Recently, my friend and I were talking about meditation and she told me that she was starting to experiment with meditation. She quickly confessed that she was a “bad meditator,” and I thought to myself, Welcome to the club. But instead of saying that out loud, I asked her why she thought she was a bad meditator. She told me she had a hard time sitting still, and when she did, she only got more frustrated because she couldn’t get her mind to slow down and be quiet. I could certainly relate, and I suspect anyone who has attempted to slow down for a bit and meditate can too.
Being “bad” at meditation is just part of the drill, at least at first. There are several reasons why it’s hard to meditate. And it doesn’t help that as adults we tend to lose our tolerance for being a beginner at anything. But, it’s important to keep in mind that our brains are wired to be constantly “on” for self-preservation and to process our day-to-day experience, so the act of being alone and quiet runs counter to our brain wiring and conditioning. In general, we aren’t that keen to simply sit still and be quiet. In fact, 43% of participants of a series of eleven studies at the University of Virginia reported that they would prefer to give themselves a mild electrical shock than to be alone with their thoughts. Then, add other influences like the broad use of technology, our culture’s bias toward extroversion, and our propensity for multi-tasking, and we have a compelling case for why meditation isn’t easy.
At first, the odds of enjoying meditation are stacked against us, but one of the other major issues surrounding my friend’s perception of my being “bad” at meditation was that she harbored a deep misunderstanding about the point of meditation. When we enter into meditation with the goal of quieting our mind, we set ourselves up for frustration and disappointment. Getting a mind to “quiet down” is a little bit like getting a child who is having a tantrum to stop screaming. If you have spent any time with a child who is acting out, you know the harder you to try to get them to settle down, the more entrenched in the tantrum they become. Sometimes the best way to engage with a child who is having a tantrum is simply to turn your attention elsewhere and not engage. The same is true for how you engage with your busy mind while in meditation.
Paying attention to the content of your mind – emotions, thoughts, and sensations – is only a small part of your experience at any given time. Yet many of us place all of our attention onto the content of our mind, not realizing there is any other option. Putting your attention on a micro-part of your experience is like walking into a beautiful garden and focusing only on one rock, not realizing that if you were to shift your attention you would have an entirely different experience.
When we focus on a tiny portion of our experience (content), we miss the wholeness of that experience. My friend was so focused on trying to get the content of her mind to settle down that she missed the bigger possibility of her meditation experience.
The goal of meditation is not to change the content of your experience in any way. The content will forever be there, changing and swirling, and always creating new content—that’s just the human experience. When you enter into meditation without a need to change the content, but rather to simply acknowledge that it is only a part of a larger context of your experience, you may have a very different sense and experience of meditation. From this vantage point, suddenly meditation is no longer about being “good” or “bad,” since that’s just additional content, but rather it becomes about remembering, even just for a few moments, the bigger context of your being. I suspect that even by taking a moment to touch into the unchanging, constant energy that has no form, the context of your being, you may radically alter your experience with meditation.