Why You Can’t Meditate and What We Have Lost in American Translation
- Stop Googling how to meditate. If you have to Google something, Google meditation techniques. Arming yourself with ancient and modern knowledge from our ancestors is important; such information should always inform, not become your process.
What if you could have therapy with yourself?
I like to think of meditation as free therapy and meditating as a therapy session. In the beginning, when you position yourself, settling into an upright but relaxed position, you are the patient. Once you close your eyes, the therapy session begins.
I like to use therapy as an example because therapy rarely feels perfect. The most striking similarity between therapy and meditation can be found in their structure. There’s a reason why meditation is called a practice (and while therapy isn’t called that, it probably should be). The most frustrating thing about meditation can be the fact that the trajectory of your progress never seems to make sense.
Why? It’s because of that word, practice. Practice makes perfect is one of the most harmful mantras because perfect only exists when judgement, perspective, and hierarchy inform the meaning of your life. So, yes, practice doesn’t make perfect. And it never should (even if it could). Because the scariest lesson in maintaining a true practice (like meditation)?
You start to realize that everything you know is temporary, ESPECIALLY the things you are most certain of.
In learning how to meditate, you must first confront the fact that your entire life, you have been told that you are on a road.
You’re not. You’re traveling in a circle. The path only seems to change because no orbit, no turn around the circle is ever twice the same. Things outside of your control—like the environment—will make you feel that you are fighting different demons.
The truth is that there’s only one demon, a demon with multiple faces, and at the end of each orbital revolution, there’s a sneaking suspicion that that demon may be a part of you. You are your obstacles, you are your victories. You are your path and your path has always been visible to you.
Preparation for Meditation
- Forget what you know
- Read about every kind of meditation imaginable—treat your literature like you would food; consume your reading from the point of view of someone starving
- Recognize that you ARE starving spiritually—(this is why you can’t meditate); your soul (or whatever you like to call it) is begging you for meaning
- Recognize that the 21st century is pretty messed up—it’s a lot harder now than it ever was, by A LOT, to start a truly spiritual practice… much less maintain it
- Recognize that while you may know some things, it’s best to live life believing that you know nothing
- Take all advice, and take it with a grain of salt—do your own research, don’t cut corners, make up your own mind; you don’t need a master to show you the way, you need masters to show you multiple ways so that you can become the master of your own way
- Close your eyes and be frustrated, because not everything is meant to feel “good”—stop indulging yourself! The hardest part is always starting; this is true for pretty much all things in life, in general. The start is full of failure. It’s sad that we’ve been conditioned and continue to condition ourselves to believe that failure exists, much less that it’s negative. You wouldn’t know a single thing in life if it weren’t for failure telling you that one direction was wrong (for you), that the other direction is right (for you). Practice gratitude whenever you “fail” or make “mistakes” and one day, you’ll feel a thrill (instead of pain) when you fail. The thrill will come from knowing that the more “painful” the “failure”, the more steep the growth you experience from it.
Question Everything, Even This Blog Post
Where Meditation Came From and How It Ended up Here
The biggest issue for most of us trying to meditate? America has made yoga and meditation the end goal. If you meditate, you will be well. If you do yoga, you will be well. This puts emphasis on a hierarchy of practice that doesn’t exist.
We have been telling ourselves that yoga and meditation are the solution when they’re the process (that’s why we call them practices, no?—there is an implication of an actual inability, inherently, to come to some point of completion)… so, what is the solution? It’s hard to say.
Meditation is an ancient practice. Although its roots are decidedly Hindu, almost all cultures have a religious or spiritual practice that interprets what it means to sit still, close your eyes, and “meditate”—even the reasons FOR meditating differ from culture to culture and time period to time period. Meditation is never twice the same and to this day, we obsess and fail to discover the elusive and definitive definition of what it “means” to meditate.
The common factor uniting the cultures that supported meditation during ancient times is this: meditation was always tied to religion and serious spiritual contemplation. Only in recent times, with the transformation of spirituality into profitable wellness and the ongoing American obsession with perceived Eastern exoticism, has meditation become the whole rather than a part of something.
