Today I have a good meditation practice. All I mean by that is that I meditate daily.
But I’ve been meditating on and off for over thirty years, and most of that was pretty dreadful. I have made so many mistakes that when I think about it I’m embarrassed to call myself a teacher of meditation. People assume because I’m the one at the front of the class that I must have it all worked out, but I haven’t. In fact I am aware that I’ve thought before that I knew something about meditation and when I look back I realize I didn’t know anything. That means there’s a pretty good chance that if I look back thirty years from now (should I be so lucky) I’ll probably realize that I know just as little today as I did then.
But as of 2020, over thirty years in, I thought I’d reflect on the big errors I’ve made in my practice. What is the biggest mistake I wish I could have avoided earlier..
I thought meditation was about peace, calm and tranquility.
“What! I thought it was about peace, calm and tranquility?”
Well, yes and no. I mean ultimately it does result in peace, calm and tranquility – the fancy word for what we’re aiming for is ‘equanimity’ – but these are by-products of practice. The practice itself is not about peace, calm and tranquility.
I think what happened was that I discovered meditation, or at least I discovered it properly and got hooked on it, when I studied in a group with a teacher. For most people, the experience of meditating in a group is far more powerful than meditating on your own. Then when I’d go home and try to meditate on my own I couldn’t replicate the same experience. I thought I was doing it wrong, and would frequently give up after a few minutes. I’d have the sense that “I can’t meditate today. My mind is too distracted”, or I would just feel as though “if I can’t have as good an experience as I did in class, what’s the point?”
The problem is that sometimes when you meditate you get a blissful experience. That should be a good thing rather than a problem, and it could be except that it’s human nature to want more of things we like, and less of things we don’t like. So we get attached to the bliss, and if the bliss doesn’t happen we think the meditation sucked. We want more bliss.
When I’m not embarrassed by my stupidity (and so much wasted time doing it wrong) I am slightly sympathetic to my younger self. Bliss is lovely. Of course we want more bliss. But unfortunately wanting more bliss gets in the way of meditating. When we meditate we need to just meditate – do the work – focus, get distracted, focus again. If you have cool little techniques for better focus, or more bliss (e.g. mantras, visualizations, chakras etc) that’s awesome, but still it’s not about the bliss. If you have bliss, great. If not, great. Do the work regardless of what mind state has shown up to the meditation today, and regardless of whether you have a lovely experience or not.
In the end of course we meditate because we want more bliss, peace, calm, tranquility and ultimately yes, equanimity. But to get there we just have to meditate regardless of whether we experience it today or not. In fact, the days when the mind is chaotic and jumping all over the place with emotions running riot is the day when you can make the most progress as well as the day you probably need it most.
So … try to avoid getting too attached to the bliss. Enjoy it when it happens. Just keep meditating when it doesn’t.