Failing At Meditation Was Exactly What I Needed To Succeed At It

It's impossible to do meditation wrong but I did…
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Don’t laugh. I failed at one thing no one can fail at. Meditation is not an achievement. Meditation starts with letting go of all achievements, including intellectual and spiritual ones. Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century mystical theologian, captured the essence of meditation quite well:

Spiritual life is more about subtraction than addition.

Whatever you think you can add is an impediment. If you internally say: “Oh, I think I did it!” you probably didn’t. However, if you find yourself saying: “Good heavens, it didn’t go very well!” chances are you are right on target.

What is mindful breathing and why it works...or doesn't?

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Breathing is one bodily function that we don’t control. It’s automatic. The idea is — when you intentionally shift your focus from your wandering thoughts to breathing, your thoughts eventually calm down.

But, believe it or not, as soon as I started focusing on my breath, I started feeling anxious. Couldn’t tell why. I felt some inner resistance to what was happening, which intensified as I pushed on.

When I first heard about breathing meditation, I loved the theology behind it — God is the ultimate breath, the pneuma of the world. I was instructed to just breathe in and out—while refocusing my roaming thoughts on the gap between the breaths.

Theologically speaking, I knew the process pretty well — having read a lot on the mystical tradition of Hesychasm, so revered in the Orthodox church for its contemplative approach.

But after struggling with it for a while, I had to drop watching my breath entirely and switched to other forms of contemplative practice like listening to guided meditations, listening to music, listening to the sounds of nature, centering prayer, watching wildlife, playing the guitar, writing, being in silence.

What are the things you should not do in meditation?

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Over time, I noticed that with all these other forms of meditation, I don’t actually care whether I succeed or not. Some days, my monkey mind is all over the place, and I just watch its frantic skipping from one thought to another. Other days, it’s pretty quiet. 

But I don’t really care what my mind does as long as I see it doing it. Seeing, however, doesn’t require an effort on my part. Rather, it requires letting go of all effort. To paraphrase Thomas Keating, who talks a lot about meditation and contemplative prayer,

“there’s only one prerequisite to contemplative prayer — get yourself out of the way.”

If I catch myself “trying in any way” during meditation, I let it go. Because my trying is getting in the way of God. If I catch myself straining over something, I let it go. When I catch anything at all that I can “subtract” — whether it’s a desire to “hear God,” “have an experience,” “become something,” “change my inner state” — I subtract it until there’s nothing left.

How do you get yourself out of the way? By continually letting go of inner resistance to what is. There’s usually too much of me. Too much of what I think I know. Too much of what I think I can do. I am addicted to controlling the outcome of my “spiritual experiences.”

Well, I can’t control them. I can only see what’s going on in my mind. And seeing is entirely effortless action. Seeing happens when you don’t do anything else. Over time, I realized that my anxiety with the breathing technique came from “trying.”

I still prefer other methods of meditation though. With the breathing technique, there’s too much of me. 

What is inner stillness and how to practice it?

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According to Psalm 46:10, stillness is a way of knowing:

"Be still and know that I am God."

Clarity, or true knowledge, comes in stillness. When there’s some agitation in me, my seeing is blurred. Stillness only comes with the inner surrender to what is — whether my mind is franticly hopping from one train of thought to another or falling asleep.

In some sense, my job is to “fail completely” at trying to do meditation right. It’s like hitting the bottom — suddenly you realize the futility of all your effort. And then, what’s left? Nothing.

This nothing is everything. Failing is the complete surrender. It’s the stillness that Psalm 46 talks about.

It’s the Damascus road fiasco that opens your eyes — while making you blind to everything that’s going on around you. As long as I “try” to do meditation right, I do it wrong. When I renounce all trying, it happens. The seeing happens. The knowledge of God comes over you like a tidal wave.

Failing at meditation was an important milestone in my spiritual journey. It was a sweet surrender. Can I, please, fail at everything else too? Yes, actually, I can. Failing is the starting point of everything. Just like God created the world out of nothing, nothing is the beginning of everything.

My job is to keep subtracting. 

All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. Richard Rohr.

What is the true meaning of meditation?

Properly speaking, meditation is not a tool, though we are used to seeing it that way. Meditation is not a means to an end. As soon as I start “using it” to achieve something else — a certain state of mind, a feeling, an experience — it slips right through my fingers.

Here’s a shortlist of things I DON’T do in meditation:

  • I am not performing.
  • I am not pursuing any goals.
  • I am not trying to achieve anything.
  • I am not using this time as a means to an end.

Meditation is allowing myself to be — and watching for whatever may arise both inside and outside. A Carmelite friar William McNamara called contemplative prayer “a long, loving look at the real.” 

What happens when I let go of control?

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When I “cease striving,” I start seeing the real. There’s no need to jump to the next moment — there are no results to achieve. Everything is now. Thomas Merton called this inner poverty “the point of nothingness.”

“This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us…”

In fact, the same famous verse from Psalm 46 runs in another translation like this:

“Cease striving and know that I am God.”

Now I am free to go back to the breathing meditation and fail. It will be the end of my effort and fertile ground for a lot of new growth. It will be my point of nothingness — which is the beginning of every good thing.

I am a translator and blogger who believes that all change comes from inside out, not from outside in.

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