Meditation doesn’t fall flat because of lack of instruction; it falls flat because of lack of variety in instruction. The issue isn’t that Western teachers aren’t teaching the “right” way to practice meditation (if you leave this blog post with any single thought, let it be this: there is no right way to practice meditation).
Meditation, much like yoga, has been taken out of context. And context, as it turns out, really is everything. Most yogis practicing today, for example, would equate yoga to a conscious movement of the body, a physical practice, and perhaps even a strenuous exercise where one is forced to move past physical limitations. While this description isn’t necessarily untrue, it leaves a lot of things unsaid and creates space for misunderstanding. What Western yoga practitioners refer to as “yoga” isn’t really yoga at all; rather, it is asana, or the physical practice of yoga positions.
Yoga is a complex Hindu philosophy that has eight limbs. Asana is one of these eight limbs. When Pantajali introduced the concept of yoga in the Yoga Sutras, his only instinct was to say that asana should be “stable and comfortable”—a statement that may seem at odds with America’s stylish version of yogis moving too quickly in breath-restricting clothing. Regardless, Pantajali didn’t feel the need to explain asana further because it is a physical practice (asana literally means “postures”).
If you’re itching to say, “but what about connecting your breath?” Or “practicing gratitude”? Or “meditating and practicing mindfulness”? These are good questions that should be asked. Does it surprise you to discover that all of these things are actually their own separate practices in the yoga philosophy?
The issue that’s at the forefront of America’s appropriation of Eastern philosophy is this. There is nothing wrong with adaptation as the highest form of flattery until adaptation turns sour out of ignorance for its source of inspiration. And while yes, Western yoga does mention things like meditation and breath, there is great injustice in the fact that these things are mentioned as an afterthought. So, finally, we have reached the crux of why you can’t meditate:
You’re not actually trying.
Meditation doesn’t stand alone, doesn’t work alone.
Neither does yoga posturing (asana), or breathwork (pranayama). While pranayama, asana, and the rest all have their own individual benefits, they can’t bring you to that place of divine inspiration when practiced individually. Why? Because they were never supposed to… by design. The people who are “successfully” meditating are doing so because (whether they know it or not) they are dedicated to the type of spirituality that is all-encompassing, rarely stylish, and often painful. They are the people that do their research, try every type of yoga-related class out there, and make a decision for themselves.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
- Yamas (Abstinences)
- Niyama (Observances)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breathing)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption)
How to Start
I have always felt strongly and have sought ways to control how I react. At the end of the day, however, I am still a white girl practicing yoga and meditation in America, so take what I say with a grain of salt — you should always do your own research.
I did not realize there was a connection between meditation and yoga for a long time. At 19, I was fortunate enough to come across the Sivananda yoga practice in the safe space and ashram in Monroe, New York. Sivananda, by the way, has its own issues — all Westernized yoga does — but it is much more cognizant of yoga’s and meditations roots. And it will forever be the place I was forced to confront the extent of my ignorance.
Sivananda awakened me to both Hindu and Buddhist religious text and the fact that yoga and meditation weren’t just stylish wellness activities – but serious religious rituals, and ones that were practiced daily much less.
Let’s quickly look at the timeline of meditation’s existence.
A Brief Introductory Timeline to Meditation
3000 – 5000 BCE – Earliest documented mention of meditation; cave paintings showing humans in meditative positions with their eyes closed on the Indian subcontinent
1500 BCE – First written mention of meditation in the Vedas (the oldest scripture of Hinduism), although it should be noted that the Vedas existed prior to this as an oral tradition
600 BCE – Buddha, a royal prince, finds enlightenment, learns meditation from Hindu yogis, travels the Indian subcontinent. Eventually he decides to diverge from tradition and creates his own methodology; the 4 meditation styles associated with Buddhism are what most Americans think of when they think of meditation
600 – 500 BCE – during the golden age of meditation / at the same time as Buddha, various spiritual figures in China and India popularized and developed their own religious meditation techniques.
- Jainism in India (founded by Mahavira)
- Taoism in China (founded by Lao Tze)
- Confucianism in China (founded by Confucius).
