by Michael W. Taft
Albert Einstein once said that “a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” It’s actually pretty hard to make a mistake in meditation, but maybe the biggest challenge that beginning meditators encounter is the often mistaken belief that they’re doing it wrong. I’m not sure of the reason for this—maybe it’s just a quirk of our culture—but in my teaching experience it certainly comes up a lot. People just get convinced for some reason, that they’re doing their meditation practice all wrong.
From what I’ve seen, virtually everybody who thinks that they’re doing it incorrectly, is actually doing it right. While it may take time to get really good at meditation, it takes almost no time to be able to follow the instructions properly. Thus you can rest assured that you are probably doing it right. The rest is just making the effort each day to sit, and letting time work its magic upon you.
Ways You Can Actually Get It Wrong
Still positive that you’re screwing up? OK, let’s go over the common ways that people actually can get it wrong. If you happen to have stumbled into one of these pitfalls, they are usually quite easy to correct.
1. The most common mistake, and the most ironic, is to get really caught up in the idea that you’re messing it up. The only way you’re making a mistake here is that you’re not concentrating on your meditation object, but instead directing all your attention towards beating yourself up. The solution is simple, let go of your fixation with how you’re messing it up and voilà, you’re not messing it up anymore.
2. A second problem is letting yourself become grossly distracted. It’s possible to sit as if meditating, but allow yourself to get lost in endless fantasizing. Dreams of delicious meals, fantasy sex, or the mansion you want to build some day can seem a lot more interesting than focusing on the body sensations in your big toe. So if you’re getting involved in fantasies on purpose, and not even trying to concentrate on meditating, that’s a problem. The solution is to stop doing it on purpose, and start trying to concentrate.
Fantasizing on purpose is different from just getting distracted, which is totally normal and not a problem at all. Having a wandering mind isn’t a crime against nature or anything. It’s just part of the process of meditating. So let go of any self-recrimination, don’t beat yourself up, and lovingly drag your attention back to the focus object. All will be well.
3. The third common problem is falling asleep. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not meditating. You might need the sleep. Most of us are chronically overworked and not getting enough rest. By all means, get all the deep, delicious sleep you require. But sleeping is not meditating. There’s a reason that Buddhist monks are credited with inventing caffeinated tea. When it’s time to meditate, wake up and pay attention to your focus object.
4. A fourth common problem is trying too hard. Some percentage of people take a heroic, overachieving attitude towards their practice. They try to concentrate as hard as they can, and to have ultra-sharp sensory clarity at every moment, never missing a scintilla of what’s happening.
This can be a good thing, but beyond a certain level it’s self-defeating. All the stress you produce from trying so hard is undoing the positive effects of the meditation. You’re not remembering that acceptance is a key element of meditation, and a big part of acceptance is relaxation. So try hard, but stay loose and open in practice.
5. The last common problem is a little more subtle: entertaining yourself with a slew of different meditation techniques. Maybe you learned mantra meditation at some point in your life, then experimented with self-inquiry for a while, and these days are all about basic mindfulness. Now when you feel bored in meditation, you switch from one technique to the other to another. While that can be entertaining, it means that you’re not sinking into a deep contact with your focus object. Instead, you’re just kind of ping-ponging around to keep yourself amused.
That kind of practice pinball doesn’t allow you to get the maximum benefit from your meditation. It’s closely related to getting into fantasizing. So decide which practice you’re going to do during your session, and for how long, and then stick with it for the entire session. If you want to switch techniques in different sessions, that’s fine, but don’t give in to the urge to jump from technique to technique in a single session.
You’re Doing It Right
If you’re avoiding these common pitfalls, then you are doing meditation right. Even if it sometimes doesn’t feel very good, you are doing it right. Even if you have a lot of thoughts racing around in your head, you are doing it right. Sometimes practice is uncomfortable (even painful), and sometimes it’s filled with a lot of thinking. That’s fine. The thing to do as a mindfulness practitioner is simply (even if it’s difficult) to bring a lot of acceptance to these difficult experiences if you can, and keep going.
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photo “Die Schwäne” by Michael Taft