Sunday, March 12, 2017

Is Meditation for You? Here Are Our Personal Experiences

Mara here. I’m not very good at meditating. I’m not sure when my parents started meditating, maybe when I was in junior high? But I remember suddenly there were what seemed like long periods of time when they would shut themselves in their bedroom and we would have to be quiet. They would meditate in the mornings and in the evenings, and the household fell into a routine of knowing that if my parents’ bedroom door was shut, it meant they were meditating and so questions, favors—all the stuff kids bug their parents about would have to wait.

Growing up in a small town in Northern California, there weren’t many people who meditated regularly. In fact, I didn’t know anyone else whose parents did it. It seemed kind of exotic and strange.

I remember asking them what meditation was and thinking it sounded crazy. Why would anyone want to sit and be still and quiet? How could that possibly be enjoyable? Being a kid, it sounded like torture. But as I got a little older, I began to understand the concept of being still and removing the judgment about our thoughts. 

And eventually I tried meditating. For me, it was the opposite of calming. It was pretty much exactly as I imagined it was when I thought about it as a kid. It felt awkward. It was too quiet. I was too aware of everything. My hands itched. My breathing sounded weird. Maybe it’s from years of dancing, but I had too much awareness of my body. I couldn’t stop thinking about where my hands were and if my back was straight. I stopped after about 5 minutes and didn’t try it again for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, my parents got very serious about their meditation practice. In addition to meditating twice a day for about 50 minutes each time, they started going on silent meditation retreats...spending days, even weeks, meditating. I simply could not wrap my adolescent brain around this concept. I wanted to think about things. I wanted to get answers. I wanted action, not stillness. 

But since then, meditation has become much more common—even trendy. It’s no longer something tied to Buddhism. There are now apps that help guide your meditation and millions of people are integrating it into their lives. Even my husband meditates. And every so often I try it again. But I have yet to enjoy it. It still feels uncomfortable. I have not discovered how to meditate without spending almost the entire time listening for the sound of my alarm to let me know it’s over.

Despite this, I could tell that I was yearning for something that would allow me to create some stillness in my life. Maybe not complete stillness, but enough to slow down my anxious mind that races uncontrollably most days.

What I have discovered is that I can do other things that soothe me the way I imagine meditating soothes other people. If I feel particularly anxious or worried, I’ve started doing things very slowly. Normally I like to get things done quickly. I will rush around multi-tasking, being as efficient as possible. 

But one day several years ago, I realized I didn’t have to do things quickly. I could do them slowly and take time to experience what I was doing. So now sometimes I choose to do things with no regard for how long it takes me. I take a task like doing the dishes and turn it into an experience to try and clear my mind of extraneous worry. I take time to focus on the feel of the water and the sight of the glossy surface of the soap suds. When I’m doing a task with purpose, I don’t try to rush through it to get to the next chore, I take time to really pay attention to every detail because I find that, when I do, I can’t think about anything else because I'm focused on things like the shape of the food that's stuck on the plate or the sound of the water hitting the pan. 

If I’m nervous about something—for example, a meeting or an event I’m going to—I take the 15 minutes before I leave and do something that I have to completely focus on. I'll write words on paper over and over, focusing completely on how I’m forming the words. Or if I pick a word that is meaningful, I will simply just repeat that word to myself as I write it. I will go for a walk and keep my entire focus on what I’m seeing: trees, sky, pebbles, dog. And I find that this does calm me. This stops the swirling thoughts in my head. It removes the emotional cloud I feel trapped in because I purposely choose to focus all my attention on something that has no emotion attached to it.

And I like to think of this as my own form of meditating. 

I’m sure some people will scoff and say it’s not meditating, but I guess it doesn’t matter what anyone wants to call it. Particularly because it’s a very personal thing that will be different for everyone. For me, I am looking for ways to remove some of the chaos in my mind that I create for myself. And that’s what it took all these years for me to really understand. Meditating isn’t the process itself. It’s not the sitting in a certain position. It’s not about what incense is burned or what chime is played. I’m sure that ritual and routine is very helpful for people. But mediating is not about what is done, it’s about what the result is. It’s learning how to free our minds from the burden of thinking. And there isn’t just one way to accomplish that.

And now, a few questions for my mom...


Note from Toni: I could talk for an hour about meditation—my ups and downs with it, all the different techniques, etc. I'll try to keep my answers short though!

When did you start meditating?

I started with Buddhist meditation in 1991, but many years before that I learned a technique called Transcendental Meditation (although it wasn't transcendent for me...just relaxing, maybe because it was only for 20 minutes!). I did that for a few years but stopped because I had a toddler and always felt too busy and distracted.

There are dozens of meditation techniques, even within Buddhism, partly because there are so many different schools of Buddhism. For example, Tibetan Buddhist meditation often involves visualization and mantras. Zen meditation can be very simple: just sitting (called shikantaza) and seeing what happens, or it can be quite challenging: sitting and repeating a koan over and over, such as "Who Am I? In my own tradition (Theravada) there are also several different techniques.

