One 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.