Meditation: 5 Things I Wish I'd Known

“We don’t meditate to be good meditators. We meditate to be awake in our lives.” ~Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

It took me a little while to come around to meditation. I liked the idea of it, but the practice was another thing altogether. I circled it warily with that combination of awe and fear generally reserved for large predatory animals. I’d seen the research and I “drank the cool-aid” so to speak. I believed in its benefits and knew I would be “better” for doing it. But doing it was not what I expected. AT ALL.

I had this image of myself sitting in this zen-like state of absolute peace, all blissed-out, and then getting up and moving through my life in perfect focus and efficiency, with endless patience and some sort of beatific half-smile plastered to my face. Which, as it turns out, was absolutely nothing like my reality (likely for the best as that girl would look like a psycho). That disparity, however, convinced me that I was “doing it wrong,” that it wasn’t for me, that I was missing some key piece of the puzzle. I tried meditation three times before I “got it” and it stuck. Sometimes we need to tentatively dip our toes a few times before jumping in. No big deal. But I think a few basic pieces of information would have been so helpful to me at the very beginning, helped me feel a little less like I was “doing it wrong” and so, without further ado, I give you what I wish I’d known as I began:

(1) Meditation doesn’t have to look a certain way. Maybe you sit on a cushion in a dimly lit room in perfect lotus pose. Or, you know, maybe not. Where you sit and in what position isn’t really the point. Maybe you sit in your car in the far corner of the grocery store parking lot. Maybe you sit on a bench in your favorite park. Maybe you sit in your bathroom while you wait for your shower to get hot. The point is that you sit. Still. For some period of time. It’s helpful to be in a posture that’s comfortable (but not so comfy you’ll fall asleep). It’s helpful to minimize distractions. It can be helpful to create a routine that helps you “drop in” more easily over time. But the point is to be intentionally still. That’s it. No one cares if it’s on a designated cushion or not. Don’t get caught up in what it looks like.

(2) Meditation and meditative are not the same thing. Don’t worry, you aren’t alone, I tried this one, too. I can distinctly remember telling a good friend, “My meditation is trail running…sitting down to meditate just doesn’t work for me.” Nice try. As it turns out, trail running is quite meditative. As is fly-fishing. And yoga. And knitting. And gardening. And any number of other very worthwhile endeavors that add peace and insight to our lives. But they aren’t meditation. Here’s the thing- something different happens when you choose to be still, when you have nothing else to distract you from yourself and what arises as you sit with that stillness. For me, the meditative activities of running and yoga were my “gateway drugs” to developing a meditation practice, but the experiences and insights I gain from meditation require stillness and there’s just no getting around it. 

(3) Meditation is rarely “blissful.” Oh, how I wish I’d been more thoroughly warned about this. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments of peace (and over time, I’ve become more aware and grateful for those moments), but “blissed out” is definitely NOT how I would describe my feelings 99% of the time that I’m sitting. Some days are easier and some days are harder, but meditation practice is about awareness and as we become increasingly awake, it happens that we suddenly can no longer continue to hide from the things we’ve been hiding from. Which is, ummm, uncomfortable. To say the least. And even when I’m not confronting major truths, there is often some level of resistance happening. We live day-to-day in a society in which “busy” has become a value, where we’ve normalized multi-tasking and fill each waking second with out of control to-do lists, 24-hour news cycles, social media demands, and unceasing entertainment. It’s not surprising then to find that when we stop, there is a bit of a struggle to stay still, to not be doing anything. And here’s the thing- it really is totally okay to be uncomfortable. Hang in there. I promise that it’s worth it

(4) Meditation is not about trying to “empty your mind.” Whaaaaat? I know, I was surprised by that one too. And unbelievably relieved. If you are alive and well, then you will likely have thoughts. It’s that simple. If you sit down to meditate and it feels like there is a ping-pong ball loose in your head bouncing around at breakneck speeds, know that you are not alone. And that it’s truly okay. What meditation teaches you is how to step away from those thoughts, how to observe them, consider them, without engaging with them. This is the practice. This is the work. To cultivate your inner third-party observer so that you can begin to recognize your patterns, your stories, and then choose more intentionally the role that you will allow them in your life. The metaphor that I often think of is this:

