“I can’t meditate, it doesn’t work for me,” is a phrase I’ve heard so many times in the past 10 years. Not wishing to be impolite, I don’t push back on this, but I do wonder, “What part of meditation is broken?”
One possibility is sitting still. That can be hard for some of us (me!) to accept, at least, at first. But there is an easy solution: notice when you get antsy and stop. Who said 90 seconds of meditation ‘doesn’t count’? (I don’t think we give prizes to the person who sits the longest.) Anyway, once you can sit quietly for 90 seconds without feeling that you’re being punished, add another 90. Sit for 3 minutes.
Then there’s the Mind Game. We start thinking. We think we ought to be doing something else (I’ve got a lot to do today. Oh well, 90 seconds isn’t so bad. Let’s make it 85. Yeah.). When we notice our thinking, we think about the rules (No thinking! Let go of thoughts!) and then we think about ourselves (Gee, more thoughts. I’m such a miserable meditator. I can’t meditate, it doesn’t…).
But what if the instructions said, “Thoughts are not a problem. Go ahead and think.”? Long-time meditation teacher and author, Jason Siff, writes (Tricycle, Fall 2009, “The Problem with Meditation Instructions”, paywall?):
Although we are not often taught this, the most skillful way through an impasse in meditation is to become aware of it and of what holds it together and keeps it running. To do this, you need to keep doing the meditation instructions that have gotten you to this point, but instead of following them “harder,” try approaching them in a softer, gentler manner. Do them loosely, and don’t do them all of the time. Instead, try doing them when it is easy to do them, or, when you feel you need to. But also be willing not to do them every single time you feel the need.(emphasis added)
“I can’t” and “doesn’t work” are phrases based on certain expectations about how meditation is supposed to proceed, but, as Siff says, you can let go of those expectations. Once the expectations are lowered, the Inner Referee will stop blowing her whistle, and meditation can become more about physical stillness.
Intrigued by Jason Siff? Here are some direct links to his work:
- Skillful Meditation Project | Recollective Awareness Meditation
- Pine Street Sangha: A Recollective Awareness Meditation community (in SE Portland)
- Basic meditation instructions (chapter 2 of Unlearning Meditation book)
And related materials I have posted here:
- Resources (look under Sitting Instructions)
- Practice Rules (A Quiet Place, 10 April 2015)
- I can’t meditate. I think too much. (A Quiet Place, 3 April 2015)