Everything you always wanted to know about meditation
but were too tense to ask.
“What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”
All of us gathered at that 1990 conference in Dharmsala, India-philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and meditators-were from Western countries, and self-hatred was something we immediately understood. That this man, whom we all recognized as having a profound psychological and spiritual grasp of the human mind, found the concept of self-hatred incomprehensible made us aware of how many of us found it all but unavoidable. During the remainder of the session, the Dalai Lama repeatedly attempted to explore the contours of self-hatred with us. At the end he said, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”
The fact that self-hatred was not part of his worldview pointed to the essence of my own aspirations. The need to resolve the ache of my self-hatred had sparked the fundamental spiritual questions in my life. In 1970, when I was 18, I went to India to learn meditation, wanting to weave the brokenness I felt inside into a cohesive whole, yearning to know what loving myself could possibly mean. My childhood, chaotic and painful, had not provided a matrix for learning how to do that nor really how to love others.
My father left when I was 4. My mother died when I was 9. My father returned briefly when I was 11, until a suicide attempt spun him away into the mental health system, from which he was never again free. Savage, uprooting turns and incomprehensible losses as I moved from household to household left me feeling abandoned over and over again-abandoned by life itself. Though caring people raised me, no one was able to speak openly about all that had happened. With very little stable love coming toward me, I developed the feeling that I didn’t deserve much in life. I held my immense grief, anger, and confusion inside, fortifying my isolation and my innermost conviction that I was unworthy of love.
Just as I hid my suffering, I tried as hard as I could to hide my feelings of worthlessness. On many a day I’d watch the threads of my alliance with the world fray, and would silently note the disintegration of meaning in the world around me and in my actions. Yet under the bleakness, I wanted with all my heart to find a sense of belonging, to nestle deep into the comfort of a steady source of love and connection.
At 16, I entered the State University of New York at Buffalo. One of the courses I chose in my second year was Asian philosophy. I heard about Buddhism, a philosophy of life that said suffering was neither shameful nor the sign of something wrong with us. It pointed out that we are all linked to one another in our vulnerability to pain, all fragile in our exposure to the continual and unpredictable changes of life.
And I heard this quotation from the Buddha: “You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.” Not only did the Buddha say that love for oneself is possible; he described this capacity as something we must nurture, since it’s the foundation for being able to truly love and care for others. Despite my uncertainty, the possibility of a move from self-hatred to self-love drew me like a magnet.
The emphasis on caring for ourselves is certainly not limited to Buddhism; it is found in any true spiritual understanding. It is the foundation of our ability to connect with ourselves and with others from a basis of love and respect rather than from fear and aggression. Spiritual life gives us methods to make self-love real rather than abstract.
When I went to India, I wasn’t interested in dogma or in rejecting one religious identity to assume another. I also felt that merely studying a religion as opposed to practicing it was like studying someone else’s experience-and I was compelled to transform my own. So when I found an introductory meditation course in Bodh Gaya- that sounded right for me, I was happy to begin the process.
I was less happy to discover that meditation wasn’t as exotic as I had expected. I had anticipated a wondrous, esoteric set of instructions, delivered in a darkened chamber with a supernatural atmosphere. Instead, my first meditation instructor, in the full light of day, launched my practice with the words, “Sit comfortably, and feel your breath.” Feel my breath! I thought in protest, I could have stayed in Buffalo to feel my breath. But I soon found out just how life changing it is to learn to be simple, to fully connect to my experience in a loving way, to sit comfortably and feel my breath.
In a similar vein, I have found that the daily benefits of meditation are less dramatic than I had imagined. Yes, I have undergone profound and subtle changes in how I think and how I see myself in the world. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be limited to who I thought I was as a child or what I thought I was capable of yesterday, or even an hour ago. My meditation practice has freed me from the old, conditioned definition of myself as someone unworthy of love. But in contrast to my initial fantasies, I haven’t acquired a steady state of glorious bliss. Meditation hasn’t made me happy, loving, and peaceful every single moment of the day. I still have good times and bad, joy and sorrow. But I can roll with the punches more, with less sense of disappointment and personal failure, because I have seen how everything changes all the time.