And Mara, what you describe as slowing down and giving all your attention to whatever you're doing at the moment is, in my view, as valuable a practice as formal meditation. I write about this type of mindfulness practice in all of my books and I wrote about it in a shorter piece that's turned out to be a very popular at Psychology Today: "Six Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Outside of Meditation."

And I love your 15 minute practice for calming yourself before doing something you're nervous about. Brilliant! I'm going to call it "meditation outside of meditation."

How long did it take for meditation to feel comfortable for you?

It's been over 25 years since I've practiced Buddhist meditation, and it's still not always comfortable. People assume that meditation makes you peaceful. Well, not always. The reason is obvious if you think about it: You may have arranged to be in the most quiet environment possible for meditating, but you know what's not usually quiet? Your mind!

When I used to go on silent retreats, people would ask me afterward, "Are you all calm and peaceful now?" Sometimes I was, but other times the retreat had been tumultuous for me. One time I went on a silent 10-day retreat right after I'd had an interaction with my boss (the dean at the law school) that left me concerned that he thought I wasn't carrying my fair share of teaching responsibilities. I spent the entire retreat fretting and worrying about it. I was anything but calm. As soon as I got home, I called the dean. It turned out he'd meant the very opposite—he was concerned I was carrying too heavy a load. At least, that retreat experience taught me how my mind can make me miserable for no good reason, and that inspired me to continue working on "taming it" (an expression one of my teachers used to use).

What I am comfortable with is technique. In other words, I know what I'm doing when I sit to meditate (although these days, I do it lying down). I actually have three different Buddhist meditation techniques I use, depending on which one I feel like doing or which one I think would be the best for me at the moment. One of the techniques is called "choiceness awareness," which I describe in my book How to Wake Up. And I describe some other techniques ("mindfulness of breathing," "the body scan") in my latest book How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness. I also practice a meditation technique called jhana, which is a concentration and insight practice that's best learned on a retreat with a teacher who is knowledgeable about it.

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying meditation for the first time?

Well, even though I've said there are dozens of different meditation techniques—Buddhist and otherwise—my advice is to find one that suits you best and stick with it for several years. There's a tendency for people to flit from one meditation technique to another, always thinking that the next one will bring peace and contentment. But none of them contain that magic pill. At first, it's important to settle on one technique and let it deepen. That's when you begin to see the benefits.

How has meditation helped you?

Meditation has benefitted me in lots of ways. Mainly, it tunes me into what's going on in my body and in my mind. With my body, meditating might let me know that I need to slow down—that I'm not taking proper care of myself. 

With my mind, meditation provides an environment for deepening my understanding of how the mind works so I can respond more skillfully when I'm not meditating. For me, this is the main reason I value meditation. That said, it took several years for this to bear fruit. What I mean by bearing fruit is that I'm now more able to take what I learn inside of meditation to my life outside of meditation. 

And what have I learned? Well, for one thing, I've learned that my mind is almost always out of control. I don't control what thoughts pop into it. I don't control what emotions arise. Meditation has shown me that it's possible to watch the mind "do its thing" and not identify with thoughts or emotions because I see their impermanence—how they arise and they pass, arise and pass. 

This insight enables me to hold thoughts and emotions more lightly inside or outside of meditation, and this brings with it a measure of peace and calm. This is the peace and calm of equanimity that I write about so much—developing a mind that responds to life's ups and downs with an ease-filled balance. (Most of those "downs" center around  either not getting what we want or getting what we don't want—what I call "want/don't want mind.")

I have one more thing I want to add. Many of you know of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. In the January 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun, he was asked what he would say to someone who finds meditation painful and difficult. His answer: "Don't do it anymore." I admit that I was shocked when I read this. But he went on to say: "In life, there's a lot of suffering. Why do you have to suffer more practicing Buddhism? You practice Buddhism in order to suffer less, right?" 

Perhaps not all meditation teachers would agree with his comments, but I offer them as words from one of the most beloved and respected Buddhist teachers on the planet today.

Finally, I'd be happy to answer any questions people have about meditation. If you leave a comment on the blog, I'll be sure to see it.


  1. None of these answers is short, Toni. You're hilarious, and must be a messy delight in person. I have a suggestion for people who feel nervous or stressed when they try to meditate. Try meditating to music, particularly classical music. Listening to a rain app could be helpful if one doesn't like classical music. I find listening to be the sense that requires such full attention that I'm suddenly meditating without realizing it. Since using music in this way I have become more comfortable with several types of meditation. My top two pieces of meditation music: The Moldaeu by Smetana, and Lux Aeterna by Morten Lauridsen. Thanks for all the help you two provide.

    1. Hi Belinda. I tried to keep my answers short! Thanks for this great suggestion. I think it will help a lot of people. Mara and I are glad you're liking the blog. All my best, Toni