Meditation is not about being 'good' at meditating

When I first started meditating, nearly 30 years ago, I was travelling in India and staying in Ashrams, where I attended yoga classes and regular meditation sessions. I was taught in quite a traditional way, with a strong focus on ascetic discipline and instruction in the religious and philosophical teachings from which meditation practices have been drawn. Looking back, my experience then seems worlds away from the current emphasis on personal wellbeing so characteristic of the contemporary secular mindfulness movement.

The daily meditation sessions were always one hour long and we would have to sit cross-legged on the hard tiled floor of the meditation hall. There were no chairs, and no cushions either, so unless you brought your own, it could be extremely uncomfortable. I had a large rough woollen shawl, which I would fold into something – I wouldn’t call it a cushion exactly – that I could sit on. It was a lot better than nothing, but still pretty basic. Sometimes it would be very crowded, so that our knees touched the person sitting next us. And it could get hot too. So, as well as being really uncomfortable, one didn’t dare move for fear of causing a disturbance. Sometimes the pain – in my ankles, my knees or my hips – would so intense that I would be inwardly screaming for the session to be over. But I just had to sit there and endure it. And try to meditate.

And yet, in spite of all that I’ve just said, there was a focus and an energy in those sessions that was so palpable you could almost feel it physically.

I was young, I was keen, and I practised very intensively. I would think nothing of doing a two-hour yoga session, followed by two hours of sitting meditation. Twice a day. Of course, it helped that I didn’t have anything else to do at the time. Nobody could sustain that level of practice in normal everyday life. I can’t manage more than half an hour at a time these days, and that’s if I’m lucky.

Even now, all these years later, I can still remember the excitement and sense of adventure that I felt each time I arrived for a session. I saw it as a challenge and a test. Each time, I would begin with a determination to maintain my focus, to not let my mind wander, and so to abide for a bit longer in those fleeting moments of pure serenity that I sometimes, if only rarely, had briefly experienced.

And, inevitably, at the end of each session, I would be disappointed with myself for failing to achieve my goals, resolving to make sure that next time… that next time it would be different.

But, inevitably, next time it would be exactly the same. And I would leave the session, discouraged by my failure, determined that next time…

Of course, the point is, I was missing the point.

I was trying too hard to be good at meditating. My ‘failure’ was not my inability to achieve perfect unwavering concentration, but the failure to realise that we don’t practice meditation in order to be really good at meditating, any more than we go to a gym in order to be really good at using exercise machines. We go to a gym in order to get fit so that we can do the things we want to do, whether that be competitive sport or simply to maintain a satisfactory level of good health.

In the same way, we don’t practice meditation in order to be really good at sitting still and observing our breath. We practice meditation in order to develop awareness, in order to cultivate balance and perspective, so that we can see things more clearly, and live life more skilfully.

We also don’t practice meditation in order to have ‘special experiences’. I used to think that if only I could achieve perfect concentration, I would experience some sort of transcendental bliss. Maybe I would, who knows? The point is, that’s not the point. The point is, we practice meditation not to gain exotic mystical experiences, but to learn something about the experience of being human.

And that takes time, perhaps a lifetime or more.

The trouble is, it is very tempting to imagine, especially in the early stages when we’re full of the enthusiasm of the newly converted, that there are sequential levels of attainment in meditation, which we can ascend, perhaps by mastering ever more advanced techniques. It is very tempting to imagine that if only we can find the right technique, or better still, the best technique, we will attain some sort of higher level of consciousness or even enlightenment.

This is a delusion.

Whilst it is certainly a good idea, to begin with, to try a few different techniques in order to see what suits us best, once we have settled on something that seems to work, the best advice is to just keep doing it. To Imagine that there’s some other even better practice, which will take us further or higher is nonsense.

Let me give you some examples from a couple of the world’s great spiritual traditions. The early Christian contemplatives, sometimes known as the so-called ‘desert fathers’ advocated a very simple practice of repeating a short prayer, over and over again.

This is roughly equivalent to what is sometimes known as ‘mantra meditation’, which is one of the simplest and most common meditation techniques, found in a wide range of different traditions.

Note that the ‘desert fathers’ did not say, “use this technique first and then, when you’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency, you can progress onto this other more advanced technique”. They said keep doing it. Keep doing the same thing, over and over again, whether awake or asleep, whether traveling or working. Keep repeating it, over and over again, until it becomes a constant refrain that’s just always there.

That’s the beginning and end of the practice.

In the Buddhist tradition, we see a particular emphasis on the practice of ‘mindfulness of breathing’. This is another very common and widespread practice, found in different traditions both east and west, and there are extensive discourses on mindfulness meditation among the teachings of the Buddha recorded in the Pali Canon.

In the Satipatthana Sutta, often translated as the ‘Foundations of Mindfulness’, the Buddha outlines four objects for contemplation, or mindfulness practice, of which the first includes mindfulness of breathing (known as anapanasati, literally, in-breath out-breath awareness). Having described all four ‘topics’ he then says that mindfulness of breathing is the foundation of all other practices and, moreover, that if you only do one thing, then make it mindfulness of breathing. In fact, that is all you need to do, for – if practised repeatedly – it will lead to the ultimate goal of liberation.

Personally, I don’t find it helpful to think of meditation in terms of stages of practice, or levels of attainment. Yes, there is a spectrum, no doubt, of people who are more experienced and people who are less experienced. But the notion of discrete ‘levels’ is, I think, misleading. The more mundane truth is that meditation is actually quite boring. We shouldn’t expect the spectacular, any more than we would expect a routine workout in the gym to feel in any way like playing in the world cup final.

But we know, very well, that we need to train if we wish to be physical fit, and in the same way that we need to practice meditation if we wish to cultivate awareness.

The point is not to ascend to higher levels of practice, or to progress through different stages or techniques, but to go deeper. The point is to sustain a regular practice and go deeper. Deeper into the reality of human experience. Deeper into the learning that comes from simply observing the content of consciousness. Deeper into the awareness of being aware of awareness itself. 

The point is not to go looking for the best meditation technique, but to find something that works and to keep doing it. The point is not to perfect the art of sitting still, but to learn something about the experience of being human.

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