You Cannot Suck at Meditation
I meet people all the time who claim to be bad at meditation. Many even claim that they can’t meditate. They tell me that they tried in the past and couldn’t “get there” or “clear their minds”. They would like to meditate, but they just suck at it. These folks are wrong. You cannot be bad at meditation. Barring serious mental illness* everyone can meditate.
The problem can be summed up as expectation and tenacity. The expectation of what is supposed to occur in meditation is often a lot grander than what actually happens. People expect that they will sit down; the mind will quickly quiet and stay perfectly still for the length of the session. They will feel a calming peace that they have never felt before and be at one with everything. Needless to say, these expectations are unrealistic, especially when the subject is willing to give all of three sessions worth of effort towards the goal before declaring that they cannot meditate. This lack of tenacity is even worse than the unrealistic expectation.
Part of the reason that people throw in the towel so quickly is that during their first few sessions, they are surprised at how little control they have over their mind. Most people feel like they have a good handle on themselves; they are successful, smart, and healthy and generally feel in control of their lives. It can be a pretty big shock to find out that they cannot focus on one thing exclusively even for one minute. Something seemingly so easy and so basic as directing your own thoughts should not be this hard. They judge themselves and feel embarrassed at their lack of control and quickly abandon the practice.
The first thing to do when undertaking meditation is abandon any lust of result. You should expect to be distracted almost constantly. In fact, if you are keeping a regular practice of meditating every day, you should expect nothing but distraction for at least six months!
You sit and focus on breath, or mantra, or yantra, or whatever and a thought of food arises in the mindstream. You start thinking about dinner. Which gets you thinking about the time, and how much time as passed so far. You realize that you have lost focus…
This is the crucial moment. When you recognize that you are distracted the natural reaction is to berate yourself because you stopped meditating. The secret is this: you did’nt stop meditating. You recognized your distraction: that is meditation. If you can than return to the focus without judgment you will continue to meditate properly. If you willingly continue to be distracted knowing that you are distracted; now you have stopped meditating.
If you spend your whole life experiencing nothing in your meditation sessions other than being distracted and returning to the focus of the meditation, you will have accomplished quite a lot. You will master your own thought process. I cannot stress enough what a wonderful feat this is. Almost everything that people do, say, and think is just a mechanical reaction. How you were raised, what you ate for breakfast, what traffic was like, what genes you inherited, how you are dressed, these all impact every moment and push us one way or the other. If you can recognize the mind being distracted by habitual pattern in meditation, you will learn to recognize these patterns in the heat of everyday life. The next time someone pushes your buttons and you start to react, you will probably catch yourself and be able to react from a place of real thought rather than habit, because you know how to recognize attachment and distraction. Good job!
Of course, most people will eventually experience more than just this process during the course of their meditative journey. You may see visions, you may feel bliss, you may feel the barriers of the self melt away. All of this is what Tibetans call Nyams, which I translate as weird shit that happens during meditation. None of it is as important as the process of recognizing distraction. Eventually, with practice, you will probably experience some genuine subtle states described in classical texts like Rigpa or Samadhi, but these come with time, and must not be sought after directly. Even if you do not experience these states, you will have accomplished much just by taking a little bit of control over your own mind.
Just remember that you cannot be bad at it. If the point is to recognize distraction, what is there to be bad at?
*Those with serious mental illness should not be meditating. Meditation can have side effects that are disturbing at times and has caused serious psychosis and destructive behaviors in people that were not fit for the practice.