One Big, Bad Misconception about Meditation

I sat down to meditate for the first time on May 31, 2013.

That’s not literally true. I tried meditating here and there over the years starting from when I was a tween with chronic headaches and the biofeedback practitioner I was seeing said all I needed to do was tame the drunk monkey in my head. Gotta tell you, that was not enough information to go on.

That final day of May nearly five years ago was when I sat down to make meditation a regular practice in my life. I still don’t meditate daily but I think to say I meditate most days is fair. To say that after five years, I’m some sort of meditation guru is just silliness. I’m a beginner, too. I’m just farther along in beginning than, say, someone who will give it a go tomorrow for the first time.

That said, I’ve done a lot of experimenting with and talking about meditation in the last five years and would like to address one particular misconception (by my way of thinking) that I believe stops all sorts of people from adopting a mediation practice.

The big, bad misconception? Meditation is about totally clearing your mind. 100% blank, clear space.

RuPaul – yes, the fabulous drag queen superstar – said one of my favorite things about this (and I’m paraphrasing here): Trying to stop thinking during meditation would be like standing in the middle of a big ole river and trying to stop the flow of water all by your lonesome. Instead, meditation is the practice of getting out of the water and allowing it to flow by.

For a time, I integrated this advice into my meditation practice by imagining sitting by a river and throwing in the thoughts that arose. The subjects of the thoughts would land on rafts and float away; when they were people, they would smile and wave as they went.

Not only is getting blank unrealistic for most of us (I have no idea the experience of Buddhist monks who meditate for hours and hours daily for decades); it’s also another way of avoiding all the gunk in our heads. And avoiding our gunk is like spilling juice in the fridge and then just closing the door. You don’t have to look at it or deal with the hassle of taking everything out and wiping it all down, but it’s only going to get stickier and grosser, and if someone else gets to the fridge first, it’s not likely to endear you to them.

So if not blissful blankness, what is meditation about?

Meditation is about observing ourselves.

In one meditation practice, we label our thoughts as they arise: Planning, remembering, judging, worrying, daydreaming about Oreos. Doing that, I discovered just how much time I spent planning and how that connects to my perfectionistic tendencies – if I could just plan thoroughly enough, then everything would be perfect, including me! Yeah.

In this observational practice, we also get a clearer picture of those knee-jerk reactions I mentioned last week, and that gained awareness gives us the space to instead respond.

In case you’re wondering, no, no this is not always comfortable. Or even often. This does mean looking at the sticky, gross juice that’s been congealing all over our insides since our earliest days. And yet meditation gives us structure so that we’re not obsessing over it, we’re not wallowing in it – we’re noticing it and moving on.

Meditation is about micro-practice in self-forgiveness.

I stole that one straight from a talk I heard Sharon Salzburg give a couple of years ago. She’s been a meditation teacher for over 40 years and as she said, we all have thoughts arise while we meditate. The actual practice is not some mythical blankness but, rather, noticing the thoughts and then intentionally returning to our point of focus, be it our breath, a mantra, or the dish we’re washing.

When we return to our point of focus without beating up on ourselves (“Oh for love of grasshoppers, can I not meditate for three minutes?!”) then we’re practicing self-forgiveness in a small way, and any practice in self-forgiveness helps us bring that more fully into our lives, queuing it up for when we do big things in need of real forgiveness.

Meditation is about getting more rooted in the here and now.

My first ever coaching client was a very sweet, petite, adorable woman who once said to me: “When you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, you’re pissing on your present.” The way she said it kind of surprised me, too, and yet isn’t that how most of us spend our lives?

We look back with nostalgia and/or self-judgment. We look forward with expectation, anticipation, excitement and/or fear. Meanwhile, the present moment, the only moment in which we can make an actual impact, ticks on by. One Now after another.

By picking a focus and returning to it time and again and again, meditation brings us back to the Now.

I was still living in rural Floyd when I heard secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor interviewed on On Being. He referred to the Tibetan meditation on death. As I drove the hour from Floyd to Roanoke that morning, I kept repeating to myself: This could be my last day. I thought it over and over.

If you’d never driven 221 through Floyd County and down Bent Mountain, let me assure you, it is stunning. Pastures and cows, old homesteads, mountain views, valley views. Never, however, was it more beautiful than that morning. Never had I been more acutely aware of the way the fog nestled into the blades of grass along the road, or the sweet, glassy eyes of the cows.

Meditation isn’t about quick fixes.

Meditation is like building a professional reputation. You do good work, you make wholehearted connections, and one day you realize you have a lovely reputation preceding you. It’s not a Point A to Point B kind of thing. It’s a trust kind of thing, in this case, trusting that meditation will be beneficial, slowly, gradually, over time.

After five years, I can’t tell you exactly what meditation has done for me but I can tell you that I feel like it makes my life better. I think it contributes to me being a more centered, grounded person than I was five years ago, and helps me deal more calmly with stressors and triggers.

How about you? What have you tried? What’s worked for you? What do you want to know? I’d love to hear from you!

*Big ups to Julia Tomiak; this post has been in my queue for a while and her nudge moved it to the front of the line. Check out her fabulous blog, Diary of a Word Nerd here.