An Invaluable Lesson I Learned That Transformed My Meditation Practice

Photo by Ry Van on Unsplash

Anybody who’s meditated for any length of time knows this: some sessions are good and some are pulling-teeth awful. The good ones connect us to our home base, make us feel centered and are marked by a physical feeling of inner calmness. The bad ones are full of uncontrollable, racing thoughts and anxious feelings that make us feel worse than if we hadn’t meditated at all. Many meditators, especially those in the early stages of their practice, give it up if these “bad” sessions continue for too long. The fundamental mistake these people make lies in what they believe to be the purpose of meditation. Hint: That purpose is not, as most people believe, to feel divinely serene and peaceful inside, an invaluable lesson I learned a few years ago from Western meditation pioneer Joseph Goldstein.

A little background. Along with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg, Goldstein helped bring meditation to America in the 1970s. I had been meditating regularly for five years when I took Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course in 2017. One of our course readings was a short chapter in Goldstein’s book Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom. The chapter eloquently describes what the purpose of meditation is and isn’t.

Up to that point in my practice I’d experienced hugely frustrating periods where I wondered why the hell I was even meditating. Luckily, I persisted.

Radiant meditation sessions turn to twisted steel

The lesson Goldstein taught me came in the story he tells in the chapter about a particular experience he had while practicing in India intermittently in the late 60s and early 70s. During one several month sojourn to India Goldstein’s meditations were off-the-charts sublime. As he described them, “My whole body dissolved into radiant vibrations of light. Every time I sat down, as soon as I closed my eyes, this energy field of light pervaded my whole body. It was wonderful, it felt terrific.”

After those mind-blowingly great months he returned to America for a while. When he returned to India not long after, he expected to resume those other-worldly, radiant sessions. Guess what? It didn’t happen. Not even close. In fact, his sessions were the worst he’d ever experienced. As he put it, “Not only was there no longer a body of light, but my body felt like a painful mass of twisted steel…There was so much pressure and tension, so many unpleasant sensations.” Twisted steel? Yikes.

Then it dawned on him: meditation is not about feeling great or achieving ecstatic states of being. It’s about being completely open to whatever is happening in the present, good or bad, radiant vibrations of light or twisted steel in your gut. Doesn’t matter. The point is to just observe, nonjudgmentally, any sensations you might be feeling or experiencing.

Meditation isn’t about achieving ecstatic states

Goldstein’s epiphany hit me like a ton of bricks…in a good way. Ever since reading this, whenever I’m feeling anxious, unsettled or uptight in a session, I just step back and literally say inside my head, “Okay, I’m feeling anxious.” And I observe it. And sit with it. And most important, I don’t resist it. Or engage with it. Or fight with it. Why? Because that anxiousness is the reality of that present moment. As Eckhart Tolle so succinctly puts it, “Don’t resist what is.”

Any of you out there who are just getting into meditation or are considering starting a practice, please take note: This really is the whole ballgame of meditation. It’s all about being present with whatever is happening in any moment.

Mindfulness: also about accepting good AND bad moments

The same is true for meditation’s brother — mindfulness. I define mindfulness as simply being present in your daily life. If you’re washing your hands, place your attention on washing your hands, as the great Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh says. If you’re hitting a golf shot, focus on that, not letting your mind wander to the presentation you have to give a client the next morning.

As with meditation, so it is with mindfulness in your daily life: be present and accept whatever’s happening in any given moment. So much of the tension and anxiety we experience comes from simply resisting what’s happening in moment after moment after moment. And most of the time we’re not even conscious that we’re resisting those moments! In fact, the next time you find yourself anxious or uptight, just stop and ask yourself: “What am I resisting right now? In this moment?” Once you identify it, just relax and let that resistance go; once you do, the tension inside you will disappear.

The good news is that the more you practice this “just accept whatever’s happening in the present moment, good OR bad” thing, the better you’ll get at it. That goes for both your meditation and mindfulness practices. And the better you get at it, you’ll find that the bad/stressful/anxious periods start to diminish. And when these periods do come, they pass much more quickly than when you used to wrangle, engage and fight with them.

Princeton rain vs. Hawaii rain

Here’s an analogy that captures this last concept. When I went to Princeton, there were many days when I’d wake up, look outside and see it was raining. And it bummed me out. Why? Because I knew that that rain was going to stay there all day long and that I’d have to walk to tennis practice in our indoor facility jumping over puddles and avoiding general misery. So Princeton rain is what happens when you resist and fight with uncomfortable moments. They linger.

In Hawaii, rainstorms move in quickly, drop their water, then leave. In, then out. And everybody gets back to doing what they were doing. No harm done. Hawaii rain is what happens when you just observe the stress and anxiousness you’re feeling in any moment — whether while meditating or just going about your day. It comes, you observe it and then it goes. So resist your tough periods and you’ll get Princeton rain. Nonjudgmentally observe them and you’ll get Hawaii rain.

Try my meditation program

Finally, if you’re thinking about starting a meditation practice, I’d advise you to give my program a try. I made it simple, doable and designed it so that a regular person, like me, would be successful in developing a long-term practice. The program, which I’ve written as an ebook called Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice, is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there. The good news is it’s free. You can access it at davidgerken.net.

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