Bad News, Good News

“You can buy a ticket, but you can’t pick the destination.” — Ken McLeod

When beginners sit down to meditate, they generally hope for certain experiences: calm, clarity, a sense of well-being, even bliss. There are literally centuries of anecdotal evidence of this, and today we even have direct scientific evidence of the positive results of meditation. But what most people actually experience at first can be quite different from this.

Meditation is the practice of cultivating awareness. As Ken McLeod says, when you decide to become aware, you don’t get to pick what you become aware of. When we begin to notice how our minds actually work, we get the bad news: we are not nearly as consistent as we thought we were. We may see ourselves as kind and reasonable, but we notice thoughts that are cruel and capricious. We may see ourselves as strong and courageous, but we notice vulnerability and fear.

Meditation doesn’t cause these “new” thoughts and feelings to arise: it simply reveals what is already there. What’s there right now is the result of what we’ve done and experienced in the past. Of course we don’t have much influence over this — things are just unfolding according to past events and actions.

The value of meditation is not just the calm states it can sometimes produce (although those are very nice), but fact that it allows enough “space” in the mind for us to see how we’re causing needless suffering for ourselves and others. We do have influence over our future states of mind, because our future state of mind will be a result of what we choose to do from now on. If we stop letting our patterns run our life, things will change. And that’s good news.

“The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What’s going on is very important.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditate? Why on earth?

Lots of people write me saying that they don’t know anything about meditation, but would like to do it. Why on earth? Meditation is quite boring. You just sit there for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more. Usually you do nothing. Sometimes you do something, but it’s rarely interesting — paying attention to your breath, scanning your bodily sensations, and so forth. In some practices you have to do something really hard and complicated, like visualize a deity; these practices usually require a lot of repetition and consistent work over weeks or months to be effective, so they can become boring pretty quickly too (and in my experience you never get to a point where you feel you can say “I’m good at this, I can do this”). Other practices, such as Zen koans, require you to ask yourself questions which are actually unanswerable.

Meditation is actually the opposite of rewarding by the standards of any normal, sane person-on-the-street. The decision to initiate, and to sustain, a meditation practice is a very serious one. It is helpful to spend time contemplating your intention in doing so, not just at the beginning of a meditation practice, but every day.