I’ve never really understood why we make resolutions in the dead of winter, at the darkest, coldest time of the year. Or even why we celebrate the New Year at that time, just because Julius Caesar said so and had the calendar set up that way (before 45 B.C.E., the New Year started in March).
The obvious time to observe the New Year is in the Spring, which is Nature’s New Year–the time when things actually change, the old weather rolls out, new weather rolls in, the days get longer and warmer, and new life bursts forth in glorious, dizzying abundance. Don’t we all feel more like making resolutions in times like that, when new energy is all around us and life renews its own optimism, its own sense of adventure? “Out with the bad air, in with the good.” Open the windows.
One of the great things about spirituality is that we always get the chance to start again. There’s always forgiveness for our mistakes. We’re asked to develop “beginner’s mind,” the tabula rasa or fresh, clean slate that contains all possibilities. Because spirituality comes from the awareness that time is something of an illusion, as modern science has pretty well proven, even though it hasn’t penetrated our everyday minds just yet. So spirituality takes time lightly, and asks us to do so, too.
All of which means that we always have an opportunity to renew our spiritual practice, whatever that involves for each of us, and our meditation, whatever its form. And what better time than now, in Spring, when everything around us is giving us a hand up and the sap of life is rising in every living thing, including us?
So this seems like a good moment to talk about some of the ways that our good intentions and resolutions about meditation go off the rails. When I worked in a spiritual bookshop, and whenever I’ve taught meditation, I heard the same refrain from people: “I can’t meditate.” “I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t work for me.” When I asked them what happened, some fairly common themes came up, and I realized that often, part of the problem was that they had misconceptions about what meditation was, and were getting off on the wrong foot, trying to meet an unnecessary or impossible standard.
Common Misunderstandings in Meditation
A lot of the time when we run into problems, it’s because there’s something so obvious we don’t notice it. The first issue that came up when I listened to people who had struggled with meditation was that they had never asked themselves the basic questions, “Why do I want to meditate?” And, “Do I really want to meditate at all?”
In short, they were “should-ing” themselves. We all do it. We’ve taken in a notion that there’s something we should do, have some obligation to do, because it’s good for us like cod-liver oil, or because it’s expected of us, like feeling we have to become a dentist because dad was one, when what we really want is to be a concert violinist.
Let me go out on a limb here and propose the radical notion that meditation may not be for everyone. At least not in the classical forms that people think of as meditation. I’ve always been wary of the proposition that one size fits all: you go to a meditation class, and everybody gets the same practice–”sit this way, do this with your hands, that with your breath, and make sure your eyes are two-thirds closed, your vision resting on the floor six feet in front of you.” Now that might be a wonderful practice, but I always wondered, “can that be good for everybody?” We’re all so different! We receive and process information differently, for starters. Some of us more through sight, some through hearing, and others through touch–what Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) calls “Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic” learning styles. And is sitting quietly everybody’s cup of tea in any case? Maybe Joe needs to chant, or Kyoko needs to dance, if they’re to enter into the subtle spaces that meditation invites us to explore.
And even if what most of us think of when we think of meditation is right for someone, sometimes the approach is still colored by societal conditioning. A lot of people subconsciously try to learn meditation the same way they learned geography or algebra, as if there was going to be a test and they were going to be graded on a pass/fail system by a parental authority, with all of the stresses that can generate.
This approach to learning is wired deeply into many of us–wanting to “do it right,” not make a mistake; and the messages were implanted in us long before we learned to think critically about them. Which can complicate anything, but especially meditation. Because the mentality behind “getting it right” is fear-based, whether the carrot or the stick is used. And meditation works on an entirely different basis, in which fear and the tension that comes from it is let go.
What Is Meditation, Anyway?
Many different things are labeled “meditation.” Sometimes thinking intensely and carefully about a subject is meant. And practices as different as flower-arranging, archery, serving tea, focusing on or chanting a sacred sound or word, counting off beads, or just sitting and emptying one’s mind are considered meditation. But what do they all have in common?