400 – 100 BCE – The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali outline the eight limbs of yoga
400 – 200 BCE – The Bhagavad Gita (an epic scripture detailing yoga, meditation, and how to live a spiritual life) is written
653 CE – 1st meditation hall opens in Japan
1800s CE – translations of all the ancient teachings involving meditation start to make their way to scholars in the west
1922 CE – Herman Hesse publishes Siddhartha
1927 CE – Tibetan Book of the Dead is published
An Introduction To Some (Not All) Meditation Techniques
- Zen Meditation (Zazen)
- How to do it: seated, traditionally in the half-lotus or lotus position (although this is far from necessary). The important thing is to keep your back completely straight (from the pelvis to the neck) and your mind alert
- Focus on breath: try focusing only on breath and count each breath backwards in your head, 10 to 9, 9 to 8, and so on, until 0; then, start at 1 again
- Shikantaza (“just sitting”): No need to focus on any particular object; instead, the objective is to remain in the present as much as possible. Become aware of the thoughts passing through your head without entertaining them. Try this: let your mind go. If a thought persists, note it, say its name, and say you’re putting it away. Resume letting the mind wander.
- Vipassana (Buddhist)
- How to do it: There are two stages. The first involves mindfulness of breath. The second involves sensory input. You can sit cross-legged or seated with your back erect, but if you are seated, the back must NOT be supported.
- Try this: Start by focusing on your breath. The focus of the practice is to have a “primary object” (in this case, the rising of the abdomen). The goal is to examine the “secondary object” or what arises in your field of perception as a result of the first. This is typically sensory — as you focus on breathing, for example, you notice the pain in your lower back. In this type of meditation, you do not stay on the secondary object but let it go and return your attention to the primary meditation object.
- Loving Kindness Meditation (Taoist)
- How to do it: sit cross-legged, back erect. Start by practicing love towards yourself. Then the progress is recommended as:
- a good friend
- a “neutral” person
- a difficult person
- all four of the above equally
- and then gradually the entire universe
- This meditation focus on wishing happiness and well-being for all. It’s a great way to build positive self-talk and establish patterns of gratitude. The intention.
- A good tip is to do this type of meditation by imaging how another might feel and choosing to purposefully wish them happiness and peace with a mantra.
- How to do it: sit cross-legged, back erect. Start by practicing love towards yourself. Then the progress is recommended as:
4 Steps to Try Now
- Find a silent place
- Sit in a comfortable seated position: you can try lotus or half-lotus, cross-legged, or sitting on your heels. Keep your back straight from pelvis to forehead. Rest your hands comfortably on your knees, in your lap, whatever works.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath. When you inhale, push your stomach out. Imagine that you are inhaling all the good prana or energy and that you are filling your stomach with it. When you exhale, push your stomach in, allowing it to deflate. Imagine that all the bad energy is leaving you as your abdomen flattens. Continue breathing, with a focus on making each breath as long, deep, and natural as possible.
- Once you feel that your breath naturally mimics the rhythm of your breath before bed, when you are in a total state of relaxation, you are welcome to shift your focus. No need to “clear” your mind completely. Instead, try to notice what you can hear, feel, smell, and taste. If thoughts start crowding in your head, bring yourself back to one of these sensations — for example, the sound of the wind, or the children playing far away, or the cars honking on some highway; the smell of smoke, or wet grass; the temperature – are you hot? Cold? In between? Are you the same temperature or does the temperature change? – and the feeling of air flow on your face, hair, etc.
Good luck! You can do it.
If you’re serious about making meditation a mainstay practice in your life, this is a great way to start the habit:
- Set realistic expectations – e.g. 5 minutes. Schedule these 5 minutes. Add them as events to your calendar; set reminders; whatever you have to do make sure that you take 5 minutes each day to meditate.
- When the time has come for your daily meditation, do it. Even if you’re not in a place where you (think) you can meditate. (Try closing your eyes and paying attention to what you sense — even if everything is loud, it’s a good exercise to try to keep the mind still in the most hectic moments). And even if (especially if!) you’re feeling frustrated and don’t feel like you’re “successfully meditating”. Keep. Trying. Even if you keep feeling like it’s not working, you’re not doing it right,
I challenge you to make 5 minutes daily for 2 weeks to meditate and reserve any judgments on your progress until the 2 weeks are up.