What do we want out of our meditation practice? At the very least we want to feel calmer and less anxious in our everyday life. But this incessant striving to achieve a measurable result may be the first biggest mistake we make on our path to inner calm. The desire to make meditation work the way we want can become a hindrance if not acknowledged early on.
When I started my meditation practice, I was a bit disappointed after not seeing any significant result early on. I felt more comfortable during sitting meditation and started to notice some negative thought patterns in my mind, but that was it. “There must be more to meditation than this,” I thought to myself.
That was until I read Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is internationally known for his work as a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher engaged in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. He is Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he founded its world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic (MBSR) in 1979, and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society (in 1995). In this book, he describes seven foundations of meditation that can transform the way we approach meditation and improve our overall experience.
Almost everyone falls into the trap of evaluating their experience during meditation. For example, the moment we sit down and close our eyes we might notice a slight unease or discomfort. In this case a subtle “I don’t like this” thought may pop up in our heads. When that happens, we need to acknowledge the thought but don’t let it take over. It’s a perfect opportunity to stand as an impartial witness and let it be. As soon as we do that, we’ll notice that it’s just a thought, harmless and unobtrusive. It’s a good approach to every judging thought that comes to our minds.
When we begin practicing paying attention to the activity of our own mind, it is common to discover and to be surprised by the fact that we are constantly generating judgments about our experience. Almost everything we see is labeled and categorized by the mind. We react to everything we experience in terms of what we think its value is to us. (…) When you find the mind judging, you don’t have to stop it from doing that. All that is required is to be aware of it happening. No need to judge the judging and make matters even more complicated for yourself.
As we continue to sit and meditate, we may also feel rushed to get it over with as soon as possible. This means that we can’t accept the present moment as it unfolds in front of us. We think something more important is waiting for us in the future. As we encounter this tendency, we need to remind ourselves that this is our reality right now and nothing good can come from resisting it. Being patient with our mind is an essential aspect of any meditation practice.
Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time. A child may try to help a butterfly to emerge by breaking open its chrysalis. Usually, the butterfly doesn’t benefit from this. Any adult knows that the butterfly can only emerge in its own time, that the process cannot be hurried.
#3. Beginner’s Mind
During our first couple of sessions, we might notice that it didn’t go the way we expected. Maybe we wanted relaxation but felt tension and unease. At that moment our minds might tell us that something went “wrong” and we didn’t do it the right way.
When that happens, we need to investigate that thought. How does it know that something went wrong? It implies that we did know how it’s supposed to go and what exactly we should have felt. That’s a false thought which fools itself into believing that it knows more than it actually does. It’s important to bring our beginner’s mind into meditation and not expect any particular result or feeling. We need to become comfortable with not knowing what true meditation feels like and let the moment-by-moment experience guide the way.
An open, “beginner’s” mind allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does. No moment is the same as any other. Each is unique and contains unique possibilities. Beginner’s mind reminds us of this simple truth.
Cultivating a beginner’s mind is important but we shouldn’t take that advice too literally. It’s just a pointer, something to consider in our meditation practice. It’s just as important to trust our feelings and perceptions at any given moment. We don’t have to get caught up in the authority of other people and blindly follow whatever they say or do.
No one can tell us what we should feel or think. At some point, we’ll have to trust our intuition and if something doesn’t feel right, acknowledge it. We can find common meditation advice that it’s ok to feel discomfort during meditation and that we have to let it be and do nothing about it. But we don’t have to sit through the pain. It’s totally fine to readjust our meditation posture or even get up and take a short walk to relieve the tension.
Developing a basic trust in yourself and your feelings is an integral part of meditation training. It is far better to trust in your intuition and your own authority, even if you make some “mistakes” along the way, than always to look outside of yourself for guidance. If at any time something doesn’t feel right to you, why not honor your feelings? Why should you discount them or write them off-as invalid because some authority or some group of people think or say differently?
We have reasons for practicing meditation and want to achieve a particular result. But when we do that you’re saying that we’re not ok now, that we don’t want to be the way you are right now. That may be the starting point, but the key is to realize that it’s also the finish line. The beginning is the end — they are one. They never were separate. The cultivation of mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening and allowing everything to be because it already is.
In the meditative domain, the best way to achieve your own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement toward your goals will take place by itself. This movement becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to happen within you.
This point comes naturally from the previous one. As we stop striving, it’s also important to accept things as they are right now. Resistance creates only more resistance. Acceptance is the first step towards positive change in our lives.
Acknowledging where we are at this moment is a powerful realization that can give us the energy to move on. But that doesn’t mean that we have to take a passive attitude towards life and resign ourselves to whatever is. By accepting our current circumstances, we gain clarity on what we need to do right here and now.
In the meditation practice, we cultivate acceptance by taking each moment as it comes and being with it fully, as it is. We try not to impose our ideas about what we should be feeling or thinking or seeing in our experience but just remind ourselves to be receptive and open to whatever we are feeling, thinking, or seeing, and to accept it because it is here right now.
#7. Letting Go
Jon Kabat Zinn gives a beautiful illustration of letting go by describing how hunters trap monkeys in India. They drill a hole in a coconut, put a banana inside of it, and then secure it to the base of the tree. When a monkey puts a hand through to get the banana, it gets trapped because the hole is too small to let the fist go out.
The same happens in our minds when we can’t let go of thought. As we may notice during meditation practice, our minds tend to hold on to certain thoughts and reject others. When we practice meditation, we should intentionally put aside the tendency to judge and give preferences.
Letting go is a way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are. When we observe our own mind grasping and pushing away, we remind ourselves to let go of those impulses on purpose, just to see what will happen if we do. When we find ourselves judging our experience, we let go of those judging thoughts. We recognize them and we just don’t pursue them any further. We let them be, and in doing so we let them go.
Applying These Meditation Tips in Our Own Practice
Practicing these seven attitudes will greatly enhance our meditation practice. As a supplement, I put together this free worksheet available for download through the link below.