The core skill of meditation is showing up


bodhipaksa quote: core skill of meditationOne of the biggest myths about meditation is that it involves experiencing blissful or “spiritual” states of mind. It doesn’t. It’s about experiencing and accepting the very ordinary states that present themselves to us, and working with them, gently and kindly.

Now it is possible to experience beautiful, calm, joyful states of mind in meditation. There are delineated lists of these, complete with traditional accounts of the various factors that constitute those experiences. Those traditional lists correspond closely to the actual experience of contemporary meditators of many spiritual traditions—not just Buddhism. They’re real. They’re attainable.

But if we think that this is what meditation essentially is, then we probably won’t meditate, because most of the time those states don’t arise, even for people who’ve been meditating for a long time. And so we’ll get despondent and give up.

The chances are that when we meditate—especially when we’re first learning—we’re faced with an unruly mind that doesn’t want to experience what’s arising, because it’s unpleasant or boring. The mind assumes that happiness lies elsewhere, and so it keeps creating fantasies into which it tries to disappear. And our task is to keep turning back toward our actual experience again and again, even when that experience doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a source of peace or joy.

The core skill of meditation is showing up. Showing up is not something we do once. It’s something we do over and over again.

It’s not always easy to do this. In fact it rarely is. Many people try meditating, experience the unruliness, and think “I’m obviously not cut out for meditation. I didn’t experience anything special. All I got was frustration.”

And that’s why we need to practice coming back to our experience over and over again. In doing this, we start to develop the capacity to accept our experience, and to accept ourselves. We discover that it’s not the kinds of experiences we have that determine whether we’re happy, or at peace, or content, but the way we relate to those experiences.

So we find that the mind is restless, or that there’s something unpleasant going on in our experience, and instead of reacting to it we find we begin to accept it. The mind is less inclined to run from our core experience. It’s more likely to surround it with mindfulness, kindness, and curiosity.

And although this may not sound radical, it is. It’s radically different from the normal reactive state in which we keeping running from our experience.

And if we keep doing this, we may find that we start to experience some of the special meditative states I mentioned earlier—which are characterized by calmness, joy, and ease. But those states are not the essence of meditation. They result from showing up, over and over again. They result from our continued gentle efforts to experience and accept our ordinary unruly mind.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Although fairly new to mediation, I have experienced one particular joyful and peaceful state of bliss which left me deeply contented for hours after. It was the first time I had ever managed to completely clear my mind of all ‘monkey chatter’. I have been close to this state a few times since but not quite there. I look forward to attaining this state again but believe all mediation is beneficial whether or not it is euphoric.

  • Beautiful. Thank you, again. <3

  • I really appreciate this post, thank you for sharing. Our expectations around the ‘great’ can often cloud the benefits we can get from the ‘good’. Meditation is a journey and your message to keep at it is so important.

    • I like your “meditation project,” Erin, and your site is lovely. (BTW, you have a typo in the horizontal menu: “Meditation & Minfulness.”)

  • ‘Sup Bodhi!
    This is a hump for new meditators to get over. I actually had a “good” meditation this morning, one where there was a good continuity of awareness for most of the meditation, and that is great when it happens, but acceptance of the “bad” is as much a part of it as anything else ( and indifference to bad/good at some point would be nice ).

    It has taken me 30 years to actually establish a strong practice. I had the notion that I wanted to do something like this from my early teens, but my own self doubt, unrealistic expectations and inability to just make the time always seemed to trump the desire to practice. What worked for me is meditating in the office parking lot before starting work. I am absolutely guaranteed to be there 5 days a week and I have made the agreement that I will just have to stay longer in order to get my practice in. Currently at 40 minutes and enjoying it.

    • Hey, Ed.

      Although I’ve been meditating for over 30 years, for most of that time my regularity was erratic, and it’s only the last few years that I’ve been a rock-solid daily meditator. Unfortunately I don’t think any advice I was given (or gave!) on meditating daily was of any use at all, and I had to figure out my motivation for myself. Maybe that’s true for all of us, although it seems a lot of people have found my “I meditate every day” mantra useful.

      I’m glad you put the words “good” and “bad” in scare quotes. It’s good not to take them seriously.

      You prompted me to think (again) that the whole vocabulary of “good” meditations is flawed. Doesn’t it largely come down to how we feel about what precisely unfolded? So it sounds like you were (something like) surprised, delighted, and excited this morning because your meditation practice came together to provide (for you) an unusual level of continuity of attention. I know that’s more verbose than saying it was a “good” meditation, but then “good” doesn’t strike me as a very useful adjective.

      My own meditation this morning, because I was sleep-deprived, was mostly dreamy, with a lot of distracted thinking. I may have been asleep at times! But I felt pleased because I did it. Was that a “good” meditation? Not by most people’s evaluation, nor when weighed against my average experience. But does it matter? No. The meditation was what it was, and how I feel about it doesn’t make any difference to that. It might make a difference to my future inclination to meditate, because if I’d labelling it a “bad” meditation (which would mean, presumably, something like “I felt disappointed because my experience wasn’t what I wanted it to be”) then I’d be less inclined to continue.

      Let’s say you’d had exactly the same objective experience, with continuity of awareness for most of the meditation, but had felt neutral or even displeased by those events. It would be the same meditation, but you wouldn’t regard it as “good” and instead would see it as “so-so” or even “disappointing.” And seeing the practice in that way takes away from the motivation to keep going.

      In a way I’ve chosen to be pleased at the very fact of having done my daily practice, and that encourages me to keep doing it daily. and in a way, having being pleased about my meditation as my default means that my daily meditation is always “good.” And so I want to keep doing it.

      When my mind becomes concentrated during a sit, or when joy or love arises, then I can be pleased by those occurrences as well. But they’re an added bonus, since I’ve already decided to feel pleased simply about having meditated.

      Although I said that none of the advice I received about establishing a rock-solid daily meditation practice really helped, I hope this advice does. I think we can choose to be pleased about the fact of meditating. How? Simply choose to pat yourself on the back. Tell yourself you’ve done a good job for having meditated, no matter how short the sit was, or what actually happened during the meditation. Use congratulatory language: “Yay, me! Good job! Well done! It’s awesome that I sat today!” Although some of us have conditioning that makes us feel bad about self-congratulation, I think that nevertheless we feel pleased when we hear deserved praise, even if our cultural conditioning makes us want to go, “Oh, really, it was nothing. I really should meditate for longer.” When we do something skillful we should allow ourselves to feel pleased by it, and we should choose to ignore the voices that downplay what we did.

      So, in short: If you have pleasing experiences in meditation, then enjoy them. But choose to be pleased about the very fact of having meditated. This will help motivate us to keep on practicing.


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