Meditation has taken me under the disguises we wear in the world to touch an essential truth-we are all alike in wanting to be happy, and alike in our vulnerability to change and suffering. Once I learned how to look deep within, I found the vein of goodness that exists in everyone, the goodness that may be hidden but is never entirely destroyed by the conditions of our lives. Glimpsing this goodness, I’ve come to feel, to the bottom of my heart, that I deserve to be happy, as does everyone else. Now when I meet a stranger, I feel less afraid, knowing how much we share. And when I meet myself in meditation, I find I am no longer a stranger.
The three keys to meditation
There are numerous forms of meditation practice-some done in silence, others using voice and sound. The techniques I am most familiar with are from one tradition-vipassana, or insight meditation-but the same elements are found in many traditions: concentration, awareness, and lovingkindness.
On a daily basis, we can notice that our minds tend to be scattered. We might contemplate making a phone call and end up subsumed in regrets about a phone call we wish we’d made three years ago. Or we can be paralyzed by worry about a situation that might never come to pass. Distraction wastes our life’s energy.
Imagine gathering all that energy back into yourself, so that it empowers you, so that it becomes available for you to use consciously. This is what concentration does. Concentration is steadiness of mind, the mental skill we exercise when we are focused. In meditation we focus on a
chosen object (the breath, a visualization, a phrase) and practice repeatedly letting go of distractions to return our attention to that object.
Through meditation we come closer and closer to the actual, living reality of our bodies and minds. We refine our ability to connect fully and directly to our experience in the moment, no matter what it is. We see ourselves as strong and cowardly, proud and ashamed, confused and clear. We recognize these aspects of our inner world for what they are-passing thoughts and feelings-without becoming lost in the vortex of habitual reaction. For instance, we might have the habit of concluding, “If I feel anger, it means I’m a bad person,” and try to deny the anger churning inside. Or our automatic tendency might be to lash out. With awareness, we can draw close to our feelings in a skillful way so we can learn more about them and make conscious choices about how to respond.
Spending time paying careful attention to our experience opens our hearts to genuinely loving ourselves for who we are, with all our foibles and imperfections. Devoting some time to meditation is in itself an act of caring for ourselves. If we are accustomed to primarily taking care of others, this is a bold move. We discover that our renewal transforms how we relate to the people in our lives.
The calm and openness we develop through meditation enables us to see others more clearly and lovingly. We might then be more inclined to step forward and deepen our connection to omeone, to let go of hurts of the past, or to offer a friendly gesture to someone we might have previously ignored. Loving ourselves is the gateway to loving others.
Here are answers to the questions I hear most frequently:
How do I do it?
Sit comfortably, with your back erect. It is fine to sit in a chair or on an arrangement of cushions on the floor. If necessary, you can lie down. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, feeling the breath as it enters your nostrils and fills your chest and abdomen; then release it. Allow the breath to become natural, without forcing it or controlling it. Let your attention rest on one breath at a time.
If your mind wanders, don’t be concerned. Notice whatever has captured your attention, then let go of the thought or feeling, and return to the awareness of the breath. In this way, meditation teaches us gentleness and an ability to forgive our mistakes in life and to go on.
I recommend sitting for a 20-minute session if you are just getting started and increasing the time gradually until you are meditating for 30 or 45 minutes. At the end of your meditation period, lovingly acknowledge others in your life-your family or your community, maybe the whole planet. This forms the bridge between our inner work and our resolve to act with more awareness and love in our daily lives.
How do I find the time?
If you can pick a set time and place to meditate each day, it will enhance the sense of sacredness. But if you’re not able to sit regularly, you can still benefit. Even the ordinary activities of daily life can be times of meditation when you free yourself from the strictures of habit and the tendency to be only half-alive. Take a walk or eat a meal with full attention. Break the momentum of rushing and busyness in your day by stopping to meditate for just a few minutes; you’ll rediscover a deeper sense of yourself and what is most important to you.
What will happen to me when I’m meditating? What will I experience?
Sometimes you will tap into a wellspring of peace. Other times you might feel waves of sleepiness, boredom, anxiety, anger, or sadness. Images may arise, old songs might replay, long-buried memories can surface. Instead of feeling discouraged if you get sleepiness when you want peacefulness, remember that the core components of meditation are concentration, awareness, and lovingkindness. Meditation reveals how continually all the elements of our experience change. It is natural to go through many ups and downs, to encounter new delights and newly awakened conflicts from the subconscious mind. Success in meditation is measured not in terms of whatever may be happening but rather how we are relating to what is happening.
