My morning meditation was fairly half-assed. I didn’t ride my bike at sunrise to my preferred Buddhist center in Cambridge, over the Mass Ave. bridge with the elegant crew boats manned by chiseled athletes sculling the Charles River below, sit in silence for 45-minutes, and emerge a more kind, patient, and productive person afterward. Sometimes, my meditation is like this, but not today.
Today, it was 5-minutes, dutifully timed by my iPhone. I sat on my loveseat, which is not hippie code-speak for a special form of cushion or zafu. It’s just a loveseat from West Elm. I didn’t even light a candle. No time. No need, really.
It’s tempting to judge this juxtaposition of experiences. One looks, sounds, and feels more Zen. The other looks, sounds, and feels like nothing much. My reason for mentioning any of this is that, in my experience doing yoga and meditating since the age of 16 (I’m now 34), it’s become clear that people genuinely want to meditate. They may even go so far as to get a routine going, perhaps started on a retreat or with the help of a guided program by a local teacher or remote one via the Internet or audio files by Deepak Chopra (friends raved about his 30-day program with Oprah earlier this year) or Jon Kabat-Zinn, to whom I introduce all new meditators (his resources are so lovely and accessible).
Then, we fall off the wagon. It’s not as easy back home as it was in Tulum with the ocean waves crashing outside and only pressing responsibility being to get to the dining hall for fresh fruit and herbal tea afterward. We don’t have much space at home and no real cushion or seat meant for meditating. It’s trash day, and the damn truck outside is so noisy. We’re already late for work. We didn’t get enough sleep. We overslept. I just don’t wanna we mentally whine, or we forget altogether. It happens.
Alternatively, some never try (for any length of time, at least). They mean to. They want to. They hear meditation would be good for them. It reduces stress, relieves anxiety, increases focus, combats depression, and on and on. Many people can practically recite the benefits by heart despite never encountering them. It’s just so hard, they lament, gamely resigned to an immutable fate. They’re just “not good at it.”
Here’s the good news: it’s not possible to be bad at meditation. There’s doing it and not doing it. That’s all. If you want to try: try. And be assured that it doesn’t always look, sound, or feel Zen. Sometimes, it feels wretched or boring or like nothing much at all. It doesn’t matter how long or where you sit, whether roused by an antique Buddhist gong or iPhone.
All experiences of meditation are good and valuable because they cultivate the skill of being present, of strengthening the mind. How many other skills would we expect to master without much practice, especially life-altering ones? Even your chaturanga took a while, didn’t it? Moreover, it’s not only the immediate results of meditation from which we benefit. They accumulate over time, whether 45-minutes here or 5-minutes there. Like modern yoga, depictions and descriptions of meditation can be very skewed, prioritizing the beautiful, effortless, and happy–no itchy noses or furrowed brows– which is why it’s important to gently remind ourselves that these are images.
Forget the images. Forget how other people do it. Grab a spot, set a timer, close your eyes, and breathe. That’s all. It might not look like much, but when it amounts to you being less dominated by your thoughts, emotions, agenda, and judgments and more at peace with yourself, it’s everything you need.