October 9, 2013


When I was a graduate student, a career or two ago, and purportedly on my way to being an English professor, people would confess to me. Strangers. The fact of my intended career would come up. A moment of silence -- shame struggling with the desire to be made clean -- and then the stranger would say, breathlessly, maybe compulsively, "English was my worst subject. I can't write."

I hated this. I would see myself as they saw me, a member of a judgmental, vengeful priesthood, always on the lookout for malefactors. "Oh yes," I would want to say, "when I meet someone, of course my first thought is 'are they worthy? Can they write?'" And I would be tempted to whisper my inmost heretical thought to them: "You know what? I don't give a damn. Who cares if you can write? What does it matter?"

Now that I'm a stress-relief professional, people have a different confession to make. "I can't meditate," they tell me. The impulse seems much the same. "You may as well know this at once: I'm someone you'll despise. Don't bother trying to teach me. I already know I can't do it." And usually, as with the English confession, there's a pinch of defiance mixed in: "and you can't make me try to learn it, either."

But in this case I do care. So I usually try to find out what they mean. There are a few people who really can't or shouldn't do quiet meditation -- there are a few conditions, physical and mental, that make it impossible or inadvisable. But these are rare. Nobody who has confessed to me has referred to such things. What they say is that they sit down, and their minds go crazy; thought piles on thought; their anxiety increases, if anything; and if their minds settle at all, it's only for a moment.

Most experienced meditators will look a little perplexed at this description of meditative failure. "Yes," they'll say, "that's what happens to me, too."

What people usually describe sounds like perfectly good meditation. The problem, apparently, is that they expected something else to happen.

Of course I know what they expected, or hoped for, anyway. Stillness; a transcendent experience; clarity; something to ground oneself on, to center on. A tranformative experience. An end to anxiety. The beginning of a new life.

And it can be any of those things, or all those things. And (I'm told) sometimes it happens that way, bang, first time out of the box. Beginner's luck is a real phenomenon, in meditation. Having no idea what you're doing or what you're going to find out is the ideal state to be in when you're sitting down to meditate. Unfortunately you only get that state for free once.

But mostly -- you know what's going to happen. That's precisely why you hadn't been sitting quietly in a spot where nothing happens, hitherto -- because you knew that being alone with your mind would make you nuts.

The thing to bear in mind is that it isn't sitting down and being quiet that has made you nuts. You were already nuts. Sitting down and being quiet has just given you the chance to notice that you're nuts. Your mind is doing that all the time. All day, all night; a ceaseless fret of worry and desire, fantasies of the future and replays of the past, a constant evaluation of everything in terms of what it means about me. What does the fact that I'm sitting down to meditate mean about me? What does the fact that my mind won't settle down mean about me? What does the fact that I'm worrying about what things mean about me mean about me? It rolls on that way, playing out as dream at night, playing out as "reality" in the daytime.

If you've discovered that you can't meditate, you have already learned the first of the only two things meditation has to teach you, to wit, that your mind is not under your control. There is only one thing more to learn. (No, not that it can be under your control. It will never be under your control. Give that up, it's a lost cause.) The second thing meditation has to teach you, is that the mind can be still. "You" can't make it hold still, because "you" are the problem. But it can be still. Put the conditions in place, and eventually -- eventually -- it will become still. As you practice, it will become still more easily, it will quiet down faster and it will stay quiet longer. It's not a linear progression, not by any means, but it is a reliable progression.

And when the mind becomes still, it's just as wonderful as everyone says.


  1. Such a useful introduction. I've had the same conversation many times. "Sitting down and being quiet has just given you the chance to notice that you're nuts." Perfect.

    1. Thanks! I retooled this from an old Mole post, which old-timers like you and Rachel may have detected :-)

    2. Ialso really enjoyed the statement above... BUT I already knew I was nuts before I started to meditate I like that aspect about me SOMETIMES... Means I care less about the thoughts of others as I to know they are equally nuts just a in a different way.

  2. Yes! And then there's the other side: But it's so boring! When is something going to HAPPEN?