If you feel overwhelmed by thoughts or feelings, use awareness of your breath to anchor your attention to your body. If, for example, you find yourself thinking “I will always be this way” or “If only I were stronger (more patient, smarter, kinder), I wouldn’t feel this way,” return to the simple truth of the moment-sitting and being aware of your breath.
What do I do when my thoughts just won’t stop?
Some people have a mistaken idea that through meditation all thoughts disappear and we enter a state of blankness. There certainly are times of great tranquility when concentration is strong and we have few, if any, thoughts. But other times, we can be flooded with memories, plans, or random thinking. It’s important not to blame yourself. Notice that you don’t invite your thoughts. You haven’t said, “At 6:15 I’d like to be ruminating about the past.” Thoughts come and go without our volition, but we don’t have to be ruled by them.
Exploring the emotions that fuel obsessive thinking can begin to diminish their power over us. For example, when we look at what lies behind relentless planning, we may see that we hope somehow to control the future, and we fear that without continual planning, what we want will never come to pass. As we relate to such emotions with lovingkindness, we begin to release the worry, restlessness, and remorse that take us away from the present moment both in meditation and in our daily lives.
Can meditation help me deal with physical pain?
What you learn about pain in formal meditation can help you relate to it in your daily life. In meditation, one of the first things you may notice about pain is that when you start to feel it in one part of your body, the rest of your body tenses up. This can increase the pain. Consciously take a deep breath and relax your muscles. As you relax physically, you will discover greater ease of mind.
You can also use the skills of meditation to distinguish physical pain from emotional associations you may have about it. You might find yourself thinking, I’m a bad or weak person because I have pain, or pain is something shameful that should be hidden. Such attitudes can only make the pain worse. Likewise, when your thoughts leap into the future and you think “This will always hurt, and it will probably get worse,” you are burdening yourself with anticipated pain, which in fact may not come. Like all experiences, pain is easier to be with when seen directly, without emotional overlays.
The simple act of sitting for 20 minutes can cause discomfort in your knees or back. If you feel a lot of pain when meditating, it is wise to shift position. If the discomfort is tolerable, you might use the meditation session as a time to learn how to relate to it in a new way: Can you decrease the intensity by accepting it rather than mentally fighting it?
Can meditation help depression?
Depression has many causes. While it is important to investigate its possible biochemical basis and seek out psychotherapeutic help if necessary, meditation may also be useful. Dedicating some time to meditation is a meaningful expression of caring for yourself that can help you move through the mire of feeling unworthy of recovery. And developing the skill of concentration can free you from the trap of obsessive thinking. To be obsessed is to be in bondage to the compulsive repetition of a fixed idea or emotion. As your mind winds tighter and tighter, your identity constricts around that limiting fixation. Learning how to concentrate, you are able to focus gently on a chosen object with increasing ease of mind. As your mind grows quieter and more spacious, you can begin to see self-defeating thought patterns for what they are, and open up to other, more positive options.
You begin to see that the cloud of negativity that we know as depression is made up of many parts, including anger, loss, and guilt. Even though the feelings may be painful, once you see that depression is really many changing states and not one inert, overwhelming entity, it becomes more manageable. Lovingkindness enables you to regard whatever you discover within, even if it’s disturbing, with greater compassion.
If your depression is persistent or severe, I would strongly encourage you to work with a qualified meditation teacher and seek other professional help.
How do I know if I’m doing it right? Do I need a teacher?
There are many different ways to practice meditation; it’s good to experiment until you find one that seems to suit you. If you feel confused about the techniques, it’s useful to consult a teacher, speak with more experienced meditators, read a book, or listen to a tape.
Success in meditation is not based on accumulating wondrous experiences. You are not in a contest to see how many conscious breaths you can tally up. You are transforming your mind, gently and with compassion for yourself, by beginning again each time your mind wanders and you get lost in thought. You might see changes in your daily life more clearly than in your formal practice. In fact, others may notice the changes before you do, as your conviction that you are capable of loving yourself and others grows stronger.