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Am I meditating right?

One of the most frequent questions I get in a class is around whether people are meditating properly.

In a mindfulness meditation, the intention is often to pay attention to something, such as the breath. This is an easy instruction that is incredibly hard to follow, rather like being told that to do a high wire walk over the Grand Canyon you have to just put one foot in front of the other and not fall off. And for most of us, most of the time, whatever we set out to meditate on, our attention will wander.

We are so used to having goals, and measuring how far or near we are from them, that we carry that into activities where goals are not helpful. There is a big difference between having a goal of following the breath and having an intention to follow the breath. If you have a goal of following the breath, then you can measure your success by how well you stayed with the breath (e.g. 50% of the time). If you have an intention, then you measure success by whenever you wake up to mind drifting then you return to the breath, so even one breath attended to is success.

The other questions are around what sort of experience a “good” meditation is. Note the word “good”. In a class people quickly realise that there are as many different experiences in a meditation session as there are people, and eventually that no individual meditation experience is identical to another, even for the same person. So, although it is nice to have pleasant and calming experiences, that is no better (or worse) than having an agitated mind. Whatever happens, happens. We set course into the meditation, but the winds, tides and waves of our mind might take us off our intended course. Then, like a skilled sailor we can tack into and out of the wind, and return to our course.

That striving for nice experience, oddly, can be a barrier to calm and pleasant meditations. As pleasant experiences in meditation disappear over the horizon, motivation can drop if that is what we are looking for. It is natural to want pleasant experience, but to make them the measure of success can be unhelpful.

So there is no “good” meditation in any absolute, easily measured sense. Practice is about coming to terms with our minds as they are, not striving to change them. It is about growing awareness.

So, if you practice, and start with a clear intention, and return to it whenever you drift off it, without judging yourself, then you have a good practice. And you are meditating right.

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