Brach says that “if somebody else was whispering into my ear all the nonsense that my brain comes up with, I wouldn’t put up with it for a minute.” Goldstein, too, says that it’s important to realize this is a common experience of every meditator.
“It doesn’t mean that the practice isn’t working or that we can’t do it, it’s just a manifestation of a mind that hasn’t trained in this,” he says. “That’s not a problem. That’s just how it is in learning anything new.”
Okay, you’re right, it doesn’t sound easy. Why am I doing this again?
Consider how many times throughout your day things don’t go according to plan. You sit down to chug through some work, and all of a sudden your kid starts screaming or your boss sends you something urgent to address. You set out for a run, and your calves decide not to work. You go to make eggs and you drop the entire dozen on the ground. This happens on a macro scale, too: Consider what you expected 2020 to be like this time last year.
Meditation can be a training ground for exactly this type of upheaval. You try to rest your attention on your immediate experience, and, all of a sudden, you’re thinking about dinner. You try and you fail. You try and you fail. Life goes like this, too—over and over again, until your time runs out. How fluid and graceful you can be with that turbulence just might determine the quality of your life.
This is why the pervasive idea that you’re doing meditation “wrong” if you’re “thinking too much” is particularly harmful. “I’ve seen so many people through the years feel they’ve failed [at meditation] because they’re still thinking, or they have tons of thoughts or painful feelings,” says Salzberg. “We don’t believe you can fail because the point isn’t to get rid of that stuff, but to develop a different relationship to it.”
Salzberg says that this is why she sometimes refers to this style of meditation—where you have an object of awareness and are deepening concentration—as resilience training. You’re cultivating an ability to bounce back. This type of resiliency doesn’t have to be born out of critical or harsh self-judgment, but a way to practice “letting go gently,” says Salzberg. You see that you’ve wandered and you come back to start again. (In her book, Chodron uses the helpful image of tenderly touching a bubble with a feather.)
Goldstein says that, when something comes up that is especially difficult—maybe it’s anxiety, or pain—and you find yourself fighting it, it might be helpful to imagine what you’d say to a young child going through that experience: “With the child, we probably wouldn’t be judging it. We wouldn’t be saying, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. You shouldn’t be feeling it. Stop complaining.’”
How often should I do it?
Though you need to make a commitment that is realistic enough that you can stick to, it’s important to remember that you’re trying to build a habit. That means no days off.
“There’s so much research saying even a short amount each day does calm the limbic system and activates the parts of the brain that help you be more present, more open-hearted, gives you more perspective, executive function, the whole thing,” says Brach. “To integrate that, to have that available, to have it go from a state to trait, that takes time.”
When she was younger, Brach lived in an ashram for ten years, where she’d practice meditation for hours a day. But when she left the ashram—some thirty years ago, with a four-month-old infant—she made a commitment to meditate every day.