What exactly is meditation?

As someone who has been meditating (on-and-off) since 1975, I have gone through many stages and phases of meditation. I have taken weeks/months/years off, and then come back to it. I keep coming back because I get benefits from meditation and I feel calmer and more grounded when I do it.

Let me break my meditative experiences down into three categories:

Simple Meditation: Just sit quietly and listen. You can focus on your breath, a candle, or a spot on the wall. Or you can repeat an appealing word like “peace” or “calm” to yourself. Keep it simple.

I recommend to my clients that if they want to try meditating, start with a minute. Nothing more. It that works well for you, add another minute the next time. And you don’t have to do it sitting on the floor, you can sit in a chair, meditate standing up, or – my favorite – walking. Walking meditation is great if you’re easily distracted, as I am, or if you get antsy when you’re not moving.

Intermediate Meditation: Once you’ve been meditating more often and for longer periods of time, it’s typical to notice all the resistance in your mind, wondering “Is this worth it?” or “Why am I doing this?”

The fabulous and funny Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says that the purpose of meditation is to “stay” with yourself, no matter what you’re thinking about or how you feel. She says that most of us run away from ourselves when we feel bad, sad or mad, distracting ourselves with entertainment/shopping/sex or numbing ourselves with alcohol/drugs/mindless TV.

It’s really hard to “stay” with yourself when you feel like shit. However, this is when staying is the most beneficial: you can learn so much when you don’t run away and abandon yourself. I’ve found previously undiscovered wells of inner strength when I made peace with feeling rotten or thinking depressing thoughts.

Advanced Meditation: When I’ve gone on ten-day, silent meditation retreats, they’ve been very intense experiences. The retreats I attended alternated 45-minute periods of sitting and walking meditation. You start at 5AM (gulp) and end around 9PM, with silent meals, work periods and free time throughout the day.

The first three days are usually awful: sitting hurts, no matter how you do it. You begin to notice all the garbage floating around in your mind when there are no distractions. It becomes very clear how difficult it is to just “stay” present with yourself. I found myself starting to plan my life after the retreat. In fact, planning is a great way to not stay with yourself: it’s just another form of escaping the present discomfort.

I’ve had a few extraordinary experiences meditating: flashbacks from parallel lives, altered physical states of being, deep peace so powerful that I thought I could stop my heart if I wanted to and leave this life quietly and easily.

Obviously, I didn’t because I’m here writing this. But these were amazing experiences. However, in forty-plus years of meditating, I’ve only had this kind of stuff happen a few dozen times. Most of the time, it’s far from exciting or mind-blowing. It’s just about staying with the irritation, boredom or physical discomfort. And what have I learned from that? Self-discipline. I know that sounds so dry and uninteresting, but being able to accept all aspects of myself (the parts I love and the parts I despise) is pretty damn great! It leads to being able to accept all aspects of other people too (very helpful when someone is as annoying as hell).

Interested? Check out Pema Chodron or Jack Kornfield, two of my favorite teachers. They have lots of YouTube videos where you can see – for free – what their versions of meditation are all about. They can take you from the very beginning all the way to…wherever it is that you want to go.

Meditation has been quite an amazing journey for me: I invite you to give it a try and see what it’s like to really “stay” with yourself, whatever you’re thinking or feeling. It’s powerful stuff. Doesn’t cost you a cent and has no side effects…