You’re sitting comfortably, eyes closed, following the breath entering and leaving the body.
It goes great for, say, 3 seconds or so. But then there’s a problem.
You’re mind keeps wandering off! Following the breath should be easy, but it turns out to be impossible.
You feel like a failure.
“I can’t meditate!” you think. You get up, stick on the TV, and forget this meditation stuff. It’s too hard. You can’t do it.
Yes you can!
I’ve had a meditation practice for about 20 years. Over that time, an incredible number of people have said to me “I’ve tried meditation but I just can’t do it. I’m not that kind of person.”
They say they can’t stop their mind from thinking about things. They say I must be different. This is more nonsense about the mystical and esoteric nature of Buddhism that we need to take around the back and shoot.
EVERYONE can meditate!
Meditation is a skill
Imagine driving a stick shift (manual car) for the first time. You sit in the driver’s seat, work out how to turn on the engine, then what? You fiddle around for a while, if you’re lucky bunny hop for a few feet, then stall.
The usual response isn’t “I can’t drive a stick shift.” It’s “I need to learn how to drive.”
Meditation is a bit like that. It’s like any skill – you aren’t born with it, you need to learn. And you don’t learn by reading, you learn by practice. You may know what goes into a great golf swing, or the theory of riding a bike, but you can’t do it without learning through practice. You need to feel it.
Meditation isn’t about thinking, and it isn’t about not thinking.
Sure, letting the thoughts drop away is part of meditation. After you’ve spent a while learning the skills, and you’ve learned how to settle your mind, this will happen more easily.
Sometimes, you won’t have any thoughts beyond the ones you need to steer the meditation. You’ll be sufficiently interested in your own mental and emotional states, and the meditation object (e.g. the breath) to let your thoughts become ever more subtle, quieter, with longer gaps between them.
When that happens, it’s lovely. It’s been described as like putting down a heavy weight, or paying off a huge debt.
When it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean you can’t meditate, or that the meditation session was a failure.
What’s meditation for?
People use meditation for different things, and to answer the question properly would take a very long time. But let’s keep it simple. At its most fundamental, meditation is for improving your life.
So if you take a chaotic, angry, sleepy or anxious mind, and the troubled heart that goes with those states, and you bring it into balance – to ANY extent – you have had a successful meditation.
If you have a roaring mind for the whole time you meditate, but you are more aware of your roaring mind than you were when you sat down, you have had a successful meditation.
If you get up from your meditation and carry a little more awareness or balance out into the rest of your day, you’ve done a great job.
How to work in meditation
There are different tools and techniques in the Buddhist tradition for understanding and working with your mind in meditation.
For example, the tradition speaks of 5 hindrances and details antidotes to them.
The 5 hindrances are:
- Doubt and indecision
- Sloth and Torpor
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Ill will and hatred
- Desire for sense experience
If you want to know more about these, and learn about the antidotes to them, I’m going to talk through them in my mail outs over the next few weeks (although the next one is going to be about symbolism in the life of the Buddha).
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And if you’re looking for a book that goes into the details of setting up and maintaining a meditation practice, this one by Kamalashila is very good (actually, I’ve not read this one – I read the previous edition – but this one has been updated and I’m sure is even better than the last!)