This post was written by Stephanie Carter.
I teach it, I recommend it, and I practice it—just not as much as I used to. And when I do practice, my mind is so busy you’d think I was being paid by the thought. I fidget, I check the timer. I am a lousy meditator. And you know what? I’m okay with it.
It wasn’t always like this. Years ago, I meditated for 30 minutes a day, faithfully. Even on vacations. I spent countless hours at the meditation center practicing evenings, weekends, in retreats and workshops. Meditation changed my life in ways I can only begin to describe. And yet, so many of those hours on the cushion were spent in white-knuckled struggle, gritting my teeth and gutting it out.
Every time I caught my mind wandering into thought (which was approximately every five seconds), my internal taskmaster would scold me back into submission. Stay focused. You should be able to do this. It’s just meditation. Count your breath. It’ll be over soon, surely. Oh, what a relief when the bell would ring and I could move around and feel free again. Ironically, what I needed to be free from was myself.
My practice eventually began to slide. However, the most notable decline occurred after I took a new job requiring me to work with the criminally insane, and commute three hours a day. In doing so, I gave up my private practice and kissed my flexible schedule goodbye for the promise of a steady paycheck and health insurance.
At first, I dutifully got up at 5:30 A.M. every morning so that I could get in my 30 minutes of meditation. Over time, though, those 30 minutes transformed into 20 minutes of yoga/10 minutes sitting, and eventually into 30 minutes of just yoga. I felt guilty letting my sitting meditation practice slide, but I was simply too exhausted at the end of the day to get around to it.
I ventured to a Zen day-sit and struggled to get through the half-hour sessions; my mind full of angst and strife. I berated myself for letting all my hard earned progress slip away. During my meeting with the teacher, she innocently asked, “How’s your practice?” and all my sins came tumbling out in a rambling tangle of confession.
Her response, so full of kindness and compassion, caught me off guard. “Maybe you need a moving practice right now. Yoga is a practice too. Sit when you can. And thank you for your service.” She let me off the hook, I thought. What if I could do the same?
It’s taken me a long time to learn to be kind to myself, and I’m still working on it. Letting myself off the hook is an ongoing practice, and one that’s hard to navigate, because I have a stubborn lazy streak and really need to be on the hook sometimes.
I am finding that what works is discipline—not scolding. Commitment with compassion, and a lighter touch. I’ve given up needing to be “good” at meditation—which is terrifically freeing. My failure at meditation is, perhaps, my biggest success—because I’m okay with it.
So these days, when I make it onto the cushion, my mind still wanders and I still wonder when the bell will ring. The difference is that I don’t beat myself up about it anymore. All those hours of judgment, self-criticism and scolding myself have burned out like a stick of incense. I realize I will probably not achieve enlightenment in this lifetime and you know what? It’s kind of a relief. Can I do better? Yes. Am I trying? Yes. But is my best right now good enough? Yes.
In Buddhism, the practice is sometimes described in terms of ground, path, and fruition. For me, they have all melded. The path of practice is the same, though in my (seated) meditation practice I may have taken a few detours and slowed the pace down a bit. Because of this path, the ground underneath my feet is much more compassionate and flexible—and that’s some major fruition.
So I will keep at it, but given the choice between “success” in white-knuckled meditation and “failure,” I’ll take the latter. Maybe I’ll see you on the cushion. Just do me a favor—wear a watch that I can see from where I’m seated so I don’t have to wonder when that damn bell is going to ring.
About the Author:
Stephanie Carter began practicing yoga and meditation as a way to manage stress on the way to getting her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology/Neuropsychology in 1998. She worked in private practice and in the state mental hospital system for several years, where she began teaching yoga to fellow staff members. Eventually she became a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT200) and began teaching yoga and psychology full-time. Stephanie continues to study therapeutic yoga, Ashtanga/Vinyasa, neuroscience and anatomy, and is certified to teach Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga and the Yoga Warriors method for working with trauma victims. Her classes are fun, upbeat, and accessible to all levels. She also enjoys working privately with people that have a range of issues, both physical and psychological. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook and Twitter.