How to Meditate, I Think

A man meditating at sunset.

Image found here.

I’ve been experimenting with meditation on and off since I was about 11. And if it’s true, as some have asserted, that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of meditation practice to become an expert meditator, then I figure I can legitimately claim to be such an expert, just as soon as I complete another 9,698 hours of practice, roughly speaking¹.

In the meantime, if I really want to go around offering people advice on how to meditate (and apparently I am about to do exactly that), I think it only fair to explain just what the heck I think qualifies me to do such a thing, which I have done in a previous post. So now I think I’ll just soldier forward with what I see as the very best meditation advice that I have to offer anybody, at least for now, and at this point in my meditation career, which is to say at its very beginning. In any case, and for whatever it may be worth, here is that advice:

View Meditation As A Process

To give this some context, consider that it is common for meditation instructions to look something like the following²:

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight.
  2. When you feel ready to do so, direct your attention to your own breathing.
  3. Observe your breathing as it occurs, don’t try to control it in any way. Just allow it to happen as it happens naturally.
  4. At some point, you will realize that your mind has wandered elsewhere and that you are no longer attending to your breathing. When that happens, simply bring your attention back to your breathing and continue to observe it.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as long as desired.

Now, I believe one critical but easy to overlook aspect to these kinds of meditation instructions is that they describe a process, and it’s actually that process that is the meditation. I think it’s important to call this out, because it’s quite common to think that meditation is when you “focus on a mantra” (your breathing, an image, etc.), but these are really gross oversimplifications. It’s a bit like saying that a banana is that stick of white, doughy sweet stuff that comes wrapped in something called a “banana skin”, as though the skin were somehow not an important part of the banana. But as far as a banana tree is concerned, for example, a banana is really the whole thing, skin included. That’s really what a banana is, and similarly, meditation is really not just the attempt to focus on some mantra (breathing, image, etc.), but rather it’s the whole process of first trying to focus your attention on some object, then realizing when you’ve lost focus, and then noticing whatever you are now focusing on, accepting it and then finally bringing your attention back to the object in a repeating cycle, over and over and over again. Meditation is the whole process of doing that. I remember reading somewhere³ that each of these cycles is like a mental push-up, and its the continually sustained doing of all those mental push ups that eventually yields the long term benefits of meditation.

Distinguish between Meditation’s Goal and Outcome

Next, I like to conceptualize this meditative process as a kind of non-verbal internal dialogue that occurs between two apparently contradictory wishes. On the one hand there is the wish to sustain one’s focus of attention on some given object of meditation (mantra, breathing, etc.). And on the other is the wish to notice and to accept whatever actually happens while attempting to sustain that focus. The process that is meditation is like a conversation that shifts back and forth between these two wishes.

Now, one major benefit to this dialogue metaphor is that it highlights what I see as a critical distinction that can be made between the goal of meditation and its outcome. In fact, I think this distinction is so critical that I’m pretty sure I mostly wasted the approximately 300 hours of meditation practice that I estimate to have accumulated over the past 43 years, and this mainly because I was confused about the difference between these two key components of meditation. And it was only about 9 months ago when it suddenly dawned on me just how confused I was in this regard, and subsequently resolved that confusion (I believe) in the way I am describing. Since then I must say that my experience with meditation has greatly improved.

In any case, and as I see it (for now), the goal of meditation is no more and no less than to focus one’s attention on the particular object one has chosen to focus on while meditating (breathing, mantra, etc.). And the outcome of meditation is just whatever one winds up experiencing while attempting to maintain one’s attention on that object.

This distinction between goal and outcome in meditation points to a couple of surprising and somewhat counter-intuitive conclusions. The first of these is that when anybody tells you that they meditate “in order to relax” or “to manage stress” or even “to attain enlightenment”, I suspect the chances are high that they are actually failing to accomplish those goals. The reason I say this is because those are all more or less possible outcomes of meditation, but to my view they make terrible meditation goals. To my view, a good meditation goal, as discussed above, is simply to focus one’s attention on some object of meditation. Which points to the second surprising conclusion, which is that when anybody asks you why you are meditating, really the correct answer to give (as I see it) is something like “I am meditating in order to focus my attention on my breathing”.


Notes

¹In making this joke, I’m referencing what’s known as the “ten-thousand hour rule”, which asserts that it takes roughly 10-thousand hours of “deliberate” practice to achieve mastery in any domain (e.g. meditation). This “rule” has generated a good deal of controversy and I intend to write more about that in a future post, but for now I’ll leave you with a link to an article at Salon.com that conveys much of what I think needs to be understood about it.
²For an example of what I see as a much more expert version, see Sam Harris’s How to Meditate
³I will try to track down where I read this and add the reference in this note. If you’re interested, please check back here from time to time, and if you think it’s taking me too long, please send me a note through my Contact page to remind me.

6 Comments

  1. Very interesting and useful entry. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes ten thousand hours to get good at anything – and I guess that might apply to meditation. Of course, it is also true that the journey is more important than the destination – and I think that is more applicable.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply

  2. Thanks for this post Daniel! It was genuinely enlightening! I confess i meditate too little (actually, nearly never) and it’s probably for the same reasons that you expressed above (goal/outcome confusion). I do immense amounts of thinking, which I read somewhere is also a form of meditation (focus on a single topic?) but it doesnt feel the same nor does it have the same outcome (answers/ solutions) despite a similar goal. Thanks especially for sharing the mental push up analogy as it’s blown the mystical dust away from a simple concept and motivated me to go back to ‘working out’ ;p

    Liked by 2 people

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