I used to hate meditation.
Raised with a particular version of by-your-bootstraps Judeo-Christian work ethic that idolized “pioneers” (in quotes because they were actually colonizers), I had a real problem with the idea of just sitting there, doing nothing, for any amount of time.
Worse, when I forced myself to do it I kept on feeling like I was doing it wrong. Where was the peace? Where was the serenity? When was I going to achieve satori and kensho and live a life full of wabi-sabi shibumi and start winning at Go?
Part of the problem with my expectations might have been that my introduction to the whole idea of meditation came from thrillers by Eric Van Lustbader and Trevanian, with a good dose of Jean-Claude Van Damme doing splits plus a touch of new-age philosophy books like The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.
I did t’ai chi for years, since a moving meditation was slightly more palatable than a sitting practice. I slid in and out of daily practices like they were fad diets: I’d skip it for weeks or months, then suddenly decide No! I shall become a Master Meditator! and “commit” to 30 minutes a day…only to fall off the wagon and berate myself for being a Bad Buddhist.
There was the consolation prize of reading zen philosophers like Charlotte Joko Beck, Cheri Huber, and Brad Warner. Because reading about how to meditate is the same as actually meditating, right?
Why Didn’t I Just Give Up Meditation?
A smarter person might have finally figured out that meditation just wasn’t right for me and taken up some other practice. But I am a neurochemistry and psychology nerd, and reading articles and books about “flow states” by people like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi kept me interested. Other neurological and spiritual pioneers (in the true sense of the word) such as Mathieu Ricard – the “happiest man on the planet,” as documented by SCIENCE! – kept me coming back to zazen, over and over, only to give it up because it just felt like I wasn’t getting it.
I took up several other practices over the years – the discipline of the Marine Corps, of aikido, of earning a degree in Dance which included more t’ai chi – but as an art and physical conditioning tool rather than a path to enlightenment.
It was while earning that degree, in the midst of doing some move such as cloud hands for a half hour (which looks a lot like wax on, wax off) that I came to the the first epiphany that made my meditation feel great:
Meditation isn’t supposed to be Fun
In fact, in the gentle words of many zen philosophers: it sucks. Which makes it kind of amusing when people say “I can’t meditate, my mind is just too busy with all the thoughts going round and round.”
“Yes! Exactly!” I can imagine the zen philosophers shouting, capering about their zafu with glee. “That’s exactly what zazen is! You’ve got it!”
Meditation isn’t supposed to be peaceful. It’s not supposed to be anything except you sitting there and watching your brain.
That’s it. You might do some movement, over and over, like wax on– er, I mean, cloud hands – or, more traditionally, you might just be sitting there staring at the wall – but the point is not to make the thoughts in your brain stop – the point is just to notice them.
Let them come: “Ah! I’m having that thought!” and then – brace yourself, this is the tricky part – let them go.
Some people like to use the analogy of a train station: the thought-cars go by, one after another, and you just see them there, noting what they are like, but not being any more attached to them than you are when you’re watching the train go past while you’re sitting in your car at an intersection. Oh, that one says Union Pacific. That’s some colorful graffiti. Oh, that one is hauling pipes. That one has passengers – wonder what they’re thinking? Whoa, that one sure has a lot of hazard stickers on it – must be some pretty toxic stuff in there…
And then when the train has gone by – or, to bring the metaphor back to reality, when your meditation timer dings – you go on your way.
That’s all there is to it. Really. In spite of the volumes of text and hours of video on how and why to do it, that’s really all there is.
There also is a huge amount of evidence, both spiritual and scientific, about what meditation does for you. TL;DR: Lots of really good stuff. Spending at least five minutes a day in meditation is, according to Tim Ferriss, the top habit of every successful and/or happy person he’s interviewed.
Maybe that’s why we don’t trust that we’re doing it right. We’re conditioned by that same good old fashioned work ethic not to trust that anythingrequiring so little effort can truly be worth something. .
It does take effort, mind you – the effort to sit on your butt and set a timer for five minutes and not do anything else. And in a world of hustle-hustle-hustle, that’s not going to feel right – but with this subtle reframing, you might be able to talk yourself into it:
Meditation is pure productivity mainlined into your brain.
That was the second epiphany that turned meditation the best part of my day. Every other thing I do during the day is a risk. Will this article be good enough? Should I be writing about something else? Should I be strategizing my social media? Which platform? Maybe I should spend more time on my art – but which part? Should I hone my strengths in calligraphic arts or should I be developing new skills like watercolor? When was the last time I took a break?
There’s that chain of train cars, and it goes by all day long. It never stops.
But when I’m sitting on the floor, meditating, I have one job. The only thing I need to do is sit there for five, ten, fifteen minutes or so. That’s it.
And if I do that, it has been scientifically proven that I will be more effective throughout the rest of the day. Cumulatively, I will be physically healthier and emotionally more stable.
There is no other part of my day that gives me that kind of return on investment. None. Everything else is a gamble – but for those five minutes, I am absolutely doing the right thing, the productive thing, the effective thing.
It’s the best part of my day.
Give it a shot. Remind yourself that it’s not supposed to be fun, that it’s not going to be peaceful – but it’s probably going to be the most effective effort-to-results part of your day, by far.
Don’t just do something. Sit there.