to your own mind.
That is A goal of meditation, but to me meditation should be a goalless practice. Many people will tell you that meditation will calm you, or help you concentrate, or make you wiser. All of those things can be true; they can be side effects of meditation. But I believe that the whole point is learning to let go of things, and that can begin with letting go of having a goal.
There’s an apocryphal Mark Twain quote that I like: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” A good walk, in my opinion, is without real purpose. You can get exercise from it, and you can go somewhere with it, but a truly good walk is one that you set out upon without a goal, letting your feet take you where they decide to go. Getting to the market or getting in a little cardio are the side effects of a good walk, not the point. Thus it is with meditation.
Don’t get me wrong – being off the cushion for two months led me to a state of daily irritation that, while not as bad as how I felt daily pre-meditation, was notable. But while I enjoy those side effects, I try to not make them the center of my practice. I try to not make ANY achievements the center of my practice. My practice is sitting down with my eyes closed for ten minutes in the morning. That’s it. Everything else is gravy.
By bringing my practice down to just that I gain the luxury of never worrying about it. When I first started sitting I had some bad times – it was hard to sit, my brain raced, I fell asleep, I got caught up in a zillion thoughts, many of them terrifying – and I felt bad about those times because I had a goal. I thought my goal was to become totally serene and without thought. I had a very incredible early meditation experience where I accidentally achieved what we call the first jhana, which included an intense sense of bliss. I was judging my other sits by that, and they were coming up way short. Because I had goals I also had the bad feeling of failing to reach those goals, and sitting started to become something that made me feel bad because I thought I wasn’t good at it.
But then I sat with an ex-Buddhist monk who had been in a monastery for nine years. We did a half hour meditation, and when he rang the bell he asked “Did anyone else spend half the meditation thinking about what they would watch on Netflix later tonight, or was it just me?” The idea that this guy could still have that experience, even after all his years in a robe, changed everything about meditation for me. I realized this wasn’t something to perfect, it was – as the name says! – something to practice.
How do you get started on meditation? I can tell you how I did. This advice comes from Noah Levine, founder of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, who I consider to be one of my main teachers. When he was 18 he was busted and thrown in jail, was facing real prison time, and he used this technique to center himself in the moment while getting through the experience.
Set a five minute timer. You don’t have to meditate for hours on end, especially not your first time.
Sit in an upright posture, either cross legged on a cushion or on a straight-backed chair. If you’re on a chair keep your feet planted firmly on the floor. Hold your back straight but keep your front relaxed. Let your gut sag. Notice all the spots where you hold tension. Release the muscles in your face, especially in your jaw and around your eyes. Remove your tongue from the roof of your mouth. Let your shoulders disconnect from your ears and allow them to drop.
Focus on the spot where your breath enters your nose. Know when you are breathing in. Count when you are breathing out.
Count ten out breaths. If your mind wanders between counts return to one. Be honest with yourself – it’s not a failure to lose track. I often lose track around 7 or 8. My first time meditating I couldn’t get past 4 without my brain flitting off somewhere.
When you get to ten start over from one. Keep doing this until your timer goes off.
You have now meditated.
That’s it. No incense or holy paraphernalia required. You don’t need to cleanse yourself or have some special mantra. You just have to sit upright and try to focus on your breath. People charge other people lots of money for this shit, and you can do it for free in your home.
One note: the secret mindset that makes meditation really good (if you will accept me using a word that carries value judgment) is friendliness. Be friendly towards yourself. Don’t be strict or tough. In the West we love being tough on ourselves, and we often use that as an excuse to not actually do the stuff that would be good for us. We missed a couple of spin classes so we just quit spin because we’re not doing it right – we’re looking for these outs, if we’re honest.
When you’re sitting be friendly to yourself the way you would be with a loved one who is attempting a new hobby. You would offer them encouragement and love, even if their first attempt at woodworking was less than perfect. Why not do the same for yourself?
When your mind wanders – and your mind WILL wander, you WILL get caught up in thoughts – smile at it the way you would smile at a rambunctious child who is trying really hard to read a book for the first time. You know how hard it is for that kid to concentrate and form those sounds, and you love that kid for the effort. Bring that love to yourself.
This isn’t letting yourself off the hook. It’s acknowledging that you’re trying and that’s more than most people do. It’s acknowledging that there’s no right way to do this thing, and that every experience you have while doing it is a learning experience. I’ve only talked about the most basic stuff, but the reality is that in vipassana meditation the very intrusive thoughts and emotions become our guides, letting us know what we need to focus on and work with.
Having no goal allows you to just sit down and do it. And the more you sit down and do it the easier it gets and slowly you begin to notice all those side effects accumulating. Those side effects have been transformative in my life; I react to stress and bad situations very differently than I did two years ago. I still have stress and fear and negative emotions, but my relationship with them has changed. They steer the ship way less often now. This is the core of mindfulness – being aware of what you’re thinking and feeling, and being able to be in charge of that. I deal with problem people in my life in a better way, and I’m aware when I’m getting caught up in reactions that could escalate unpleasant interactions. That’s so freeing, to no longer be at the whims of my emotions from moment to moment, constantly getting kicked around by fear or anger.
I never imagined I would become a meditator. I had to be knocked down a lot of pegs to get here, but I’m glad I did, and I now understand this isn’t some frou-frou bullshit. It’s a real, actionable form of mental training, no crazier than working out in a gym. It’s simple and it is accessible to everyone who can think, and it can make your life better in measurable ways. I like the way Dan Harris puts it – you can be 10% happier. This isn’t changing your entire life, but it is improving it.
Again, even that is promising a lot for what should be a goalless practice. Sit to sit. Walk to walk. Everything else works itself out from there.