If you’re anything like me, with each new thing you try, each new hobby you pick up – you go into it with the want to enjoy it, but also the want to be good at it. To improve at it over time, maybe even to master it one day if it’s something you end up loving.
Because when we’re good at things or feel proficient, we are affirmed in our own ability. This provides a bit of a buzz or a confidence boost because woohoo! we are good at something! There is satisfaction in the doing of the hobby sure, but also in the reward for our self-esteem of being good at it.
This striving for achievement or accomplishment is built in from a pretty early age. Just think of how our schools prep us for our exams – it’s all about the grades we get and the resulting ‘options we open up for ourselves’ (side note to my personal view that this is often about making the school look good, and less about helping children to find out what they actually love doing or are passionate about, which would arguably be more valuable for those that didn’t want to become clinicians or lawyers).
But, the need to achieve and keep on top of things also extends to the way we answer emails (work and personal), the way we track steps and calories, the new levels we strive to achieve on an addictive game which taps in to this exact human trait, and the tug to reply to Whataspp messages without leaving them unread, lest we feel ‘behind’.
Therefore it is completely reasonable that a person interested in, or new to, practising meditation might approach it in much the same way. Unhelpful social messaging that meditation involves ‘emptying the mind’ and ‘the absence of thought’ and maybe even ‘profound spiritual experiences’ can set a person up with high expectations of themselves to make these things happen.
They might even seem like the goal, or the ‘point’ of meditation.
I am here to tell you, my friend, that not only are these myths just that (complete crap!), but that actually in meditation the act of trying is exactly what we want to avoid. How refreshing is that; total permission to engage in something without trying to achieve, or better, or further the experience!
This wonderful reprieve for the mind is one of the reasons I love meditation, and why it provides the benefits it does.
Meditation is so broad ranging and unique in its benefits to a person, because the practice itself is so unique when compared to all the other things we have our brain doing day after day.
You see, the beautiful and refreshing paradox with meditation is that the more we enter into a practice with the expectation or desire to achieve and be good at it, the less enjoyable the experience is going to be, because the busier our thoughts are likely to be, precisely because of that expectation.
We might find ourselves analysing how empty the mind is at any point during the practice.
We might find ourselves becoming frustrated if unwanted thoughts are popping up.
We might experience irritation that the mind keeps wanting to focus on an external sound, or an event in the past or future.
So what is the antidote to this temptation to try, and how can we commit to try ‘not trying’, without that resulting in another form of trying itself?
Here are five practical things you can do to get out of your own way and just let things be during your meditation:
1. Decide to meditate and then just do it – you may want to build meditation into your morning or daily routine so it becomes an effortless and non-negotiable part of your day, much like (and hopefully for anyone you live with) cleaning your teeth. Or you may be more fluid in your current practice and just slot in a meditation when a gap in your time opens up. Either way, sitting down to do it without giving it too much prior thought or ‘pepping yourself up’ will help to minimise any building expectation.
2. Set yourself up – this doesn’t need to take a long time or be a whole ritual. It can simply involve finding your chosen spot and position (seated or lying is fine, forget this lotus crap unless you’re an advanced yogi or Buddhist monk), putting your phone on silent, drawing or opening curtains/windows if needed, and taking a couple of deep intentional breaths before you close your eyes. These breaths kick off the relaxation response which has wonderful physical and psychological health benefits.
3. Setting an intention of acceptance – spending 5 seconds at the start of your meditation to internally say to yourself “I accept whatever happens in my practice today” is a nice way of starting out from a place of acceptance and trust in the process. Your mind on that day is just your mind on that day. Even if the meditation feels ‘busy’ to you, it’s 100% better than not sitting to meditate!
4. Notice, label and release – this is a simple and effective response to thoughts or emotions that arise during a practice. Notice that you are having either a thought or emotion, label it in a simple way (the label might be thought, anger, irritation, rain, hunger), and then gently let it go by focusing on your breath, the voice in your guided meditation, your mantra etc.
5. Understand that you are not your thoughts – I appreciate that this is a bit more conceptual, and I will definitely write another piece to explain this in more detail for those people thinking ‘what the fuck is she on about?’ But for now, know that as the person who can become aware of your thoughts, this means that you are separate to them. Therefore if thoughts are arising, whether they are positive or negative, they are not you and you have some distance from them in this fact alone.
The key messaging here is not to judge, score, or keep tally on what happens in your meditation. Let yourself approach it differently than you do all the other tasks, practices and hobbies, because it is different, in the most wonderful of ways.
Give it a try and let me know in the comments if it’s worked for you!
For more info on what the benefits of meditation can be, check out my other post on what the benefits have been for me these past years.
You can access free guided meditations, and more tips and tricks by following me on Instagram or Tiktok @in.and.up