Meditation sucks. I've been meditating for 19 years and most of the time I think of it as the ten minutes I spend each day confirming my insanity. Sitting still and focusing on the breath often leads to thoughts of anything but the breath. One of my favorite meditation teachers, Ethan Nichtern, a senior teacher at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, says in his book, The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, "meditation is the thing that we're all really happy that other people do." Meditation is like eating local. Everyone wants to do it and everyone plans to do it, but actually doing it seems like a monumental pain in the ass. So why do I do it if it makes me feel crazy? And why does everyone else wish they were doing it? Because it gets you enlightened. Duh. But seriously, in case you've been living entirely in virtual reality, meditation has been clinically proven to help everything from your stomach pain to your mental health and back again.
On bad days, I sit down on my cushion and feel smothered and overwhelmed by a barrage of thoughts. When can I get up? Did I feed the cats? Does this meditation cushion make me look fat? I use my breath as a lifeline and follow the oxygen bubbles back to the surface of my life.
On good days, watching my thoughts is like watching TV. There's still crazy stuff happening in there: fantasies, delusions, to-do lists, you name it, but part of my awareness simply watches the whole scene unfold. On those days I know that there is more to me than the crazy. Ethan Nichtern calls the process of seeing yourself as bigger than your unstable thoughts "making friends with yourself," and this, he says, is the point of meditation.
It takes most people years to develop a meditation practice that yields even the most rudimentarily friendly attitude towards all the flotsam floating around in their heads. I'm a slow learner, so it took me more like a decade. I stuck with it because I'm stubborn and have a low tolerance for not being good at things.
I have a traditional, breath-centered practice. I close my eyes. I follow the breath. Sometimes I do japa, mantra recitation, with the breath. That's it. Sounds easy, right? Except if you've tried it, you know that it isn't. I have been teaching other people to meditate this way for years, and I have watched countless students struggle through the practice.
Some people stick with it, and some people don't. Frankly, until recently I thought that students who resisted traditional breath-centered practice just lacked discipline. But when I look back at my own experience and see how long it took me to make meditation doable, I wonder if plopping people smack into their crazy and asking them to sit with it isn't a bit unrealistic.
There are plenty of alternatives to just sitting down and shutting up. There are chakra meditations, blue grid meditations, compassion meditations, and apps galore. Insight Timer is a great app that you can use as a simple non-invasive timer that also offers a grab bag of meditations taught by renowned teachers, both traditional and non-traditional.
Rachelle Judd Thompson, a New Orleans-based social worker and therapist trained in trauma-centered/trauma-sensitive yoga, says that students can be overwhelmed by not having someone else present to "hold emotional space for them" as they move through meditation, and that meditation apps can take the place of having a teacher.
Thompson says the important thing is "to find the voice that really speaks to you," whether it's a live Zen monk or a disembodied voice on your iPhone. It's the all-alone-ness of meditation that really gets to us, she thinks. The oh-shit-it's-just-me-and-maybe-I'm-crazy-ness of the process that's real and legitimate, and that it can take years to build a tolerance to.
Hannah Goldman, a clinical psychology fellow at Tulane, calls this crazy-making experience "ontological anxiety," or anxiety about being present with oneself. It seems to me that ontological anxiety is just part of the process. But as Goldman pointed out, this kind of anxiety will feel not just uncomfortable, but actively dangerous to some people. "If your nervous system is jacked up all the time," he says, "you aren't going to be able to relax into ultimate reality," adds Nichtern.
Not only that, but Thompson also notes that the breath itself can be a trigger for upsetting memories and emotions. Victims of trauma and PTSD sufferers often recall the sound of a perpetrator's breath or even their own from a traumatic experience. Focusing awareness on the breath, even during "relaxing" activities like meditation, can provoke intense anxiety and can force meditators to relive trauma. "Self compassion," Nichtern reminds me, "is the first step in meditation." If a technique doesn't allow practitioners to experience self-compassion, it is simply not useful.
If your breath really isn't doing it for you, Thompson recommends body-centered practices that focus on mindful attention to the present moment. She suggests setting a timer for one minute at a time and using that minute to tap into the experience of all five senses, moving from taste to smell to touch, etc. In this way, the mind stays tethered to the tangible and you might be able to avoid the anxieties presented by just being. This practice can be done in the shower or while washing dishes, so it may also take away some of the pressure of traditional meditation and allow you to be fully present for a less-intimidating amount of time in a space you are already comfortable with.
Some meditation and yoga teachers may not consider mindfulness practices and guided visualizations "real" meditation. In other words, they probably aren't what the Buddha did to reach Nirvana. But the reality is that it's really hard to be Buddha when Trump is your future president, when bae is being difficult or when the world around you is just too noisy, literally and metaphorically. "Whatever the technique," Nichtern says, "the important thing is to know the purpose."
Personally, I think the meditation practice you will actually do is far better than the practice that you won't do. Better to have inner peace your way than no way at all.