It always amazes me how quick people are to judge themselves if they’ve tried meditating and didn’t drop into ecstatic transcendence on the first go. People seem to believe meditation shouldn’t require effort. After all, it’s supposed to be relaxing, right? So if they’re not relaxed, they must be the only pathetic loser on the planet who couldn’t do it! This is analogous to walking into a gym and after 20 minutes looking in the mirror, expecting to see a change.
The fact is that while meditation
can be incomparably rewarding, it’s a long-distance run that takes work and a steady commitment. Yes, sometimes you can sit down and instantly “drop in.” But for long-term results, peak experiences still need to be contextualized in a solid, steady foundation of practice.
Also, meditation isn't always designed to be relaxing
. In the case of mindfulness, for example, we’re cultivating insight. Mindfulness decreases stress and heightens fulfillment, so we can find relaxation more satisfying. But relaxation isn't necessarily the intended outcome of practice. It can help to understand what type of meditation you’re practicing before you judge yourself for doing it wrong. There’s plenty of time for that!
So drop your expectations and be kind to yourself. Trust me, everyone else has a messy mind too, whether you can see it or not.
It’s essential to relate to meditation the same way you would to any good habit you want to introduce in your life, from dieting, to exercise, to practicing an instrument. Just get on the apparatus and take that first small step. Then rinse and repeat. Set goals. Mundane goals like, “I’m going to practice for 10 minutes a day for the next 90 days,” as well as deep goals to keep in mind your desired outcome.
Here’s a list of five major goals of mindfulness
practice courtesy of my teacher, Shinzen Young:
- Less Suffering
- Greater Fulfillment
- Knowing Yourself at a Deeper Level
- Behavior Change
- Developing the Spirit of Loving Service
Take a look at those goals and see which you’re drawn to. You may find yourself drawn to all of them, or one or two may really jump out at you. It’s important to recognize what motivates you, because practice is a long road and doubts will surface. You’ll need to find ways to stop identifying with doubtfulness and continue honoring your path, however challenging that may be sometimes. All of these goals are attainable through mindfulness and on days when practice feels like hard work, it can be helpful to call your deeper intentions to mind.
Also, for each of these goals there’s an optimal way to work and strategies that best support your intention. That said, the practice of mindfulness is not linear. You might choose a strategy intended to develop the spirit of loving service, but instead find yourself having an insight that helps you know yourself at a deeper level.
For example, let's say you decide to repeat a message of caring to the world, such as, “May all beings be happy and well.” This is a traditional way of practicing loving kindness, and you can also use it to develop your mindfulness skills.
As you get more deeply absorbed in the phrase, your sense of separateness may slip away. You may begin to see clearly that you're both the one wishing well and the one receiving well wishes. In that moment, you may go beyond just knowing yourself as the person repeating the phrase. Your identity may become un-fixated. So, through the extraordinary gift of mindfulness, you started off cultivating the spirit of loving service and ended up knowing yourself at a deeper level.
As your practice develops, you’ll see more magical connections between these five goals. As suffering decreases, you can be of greater service; as fulfillment increases, behavior change becomes easier, and so on. I recommend getting clear about your goals to carry that intention on days when you don’t see any changes in the mirror.
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