I often mention it as an aside, and readers often ask me about it, both in the comments and, more often, in e-mails. So here’s a little run-down on what meditation is for me, how I do it, what I do, and how I think about it.
When I began meditating, I found it nearly impossible. I had in my mind the idea that meditation meant “not thinking about anything,” and I would try to do that, and, inevitably, fail.
Then, I hate to admit it, I read (or rather, “read” – I listened to it) Eat, Pray, Love. And in it, Elizabeth Gilbert described the experience of meditative bliss while chanting mantras. As you know, I’m a big fan of bliss. And I read somewhere – I don’t remember where – that chanting mantras can be an easy way to begin meditating. (In general, some years on, I can say that “concentration meditation” – meditation in which you focus intently on one thing, whether that’s a mantra, or a candle, or your breath, is both easier and more prone to bliss than other forms of meditation.)
So I downloaded me some kirtans (“All One,” and several others on the album of that title by Krishna Das), and went to my bedroom. I lay on my bed, turned out the lights, and for forty-five minutes, I chanted responsively to Krishna Das. In the course of it, I had a bit of an ecstatic experience: at the end, I felt almost changed. (I think T was worried I had gone off the deep end.)
Ecstatic experiences like this are not unusual for those who practice concentration meditation. In fact, they may well be why most people who practice concentration meditation (like the Hare Krishnas – a cult) do so. Because it does bathe you in a sense of well-being and bliss. It also is entirely inconsistent with any normal life, for me.
So anyway, I meditated like this for several weeks. I would do it in bed, on the train, walking, standing, listening to that one album (which, incidentally, has six words on it) over and over. I would try to do it for forty-five minutes a day. And on the one hand, it often was blissful, ecstatic. But on the other, it didn’t feel like it was producing anything concrete. I didn’t feel any clarity or ease as a result.
Somewhere in there, I read “A Path With Heart,” by Jack Kornfield, sort of the “Intro to Buddhist Meditation for the West.” The beginning of the book (the first eight chapters, as I recall) really spoke to me. It was mainly instructional, and I tried following the instructions.
And then, I stumbled on audiodharma.org. There, you can listen to podcasts of all sorts of teachers giving “dharma talks.” I found a couple of teachers I liked, including one who offered a six week “beginners” course in meditation. Finally, I was “learning how to meditate.”
In retrospect, it all seems kind of funny. Meditation is so straightforward, so simple. The idea that I had to “learn” how to do it is a little incomprehensible to me now. Here’s what I do, years into my practice: I sit, usually for twenty minutes a day, usually but not always, in the morning. I sit on a cushion, for the most part, though sometimes I do it lying in bed. Or sitting in a chair. Or walking. Or standing. Or on the subway. Or wherever. Anyway, I sit there, legs crossed, or not, depending on where I am (though I have a slight preference for crossing my legs – it just feels more stable, though for some time, it was quite painful). And I close my eyes, and breathe. I follow my breath. Sometimes I count my breaths. Invariably I lose count. If I’m particularly stressed, I lose count after two or three. Sometimes, I’ll reach 200 before I lose count, getting distracted in my thoughts.
When that happens, I notice what my thoughts are: am I fantasizing about sex? Planning dinner? Replaying a fight? I label the thought – fantasizing, planning, fighting. And I start counting again.
At the beginning, I would judge myself: “You’re a lousy meditator, you can’t even count to ten!” Over time, I let go of that judgment, for the most part, and re-cast myself as an observer of the process, rather than a judge of it. When I focus on my breath for long periods of time, it’s not success. Rather, it tends to be an indicator that my mind is settled, that I’m happy. When I can’t get past three? Something’s going on. I may be angry, or depressed, or hungry, or tired, or stressed. Or excited, or happy.
So I sit. I sit for twenty minutes a day, usually (though for a good year, I did it for forty-five minutes at a time, and often twice a day). I count my breaths. And I label my thoughts.
That’s all. That’s it.
One thought on terminology: I often hear people say, “I can’t meditate.” I think this means, “I can’t tolerate sitting, or lying, still for an extended period of time.” Sometimes, it means, “I can’t think about nothing.” But no one can. That is the biggest misapprehension about meditation. I like to think of it as “paying attention.” When I’m meditating, I’m paying attention to myself, to my body, to my mind. That’s it.
Incidentally, I have a sort of accompanying “mindfulness” practice, which extends beyond the duration of the meditation session, about which perhaps I’ll write another time
But this is it. Sit, breathe, count, label, count, label, count, label….
There are many things meditation doesn’t do for me. It doesn’t relax me, it doesn’t clear my head, solve problems, make things easier. All the reasons people usually start meditating? It does none of those for me.
So why do I do it?
It’s like glasses for me. It helps me see more clearly. When I meditate, when I see anger resurfacing over and over for twenty minutes at the beginning of the day, when I’m doing nothing but breathing, it helps me enter the rest of my day with just a modicum of perspective. Doing this has allowed me to become intimately familiar with the experience of my emotions. If I’m really angry for 20 minutes and I just sit with it, that’s a very different experience than feeling angry and either acting or distracting, which tend to be my emotional strategies. And as I grow familiar with my anger, it allows me to be just a bit wiser with how I handle it. Or, if not wiser, at least more deliberate. Ditto desire, fear, loneliness: intimate repeated experience of these emotions as they occur in meditation conditions me to handle them better, more patiently, when they pop up in life.
And they do.
So that’s my practice, in a nutshell.