It’s not the first time I’ve seen or heard things like that. I’ve also heard people say they’re “good” at meditating.
I’m not sure, exactly, what people mean when they say they’re bad or good at meditation. What skill are they having difficulty with? In what way have they failed? What skill have they achieved that makes them “good” at meditation?
While I’m not a meditation teacher, a formal meditation student, or even a highly disciplined practitioner, there are a few things I’ve learned over the years from Zen teachers, senior students, or books written by the masters.
One thing I know is that there are many types of meditation around the world, and there may be some traditions in which meditators can be graded according to good or bad and points in between. That’s not something I’m familiar with.
The only kind of meditation I know is zazen or sitting meditation in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. I’ve also practiced meditation with a Shambhala group and, although Shambhala is based on Tibetan Buddhism, the meditation practice is similar to that of Zen in many ways, as far as I’ve seen.
I’m most familiar with Zen meditation, so when I say “meditation” that’s what I mean. There are some guidelines. For example, whether you sit on a cushion, use a little bench called a seiza, or sit on a chair, posture is important. Where you place your hands and how you position them is also important. Even if you lie down to meditate, there are some recommended practices.
There are many aspects of zazen to keep in mind, and there’s solid reasoning behind them. It can take some time to learn them all and become comfortable with them.
But whether you’re a beginner or an advanced practitioner, meditation isn’t something we can master and reach a certain point so we can say, “Ah ha! I am now good at meditation.”
Meditation is a habit to have for life. It’s like making sure to exercise, eat nutritious food, practice healthy sleep or work habits, and so on. I don’t say “I am bad at sleep” or “I am bad at eating.” I might say “I didn’t get to sleep at a reasonable hour, and I’m tired” or “I haven’t been eating a healthy diet lately” but I wouldn’t say I’m bad at sleeping or eating.
Meditation is a practice, and it does require some self-discipline if we want to meditate regularly. But once you’re engaged in the practice of meditation, it is just that: practice.
We are neither good at it nor bad at it; we just do it.
Keep in mind that this is my experience based on what I have learned, and it may be different from how you practice or believe you should practice. Again, since I’m not a meditation instructor or teacher, I’ve included links to some good sites below which explain meditation as I know it.
Here are some points to consider about being bad or good at meditation:
- If you’re a beginner and have a hard time sitting in the recommended way or sitting still, it doesn’t mean you’re bad at meditation. It means you’re a beginner. Even experienced meditators have difficulties sometimes.
- If your mind is filled with all sorts of crazy thoughts while you’re meditating, that’s OK. That’s normal, and it’s the reason we meditate. We’re learning to become more aware of our thoughts and our inner selves.
- If you have a hard time focusing on your breathing during meditation, or if you fidget a lot because of those busy thoughts, that’s OK too. All you do is gently return to your breath (focusing on your breathing or counting breaths), without judgment, any time it happens. And if that’s very difficult, there’s no cause for alarm, and it doesn’t mean you had a “bad” meditation session. It just means your mind was very busy, and it’s great that you noticed. There’s a reason meditation is called “practice.”
- Maybe you have trouble sitting with your back straight or legs crossed for any length of time. Maybe it’s too painful for you. That doesn’t mean you’re bad at meditation. It might mean that you need some help getting into a position that works better for you. Maybe you need a different cushion or help with knowing how to use a little pillow, called a zafu. Or maybe you need to sit in a chair. I sure appreciated some help I got at a Zen center a few years ago. Not knowing how, exactly, to use a zafu didn’t mean I was bad at meditation; it meant I had been doing it on my own and didn’t know anything different. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing (but my back thanked me for it!).
- If you can sit still and serene for many hours in a full lotus position—with both feet up on your thighs—that’s great. But it doesn’t mean you’re good at meditating. It means you can sit still and serene for many hours in a full lotus position. An ability to sit still for a long time might also mean that you’ve been doing it for awhile. Or it could mean you’re like me: since I’ve been active in sports all my life (including gymnastics when I was younger) I’m usually very limber, plus I have a high tolerance for pain and discomfort. But this is neither good nor bad in itself.
It’s possible that, when people say they’re “bad” at meditation, they mean they haven’t been very disciplined with it. Maybe they don’t make time for it as often as they wished they did. Or maybe they’re beginners, and they aren’t comfortable yet with sitting for 15 or 20 minutes, feeling like they’re doing nothing.
Or maybe they’re comparing themselves with more experienced practitioners at a Zen center or in a meditation group. When they see other people around them who look all serene, content, or blissed out while their own legs are going numb, their backs are screaming in pain, and all they want to do is get up and run out, they may not realize that others are thinking exactly the same thing.
If you’re one of those who think you’re bad at meditation, think again. What, exactly, isn’t working for you? Don’t hesitate to ask an instructor, teacher, or senior student for help.
If you believe you’re “good” at meditation, think again. It all depends on the type of meditation you’re doing, though. For me and the way I meditate, there’s no goal, so there’s no good or bad although there are many benefits of meditation.
With that, I’ll turn you over to the experts.
Here’s a very short video called What is Zen Meditation with Brad Warner. He’s kind of controversial in some circles, but I’ve read all of his books and visit his blog pretty regularly, and he knows his stuff.
If you can’t see the video, here is the link:
What is Zen Meditation
Here’s another one that’s good. In it, Brad Warner discusses the difference between zazen and meditation (as many people think of it).
If you can’t see the video, here is the link:
Meditation vs Zazen
From the Plum Village website, here is an excerpt from a page called “Art of Mindful Living.” I like this page because it explains how meditation and mindfulness aren’t limited to the meditation cushion.
Sitting meditation is very healing. We realize we can just be with whatever is within us- our pain, anger, and irritation, or our joy, love, and peace. We are with whatever is there without being carried away by it. Let it come, let it stay, then let it go. No need to push, to oppress, or to pretend our thoughts are not there. Observe the thoughts and images of our mind with an accepting and loving eye. We are free to be still and calm despite the storms that might arise in us.
And here are a few words about meditation at Shambhala Sun.
What we’re doing is taming our mind. We’re trying to overcome all sorts of anxieties and agitation, all sorts of habitual thought patterns, so we are able to sit with ourselves. Life is difficult, we may have tremendous responsibilities, but the odd thing, the twisted logic, is that the way we relate to the basic flow of our life is to sit completely still. It might seem more logical to speed up, but here we are reducing everything to a very basic level.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask! And comments are always welcome.
Special note: I’ve been working on the results of the recent survey—thanks for participating! It’s so helpful. If you didn’t, please take a minute to answer some quick questions. I’m leaving it up indefinitely, and you still have a few days to get in on it. It’s completely anonymous.
Photo credit: Vinni123