I hope it’s obvious why you will hate this tip. Everyone hates being told they should probably meditate. Most people will say “yeah I tried that and I just can’t, my head is too full of thoughts or I can’t sit still or it’s so boring.”
And who doesn’t hate those people who have whole rooms devoted to meditation, with a lovely little Japanese screen and one perfect always-in-bloom orchid and a silk brocade meditation cushion they bought in Dharamsala when they were training under the Dalai Lama after they finished climbing Mt. Everest.
And, further, who doesn’t resent the way that mindfulness has been co-opted by capitalism, packaged up into subscription apps, and sold to us as a method of increasing our resilience, our focus, and our productivity so that we may better serve Capital? What’s not to hate about that?
Also mindfulness as it’s been repackaged is largely white, a product of white Western Buddhists.
No, I cannot here give you a full accounting of the migration of Buddhism to ‘The West’, and the rise of mindfulness meditation specifically as it migrated from Buddhism to other religions and into secular use in the west. I'm not an expert. Here is a syllabus about Buddhism in America for further study.
All that said, however.
Colonialist capitalism may have co-opted mindfulness meditation for its own shockingly limited vision of what matters in the world, but it can’t obliterate the thousands of years of practice, teaching, and learning that have gone into understanding mindfulness meditation as a powerful tool for the purpose of liberation and enlightenment.
Each one of us has access to that tool. We don’t have to have a brocade cushion or a room, we don’t even have to sit if all we can do is lie down, but we can each of us learn to pay attention to reality as it exists in the present moment.
We don’t have direct access to reality, whether we’re meditating or not, since not only do we not perceive it all, but what we perceive is heavily edited, lots taken out, lots more put in, and over it all a lot of interpretation that is completely unconscious.
But, to the extent that we do have access to reality the only time we have it is right now, in the present.
If you want to understand reality, then, you need to learn how to deliberately pay attention to the present moment.
Most of the time we are not paying attention to the present moment, we are telling ourselves stories in our heads. That is often why people say they can’t meditate, they sit still and they find that their mind is chattering all the time, and that no matter how long they sit meditating their mind still chatters at them. But that is normal, that is what our minds do.
The point of meditation is not to get the mind to stop chattering but to be able to step back and notice the chattering and to be curious about it and see what you can learn about yourself and about the reality of being human by watching the chatter.
There are many traditions of practice devoted to various ways both to learn to watch the mind and to understand how to use that knowledge to act in the world.
There are thousands of years of research into this process, and yes, an enormous amount of psychological, biological and medical research devoted to understanding the effects this practice has on the mind and body of those who practice it.
There are many good books and lectures written for a modern layperson of any religious or no religious tradition about the kinds of obstacles you might encounter while meditating, different ways to meditate, different things you might notice about yourself and the world while meditating, and what you might learn from meditation about ways to be in the world that will reduce your suffering. (I like Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chödrön, and Tara Brach.)
I assume that you are reading this because you are suffering and I claim to offer some tips that might help you reduce your suffering.
I did not come to mindfulness meditation through an app or an article in a wellness magazine or in Fast Company or the Harvard Business Review.
I came to mindfulness meditation in 2003, in the aftermath of an episode of suicidal depression that fell upon me when I was six months pregnant with my first child and left me feeling like a broken shell.
At that time I learned about a program being offered at UMass Medical Center in Worcester. It was at a center led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Most people did not know who Jon Kabat-Zinn was then. Of course there were zen centers and Shambhala centers and insight meditation centers, but Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first person I know of to start teaching meditation to people in a medical setting.
I did an intensive months-long program that required a three hour weekly class and 45 minutes a day of home practice in mindfulness meditation.
(No, I don't still meditate 45 minutes daily. Sometimes it's five minutes, sometimes 20, sometimes 3. Sometimes none.)
The class was not for “seekers”. It wasn’t for tech workers or managers who wanted to optimize their minds for better productivity or more focus or whatever. It wasn’t even for people who were suffering from serious mental illness, as I was.
The class was mostly full of people who were dying and there wasn’t anything that could be done about it, or people who were dying who were going through serious medical intervention that maybe would keep them from dying just yet, but maybe wouldn't, or people who’d been in terrible accidents and sustained permanent injuries from them, or people who suffered from serious chronic illness or disabling pain.
The book that went along with the class was called Full-Catastrophe Living, and that is why we were all there: because of catastrophes.
Deciding to take the class despite it being mostly full of people who seemed sicker than me was, incidentally, a turning point in my understanding of my mental illness as something so grim, so painful, and so serious that in fact I did not feel out of place sitting down with terminally ill people each week and talking about what we’d each learned during our week of practicing mindfulness.
I remember clearly the first major insight I had about my pain.
I was having a 'bad' day. Despair, suicidal ideation, anxiety and fear had been chasing me around all day long. The day felt like one long horrifying nightmare and I did not have any interest in sitting down for 45 minutes and directing all my attention to the full, present-moment experience of that nightmare.
I did it anyway, though. I sat down and I held my seat for 45 minutes and here is what I noticed:
Fully experiencing the nightmare was, in fact, almost unbearably difficult. But.
Not every moment was the same, and some were worse than others. The pain came in waves, like nausea, or labor pains.
I had never before noticed the wavelike nature of the pain.
The way our minds work, we tend to believe that how we feel right now is how we will always feel. We have always been at war with Eurasia, and we always will be. We do not grasp the fact of impermanence and if we do grasp it intellectually, we do not notice that impermanence is true over very small amounts of time as well as over days and weeks and years.
