How I Learned to MeditateOur way to practice is one step at a time, one breath at a time. ~Shunryu Suzuki
The first time I meditated was about six years ago.
I was drawn to meditation by the same aspiration as many people — the desire to feel calmer and happier. I was a medical student at the time, and my life was just too stressful and hectic.
It seemed there was always more to do, more to worry about and no time to reflect. I felt disconnected and dissatisfied.
And then, I got dumped by a man I was madly in love with. I felt like a total failure. I was shaken and incredulous — how could I have wanted something so badly and still have it taken away from me?
I was not used to failure. I was used to setting a goal, laying out the steps and diligently taking them — one at a time — until I got what I wanted. I was under the illusion that with enough effort, I could achieve any goal and sidestep all feelings of pain and discomfort along the way.
But this pain was so great, and my efforts to escape it so woefully unsuccessful, that I realized my usual mindset wasn’t equipped to handle it. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it; I needed a new mental practice. I decided to take my fledgling interest in meditation and channel it into a regular practice.
“I’ll just meditate,” I thought, “and then I’ll find some peace and happiness.”
What no one ever told me, though, is that meditation can make you feel worse before you feel better. Before I made it through all of these steps, it often felt like just another failure.
Soon after I started to sit, it became painfully apparent that I’d never really paid attention to my internal experience. I was so focused on what I needed to do and what I wanted to accomplish that my mental processes had been on autopilot. I’d never had to question them because they had always worked for me.
I didn’t know what was going on in there, and it was easier not to look.
I did anyway.
The following is the honest, imperfect process I went through when I started meditating. These are the instructions I wish I had read in my meditation books.
Meditation, like life, is often messy. But a deeper calm can come from learning to see, and then love, the messiness. Deep calm is possible, but first, you have to acknowledge the mess. Then you can begin to learn to get it under control.
- Sit down. Take a comfortable seat. Settle into the posture. Keep your back straight, but let the rest of your body hang off the spine. Sit comfortably —not too rigid, but not too lax. Assure yourself that you will soon be on your way to enlightenment.
- Breathe. Watch the breath as it moves in and out. Ah, this is nice. Think how it would be a little bit nicer if you had one of those special meditation cushions you saw at the Zen house.
- Get distracted. Jump to focusing on the discomfort as your back starts to ache. Squirm around for a bit trying to make it go away. Realize you’ve gotten distracted and go back to the breath.
- Get more distracted. Wonder how much time has passed. Peek and look at the clock. Only two minutes?! Feel frustrated and restless. Realize you still need to make dinner, pay the bills, clean the house.
- Get fed up. Decide you don’t have time for this. Get up and figure you’ll come back to this enlightenment thing some other time.
- Come back to the seat. A few weeks (or months or years) later, realize you’ve felt disconcerted for some time and you don’t know why. Maybe you didn’t give this meditation thing a fair shot before. Decide you need to try again.
- Pay attention. Watch how quickly your mind wanders into judgment and fantasy, no matter how hard you try to keep it still. Watch how every passing thought becomes a train you automatically jump on and ride— for minutes, hours or days.
- Admit something. You must be insane, you think. But recognize you might also be onto something here … that there is more to be investigated.
- Take another seat. And another. Do it again, every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Focus your attention on the breath. When a new train of thought appears — because of a sound, a sensation, an idea, or an emotion — watch it as it goes by, but don’t get on the train and ride it to another station. Stay right where you are. Watch it until it passes, and then let it go.
The End Without End
- Attend, carefully. Realize that, as you sit, you may find yourself seeing the entire spectrum of your human experience. You might learn about yourself. For instance, you want things with an all-consuming desire but are unsatisfied when you get them. Maybe you try to resist painful feelings that you have no power to change.
- Broaden the experience. Discover that what you’ve been labeling “insane” is actually just the normal human condition. Feel more compassion for the people around you, because you know no matter what they say or do, they are subject to the same basic struggles as you are.
- Be in the now. Recognize the dissatisfaction you’ve been carrying for a long, long time. Admit that you’ve been waiting to start your life until you have this or don’t have that, because it didn’t occur to you to accept where you are and who you are and what you have, right now.
- Consider other possibilities. Maybe, incredibly, there might be an alternative to chronic dissatisfaction.
- Sit again, every day. Take it deeper. Consider doing a retreat or two. Watch the breath, get distracted and come back. Come back again and again and again. This is it. This is what you discover: you’ve always been at your destination— even before you started the journey.
I’ve spent most of the past six years thinking I was meditating incorrectly or that it wasn’t the right practice for me, only to realize recently that each step has happened exactly as it was supposed to and the only way it could.
My results have come, not in rigidly forcing my mind to stay focused, but in continuing to sit and watch, day after day, even when I don’t like what I see. It has been a practice of learning to let go, over and over again.
Over time, my mind has started to become more focused without effort. I’ve learned to recognize negative thought patterns and let them go without judgment. I’ve felt more connected to others as I realize we all have more similarities than differences.
I haven’t reached enlightenment yet, but in my best moments I’ve felt a deep calm that transcends the need to control my external or internal world, or to “be” anything special.
It’s a calm that comes from knowing that I can accept myself just as I am. And in those moments, I feel beyond wonderful.