The simplest answer is, interruption. All these types of meditation interrupt our usual stream of consciousness by providing a focus on something other than the daily grind of worries and wants. In a sense, they stick a monkey wrench in the gears of ordinary thinking, which gets us unstuck. When that happens, the possibility of opening up to something different and off the beaten path can arise. Meditation can take us down “the road less traveled,” not out there somewhere in a yellow wood, but in here, in our own innermost being.
Not all systems or methods of meditation lead to the same results. Some outcomes are as simple as reducing stress and lowering blood pressure; certainly a good thing. While others aim at nothing less than uniting us consciously with the source and ground of reality itself. But a six-week course at the Y and a lifelong training in a monastery have something else in common besides interrupting our ordinary mind. Ideally, at least, they introduce us to a quality of consciousness that owes nothing to the world created by human thought and ingenuity–the “civilized” world–and everything to a primal openness and generosity of heart that is said to be our “original mind” or state before we learned anything about how to be or behave in the world. There is something wild, in the sense of natural and untamed, about meditation. This may be why repressive regimes are sometimes uneasy about it and suppress its expression.
The least this means is that we want our meditation, from the start, to come from a place in us that is as free from judgment and calculation as possible; a place of unconditional welcoming of anything and everything that is in us or part of us. Easier said than done, to be sure. But I’ve found it’s helpful if we can start with that idea in mind, and look for a personal point of reference that wakes up the actual feeling of it in our bodies and minds and keeps our practice on track.
Many wise teachers over the years have suggested that we find a memory–an image, a sound, or other sensory stimuli–associated with powerful feelings of tenderness, kindness, nurturing, freedom or ease for us. Maybe it’s a place from childhood, a pond or pine grove in the woods were we went for peace and quiet when our parents were arguing. Or a piece of music that makes our skin tingle and our heart swell. Unexpectedly seeing a deer on the lawn six feet away, both of you holding your breath and stopping your hearts and minds. A kind word from a teacher, friend or lover that changed everything for you at that moment. The smell of a good meal before a flickering fire on a cold, snow-bound night, or that wordless feeling of “Ahhh!” as you ease yourself down into a warm bath after hard work.
These kinds of sense memories form incredibly powerful associations within the nervous system. They are often very early memories, and access deep states of being from before we had our attention trained away from them to more “practical” and “useful” things, and got trapped in the virtual reality of our thoughts and thoughts about thoughts. Look for these memories and feelings, and bring the feeling-quality of them into your meditation.
I also found people had the notion that meditation was something mental–a thing of the mind, like Sudoku. But, really, it has more to do with the body than anything else. The body is the foundation of meditation, the ground and root of all our experience. We talk about “mindfulness,” but that actually reflects the limitations of language as much as anything, because meditation involves our entire being: body, sensation, emotion, and thought. All of that, working together, is the “mind” that is meant by mindfulness.
So feel as free as you can, give yourself carte blanche, to have a ball with meditation! To have fun with it. To approach it in the spirit of a happy child walking up to the ocean or a carousel for the first time, reaching out with shy but curious hands, not knowing a damn thing about it, but bound to find out. Kiss your consciousness like it’s your first kiss, first love. Pay careful attention, sure; but make your mindfulness sensual, as well as precise, juicy, not dry, with the quality of feeling summer rain on your skin when you were five. Let your slowing down open up a world of subtler pleasure. This is part of where the joy of meditation lies, not unlike becoming a vegetarian and discovering after months of missing meat that suddenly veggies taste really, really good, once you’ve cleansed your palate of heavier flavors.
Meditation is as much an art as it is a science, and it’s more about getting the knack, finding the feeling-space of unlimited joy, freedom and spaciousness that’s crackling with the energy of the Big Bang, than it is about a sorry little thing like “getting it right.” Drop that bother and embrace your Big Mind.
As the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi used to tell everyone when he taught meditation: “Enjoy!” Start from there, from that place of unlimited, unconditional enjoyment, and keep going back to it and refreshing yourself whenever you feel a little dry, and watch as your meditation blossoms in ways you could never imagine. That’s the garden of Spring that never knows a Fall.