The reason most meditators and practitioners of mindfulness struggle is because they have a faulty assumption about the central objective of the entire endeavor. Specifically, they believe that it’s all about slowing down or even stopping their thoughts, which, if done successfully will produce sublime inner calm.
And if that’s not happening, they think they’re failing. And when they “fail” a lot, which is inevitable, they eventually quit out of frustration.
Stopping or slowing the mind is not the central objective here. It’s often the result of consistent, correct practice, but if your aim is to tame your mind and feel peaceful inside it will elude you like the fruit dangling just out of reach from Tantalus’s outstretched hands.
All you need to know
So what is the objective of meditation and mindfulness? Laser in here because what I’m about to write is all you really need to know about these two practices. Drum roll please…
The objective of meditation and mindfulness is to observe, without judgment, anything and everything happening in the present moment and to accept anything and everything happening in those moments exactly as they are. Do just that and you’re on your way.
Frustrated meditator, exhibit one
Let’s apply this concept to the frustrated meditator. “Ahh! I hate this! My mind keeps fleeing from my breath to thoughts about my ex-girlfriend and everything else under the sun.”
How to handle this situation? Well, what you DON’T do is say to yourself, “Great. I’ve drifted off for the gazillionth time into thinking about that no-good, Medea, snakes in her hair freak. Come on, you idiot. Concentrate!”
What is wrong with that tack? It places judgment on what’s happening in the moment. She’s bad. My focus stinks, etc. Those are judgments. And by definition, those judgments come from your egoic, unconscious self.
Putting the real you in the driver’s seat
Meditation and mindfulness are, at their essence, about putting your conscious, true self in the driver’s seat of your moments. And that conscious self has no opinions, no grudges and no hate. It’s just consciousness.
The more you put that consciousness in your life’s driver’s seat, the more that opinionated, “grudgey,” aggrieved, egoic self fades away and stops tormenting you.
So what do you do in that situation? You simply say to yourself, “Okay. Having another thought about my ex. Let’s just slowly and compassionately return our attention to our breath.” Boom. That’s it. No judgment, good or bad.
Thoughts, chirping birds and popcorn
You’re just observing something happening in that present moment, namely, a thought about your ex. That thought is no different, qualitatively, than the chirping bird sound you just heard or that awesome smell of popcorn that just wafted into your room. They’re just different things coming into your field of present moment awareness.
This concept is of monumental importance and is essential to incorporate into your meditation and mindfulness practices.
I meditate almost every day and in most of those sessions I deal at some point with a slight feeling of unease/low-level anxiety. If I had been under the false impression that I’m supposed to feel calm inside when I meditate, I would have exploded a long time ago and given up. But luckily I learned early on to treat that feeling as just another element of things occurring in the present moment.
Accept everything exactly as it is
So I go inside and acknowledge that feeling, with no judgment. And this part is critical, so dial in again: I also fully accept that anxious feeling exactly as it is. I don’t resist it. Or engage with it. Or complain about it. I just say to it, “Okay. You’re here.”
The person who crystallized this concept for me is a man named Joseph Goldstein, one of the pioneers of meditation in America. He relates the story of a several month spiritual journey he took to India in the late 1960s.
His meditations there were off-the-charts sublime. As he described them, “My whole body dissolved into radiant vibrations of light. Every time I sat down, as soon as I closed my eyes, this energy field of light pervaded my whole body. It was wonderful, it felt terrific.”
After those mind-blowingly great months he headed back to America. When he returned to India he expected to resume those other-worldly, radiant sessions.
It didn’t happen. In fact, his sessions were the worst he’d ever experienced. As he put it, “Not only was there no longer a body of light, but my body felt like a painful mass of twisted steel…There was so much pressure and tension, so many unpleasant sensations.”
Then it dawned on him: meditation is not about feeling great or achieving ecstatic states of being. It’s about being completely open to whatever is happening in the present, good or bad, radiant vibrations of light or twisted steel in your gut. Doesn’t matter. The point is to just observe, nonjudgmentally, any sensations you might be feeling or experiencing.
Living the moments of your life
Because if you want to take it to its highest level, the goal of meditation and mindfulness is to be present for the moments of your life. All our lives are are a long series of moments.
And the sad truth is that most humans are not there for most of the moments of their lives. They’re stuck in their heads grappling with thoughts that have zero bearing on what is happening in any given moment.
So if you’re into this meditation and mindfulness thing, learn this! Incorporate it into your practices. It makes it all so much easier.
Why? Because you never feel like you’re failing. Because there is no failure. There’s just what’s happening in the present moment. Sometimes what’s going on in the present feels great and peaceful. Sometimes it feels like twisted steel. It doesn’t matter. All you have to do is observe and accept whatever’s going on.
Do that time after time after time after time…and there’s a pot of spiritual gold waiting for you at the end of the rainbow.