My mind is I-95 as it runs through New York City. There are times when there are a million cars (thoughts) racing along and there are times when there are fewer, but there is likely never a time when there are none at all. This is NYC we’re talking about after all. What meditation teaches me is how to stand to one side of the super highway and watch all of those cars zoom by without always feeling compelled to jump in one and let it take me for a ride. It also reminds me that if I do find myself in one of those cars going 70mph, I can, at any time, choose to take the very next exit, calmly get out of the car and go back to watching them. Over time, I begin to notice the every-day “commuters,” the cars that zip back and forth regularly and I learn to wave as they pass by with friendliness but no obligation to follow them to work. There is no sense in trying to stop traffic on the highway- it’s a highway, it was built for just this purpose- and there is no sense in trying to figure out where every single car is coming from or where it’s going, nor judging it’s color or style or shape or speed. Doesn’t all that sound just exhausting? You’d go crazy trying to chase all those cars around, and you’d have no energy left for anything else if you were busy passing judgment on everything that drove on past. So, over time, I stop jumping into so many cars and begin to watch them instead, I learn to enjoy the variety of the many makes and models without getting overly attached to loving one and hating another. And with all of that NOT racing around, I suddenly find myself with the energy to notice the city around me, the blue skies and gorgeous architecture and all of the other people with their own highways to deal with.

Keeping that metaphor in mind helps me most on days when it feels like that highway is more like some sort of Formula 1 racetrack and the thoughts are racing by so fast I can barely recognize one from the other. It’s okay. Over time and with practice, it gets easier to step back from that racing. Not always. Not every single time. But mostly. Which actually feels pretty huge. 

(5) Meditation is for your LIFE, not your cushion. Or chair or wherever you’ve chosen to be still and practice. We don’t meditate so that we can be good at meditating (because, you know, who cares?), we meditate so that we can deal with our lives and the people in them with intention and awareness and greater compassion. So that we can learn to pause for a second before simply reacting. So that we can begin to recognize that we ARE reacting before we jump back into old patterns and old fights and old stories that we know just don’t work. Having cultivated that third-party observer while sitting still in meditation, we can begin to step back quietly for just a brief moment in the midst of the chaos of our lives and ask ourselves if this is really worth the fight, if that really worth the stress. Those pauses add up to allow us to make decisions, a million decisions large and small, each day that serve us and serve our relationships and the world we live in. It’s shocking, shocking, how much difference this makes. My life’s mechanics haven’t radically changed since I began my regular meditation practice over two years ago. I have just as many (if not more) deadlines and projects and “irons in the fire.” I have just as many social obligations and challenging relationships and daily tasks and things that pull on my time and energy. But it’s lost the frenetic insanity that it used to take on, that feeling of my head spinning and smoke coming out of my ears, that sense of bouncing non-stop from one task to another and back without being able to really connect with anything I was doing. Those tiny pauses throughout my day and throughout my thought processes have created just enough space in my life for that observer voice that I now carry around with me to notice where I can slow down, to notice the difference between the urgent and the important, to allow me to stop before those old patterns come up and wreak havoc on my health and relationships and schedule. 

Bonus advice:

Don’t make meditation a thing. Just sit still wherever you can for whatever amount of time you can spare. The more of a thing you make it, the harder it becomes to make it happen.

If you feel too busy to meditate, you really need to meditate. C’mon, you really can’t find three minutes? You spent more than that waiting for the coffee to brew this morning. Do yourself a favor and find that three minutes. You need it. Your sanity needs it. Your kids need you to do it. Your marriage needs you to do it. Your creativity needs you to do it. Your job…do I need to keep going? Seriously, three minutes.

They call it a meditation practice for a reason. It would be awesome to be able to sit for an hour one day and then get up and be set for life. But that’s not how it works. If you have to make a choice between doing it once a month for 30 minutes or everyday for 3, go with the every day option. The practice is where the work is done, where the insights are gained, where you begin to develop your inner observer. Frequency matters. Some days are harder than others, some days are easier. But creating a habit of stopping, of finding time to be still, requires that you show up regularly. So show up regularly.

I’m not any kind of meditation professional and I certainly don’t have all of the answers for how to live a better life. But meditation has slowly and incrementally rocked my world. I didn’t even see all the tiny ways it changed my day-to-day until one day I noticed how much more I was noticing. How pretty the light coming in my kitchen window in the morning is. How often my husband takes a moment to reach down and give our fluffy dog a scratch behind the ears. How generous my friends are with their time and love. How many ideas come to me while I’m out for a run. How my jaw tightens when certain names show up in my email inbox. These tiny noticings add up to…I don’t know exactly. Better? Calmer? More perspective? More intention? Yes…but more even. Things just feel…manageable. You know what I mean? And I feel more deeply connected to my life and my work and my relationships. It’s not bliss, it’s just good, but really good.

Give it a whirl. What do you have to lose?