We only notice things like that if we sit down and pay attention to our moment to moment experience.
This realization about my pain did not cure me. It did not magically make me able to withstand the pain without needing, if we continue with a labor metaphor, an epidural. Days and days where many or most of the moments of your present experience are almost unbearably painful pretty naturally result in suicidal ideation. Noticing that the pain is always changing and also that it is temporary doesn’t prevent that.
But that realization was a core turning point for me in how I understood my emotional pain and how I learned to withstand it, to let go of it a tiny bit, some of the time.
I am not, in fact, always at war with Eurasia. I am sometimes at war with Eastasia instead, and sometimes I am not at war at all. Not often, but sometimes.
Impermanence, of course, is just one of the truths about human existence that you can experience for yourself through meditation. It was the first that hit me in my own journey, and it was a very important realization.
The skill that I had to acquire in order to experience that truth is the thing that is called mindfulness. It is the ability to step a bit out of your chattering mind, if only briefly, not to experience the lack of chatter (haha, that’s pretty much not a thing) but to be able to watch and learn from the chatter.
When we practice the skill regularly we learn that there’s always something wrong in the world - we crave more of this or less of that, we want things to be other than they are; we learn that this thing we call a self dissolves upon examination; and we learn to recognize the loops our minds get trapped in, the things that hook us, the patterns our neurons like to fire in.
Of course you can read many books that tell you those things. You can go to therapy and the therapist can point them out, the therapist can show you your loops. But the knowledge you get from other people about how consciousness works, how minds work, how pain works, how the mind gets stuck in loops, how that causes suffering — none of that knowledge is comparable to the direct and experiential knowledge of these things that you get through developing the skill of mindfulness.
For example, to learn again and again exactly what it feels like the moment your mind gets stuck on something, like a fishhook catching on something at the bottom of a river, the feeling of the loop beginning. So that you catch yourself in that moment, so you are able to recognize the pattern behind whatever details you’re looping on. It’s the reason I remember the exact moment my mind took hold of the thought “I’m going bald”. I’ve watched it happen for myself. I know what it feels like.
No one else can give that to you for your own mind. You need to do it for yourself.
That means doing so through some form of meditation, whether lying down or sitting or walking, not just through mindfully enjoying a meal or a stroll in the forest or mindfully washing the dishes or whatever other mindfulness-in-everyday-life thing you might do so that you can avoid the actual meditating part, where it’s basically just you sticking your own damn head into that cage full of rats and mindfully observing as they chew your face off. (Yes, I’m big with the 1984 metaphors today.)
To return to your insistence that you have tried, Amy, and you just can’t meditate, here are my answers to that:
1. If you’re one of the people whose complaint about meditation is that it’s boring then truly, I envy you, and the answer is just to pay closer attention and I promise things will get more interesting. There’s a ton going on in your mind and body at all times that will get interesting if you get curious about it. Yeah sometimes that means you sit there examining what it feels like to be bored, which feels very solipsistic, but what?, you’re doing this for like 20 minutes a day, probably, so don’t argue with me that this kind of self-examination is a dangerous form of naval-gazing. You’ll still have plenty of time to doomscroll or watch fluffy animol tiktoks, I promise.
2. If you’re like me and meditating is often more like rats chewing your face off, then you probably don’t want to do too much of it at once. It’s rough going, no doubt about it. But I promise you can tolerate a few minutes at a time. Also, find someone to advise you. Like a meditation teacher or a therapist with experience in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which is a whole thing now.
3. If it hurts to sit, lie down; if it hurts to do either, try walking meditation, but that still doesn’t mean going for a walk, it usually means walking unbelievably slowly around and around in a circle in a room somewhere. So it won’t fix your boredom or the rats, sorry, it just gets at the same stuff through a slightly different mechanism.
4. If your mind won’t stop chattering, that’s completely normal, so stop saying that’s a reason meditation doesn’t work for you. There’s no solution for it, just keep sitting.
Any of the above reasons could be reasons you hate this tip and don’t want to meditate. That’s cool. I’m not your mom, I can’t tell you what to do. (Unless I am your mom, and I still somehow can’t tell you what to do).
Meditate or don’t meditate, it’s all the same to me, but none of the above things are reasons you can’t meditate or that it doesn’t work for you.
Maybe there are other reasons meditation is not a good fit for you, and that’s cool: again, I can’t tell you what to do. But, not to hand you some damn Karate Kid crap, but in fact to hand you exactly that: there’s no meditation working or not working, there’s just the practice.
If you hate this tip so much (and I would understand if you did because absolutely no one wants to be told to meditate) that you want to call me names and never hear another tip from me again, here’s the unsubscribe link.
P.S. Yes, psychedelics will help you get some of the benefits you can get from meditation. I support their use in mental illness and can devote a different issue of Woe to that topic, but if you do not use the psychedelics as a means to learn to do the thing yourself, then you will be lost without your psychedelics. Also taking drugs to have that kind of direct contact with reality is, um, not necessarily more pleasant than sitting down to meditate in order to do it. In fact, the rats eating your face on a psychedelic trip are generally larger and more vicious. Again, if this kind of thing is new to you, and your mental rats are large and vicious already, you will want a guide. No, do not reply to this email asking for a. psychedelics or b. a guide. Go read Doubleblind Magazine.