Who of us hasn’t at least once doubted the claimed benefits of meditation? Even those of us who believe that meditation is beneficial for the general population have still wondered whether it will work for us. And after trying meditation a few times, we have likely wondered what we are doing wrong. Does meditation really work? seems to be the big question here, closely followed by: Does it work for everyone?, and, most importantly: Will it work for me? As a practice that is both personal and universal, difficult and simple, formal and informal, these questions are not all that surprising, but without actually trying meditation, one will never fully understand it. So this blog post is dedicated to the people who have already tried meditating, but have encountered problems or been discouraged in their practice. I have previously written about the negative side-effects of meditation, and today I would like to expand on this topic by discussing what makes meditation practice “go wrong”.
Do you have certain expectations from your meditation practice? Do you expect a quick fix to your problems? Do you expect to completely silence the mind? Do you expect to feel calm and relaxed after meditating? Do you expect to reduce your stress and anxiety levels? While meditation does indeed have a wide range of benefits, it is not a quick fix or a one-size-fits-all approach for every individual and every problem. Moreover, when you meditate expecting quick results, you may in fact be stopping the benefits of meditation from occurring, get discouraged when your expectations are not met, and perhaps decide to quit your practice altogether. When you meditate without expectation, you are open to observe all thoughts and sensations that come and go in a non-reactive and non-judgemental way.
Are you meditating with the wrong intention? Do you meditate because you want to become more productive, more successful, or more powerful? Or do you meditate with no intention at all? Here it is important to distinguish between intention and expectation. While meditation should be done with no expectation of outcomes, intention is an important part of mindfulness and meditation practice. When you meditate with the right attitude, you meditate with intention and with purpose. You are present on purpose, you pay attention on purpose, and you are aware on purpose. And you meditate with love, kindness, acceptance and gratitude at the core of your practice.
Do you meditate daily? Do you meditate at the same time each day? Do you meditate using the same technique? Often, when we get discouraged from meditation, we may meditate inconsistently, fragmenting our practice, and further reinforcing our idea that meditation doesn’t work. Moreover, although it is good to try out different meditation techniques, postures, and times as a novice practitioner, consistency in meditation is essential for sustained practice and long-term benefits. Even if you meditate for just 2 minutes a day, try to practice daily at approximately the same time (ideally shortly upon waking, but you may find another time that suits you better). Consistency is needed to train the mind to remain present and aware.
Is meditation one of your daily tasks on your to-do-list that you cross out upon completing? Is your meditation limited to your formal practice, and forgotten about for the rest of the day? Some of us may find that after consistent meditation practice, we tend to create a habit of meditating. This is very different from consistent practice. Consistency implies doing something regularly, while habit indicates an activity one does that feels automatic, habitual, and without the need of sustained attention or awareness. This, of course, is the opposite of meditation practice, which is attentive, aware and focused on the present moment. Moreover, once we have finished our morning meditation, it is equally important to sustain our practice throughout the rest of the day. Informal practice is in everything we do and is at least of equal importance as our formal practice. When done only as a short formal practice each day, meditation becomes a distraction or an escape from daily life, much like watching a movie, having a drink or reading a book, rather than a practice that grounds us in the present moment.
Do you feel the need to use candles or Tibetan singing bowls, wear robes or yoga pants, engage with religious teachings or scriptures, or sit in a certain posture on a special cushion while meditating? While some may find that singing bowls and incense sticks can assist with certain aspects of meditation, all external things and traditions are simply extra additions to your meditation. They are aids, not meant to deter you from your true practice. If you cannot sit on the floor because you have knee problems, lie down, sit on a chair, or sit on a soft pillow. Sitting does get easier with practice, so don’t feel discouraged if you cannot maintain the classic meditation posture for more than ten minutes at a time. If you don’t afford to buy candles, robes, or singing bowls, simply sit, following your breath, observing your thoughts, and bringing your attention to the now.
Not wrong, not right
The good news is that there are several things you can try to overcome “meditation gone wrong”, and I have written down some tips in a previous post on overcoming a meditation slump. But overall, the beauty of meditation is that it doesn’t have to work. In fact, the essence of meditation is not to accomplish something, but simply to be. And in this sense, meditation can never go wrong.