A friend of mine wrote to me about their recent experience at a meditation retreat – one they were revisiting after having meditated there before. They confessed to me, “I thought I would be better at it this time. But when it wasn’t going well, I found I was getting angry with myself.”
My heart goes out to this friend because I realize they were describing a trap that is so easy to fall into. For them, after several retreats and developing a personal practice of their own, they felt they should be getting “better” at meditation, or at least that it should be getting easier for them. This desire for improvement doesn’t happen only after we’ve gained experience, though. Reaching for an outcome in meditation can happen even right at the outset of learning for the first time. There’s usually a goal in mind – the reason you started doing it in the first place. Some try meditation in order to achieve personal growth, others do it for stress reduction, or to learn how to clear the mind. I often strive for these results too when I sit down to meditate.
It happens either during the meditation or afterward. I usually find myself evaluating how my morning session went, and comparing it to that of the previous day. I sometimes wind up judging my meditation by the number of times my mind wandered and how often I brought it back to center. I have it in my mind that this tally somehow dictates the success of my meditations.
The thing is – and I don’t want to turn people off of meditation by saying this – but I don’t think it ever really gets easier. Not in the ‘stop-wandering’ sense anyway. No matter how much meditation is done, it is very unlikely that our minds will someday just stop wandering off. It is natural and normal for us to think when we stop moving for a moment. Even the most experienced meditators don’t maintain a mind like a glass pond for very long. The essential part of the practice is handling the emotional reaction to that wandering. This is the key. Most often, the reaction happens so quick that we don’t even realize it. We go from noticing, “Oh, I’m thinking about work” to “Oh no, I wish I weren’t thinking about work” in a matter of seconds. The difference between these two thoughts is so subtle, but the later holds a judgment that can discourage us in that moment. However, the good news is that we can slowly begin to change our thought patterns with practice and loving kindness.
Our minds may wander but we have the ability not to give weight to these thoughts. The practice of doing so is often likened to how one would lead a straying puppy back to a path- with patient love and gentle reminders. No brute force, no matter how long or often it has strayed. When your mind begins to wander during meditation, lead your attention back to the center without judgment. Use the breath, an affirmation, or a bodily sensation as your anchor. If we can do this gentle action often enough, we recognize there is in fact a tiny little space between the noticing thought and the opportunity for a judgmental thought. It is in this space that compassion fits best.
This is a large part of my meditation practice. Things don’t seem to get easier, my puppy still doesn’t always stay on its path. But with this compassion, I do a better job of understanding and forgiving, instead of wishing things were different in that moment. The larger the space gets between noticing and judging, the more chance we have of seeing compassion first.
Lachlan is a student of natural medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and a prospective student of contemplative psychotherapy at the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Toronto. She combines her learning from both alternative medicine and buddhist-influenced psychotherapy to develop a new way to address mental health concerns in a truly holistic way- with mind, body and spirit. Her professional interest blossomed out of her own struggles with depression and anxiety, helped greatly by her practices in meditation and ecstatic dance. Lachlan is a spirit, a writer and a traveler who loves the smell of Nag Champa.
For more info on Naturopathic Medicine and Contemplative Psychotherapy, see
Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine http://www.ccnm.edu/
Institute for Traditional Medicine http://itmworld.org/?page_id=275