Confessions of a Lousy Meditator

By Guest Blogger: Tracy Carlson

I’m a lousy meditator, and probably always will be. But that’s okay—it still works. And last I heard, there is no Meditation Olympics.

Meditation means any number of things and can be done in many different ways. But what I do—or try to do—is pretty classic and probably fits with most Americans’ image of meditation. I sit quietly in a chair with my eyes closed and focus on my breath. The goal is to gain greater equanimity and peacefulness by being fully present in the moment, by cultivating a state of being as a balance to constant doing. This happens by developing the capacity to sit in stillness and to be present with whatever shows up.

Simply said—but far from easy. Virtually every practitioner and book I’ve encountered along my Woo-Woo Land journey has recommended meditation: as a tool for better health, for relaxation, for greater joyfulness, even for getting the goodies I want from life faster. So I tried it, many times, many ways…for several minutes at a time! I got books. I checked out tapes and CDs from the library. I sat down with my headphones on. I tried the sitting-in-silence kind, I tried the chanting kind. Invariably I went stir-crazy from boredom within minutes. Or I fell asleep. I just wasn’t getting it. And I was convinced there was a big it to it.

What was I doing wrong? (Besides getting squirmy and frustrated and building up resistance?) Finally, I had my aha! moment. Meditation has been huge in all the Buddhist-related writings I’ve read (a dozen books and counting), and nearly all the authors mentioned a common element: a teacher. Aha! I needed a teacher! This I could do. So I signed up for a class in Mindfulness Meditation at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.

Do you really need to pay money to sit in a room and have someone tell you how to be quiet? The answer, at least for me, is a resounding, shout-it-from-the-rooftops yes!

I have been meditating, or trying to meditate, for about a year as of this writing. And I am still just awful. But I am making a little progress.


Why I Am Truly Terrible at This
To start with, I have the attention span of a gnat. My mind is always zinging off in one direction after another. In Buddhist traditions, this is often called “monkey mind.” I think of it as “rabbit mind,” conjuring up a very specific image of a white rabbit (actually, an arctic hare) bounding across the snow, leaving tracks in one direction, then skittering off in a completely different direction as its little white bunny butt disappears into the arctic sunset, leaving the snow pocked by a mass of tiny paw prints.

So rabbit mind it is. Then, I start wondering…what is the difference between a rabbit and a hare? (I used to know this!) Why an arctic hare, of all things? Hmm…does the sun set earlier or later in the arctic than here? (Do I know anyone who could explain this?) Besides, why can’t I just accept “monkey mind” and get back to focusing on my breath, dammit? And why does the phrase “monkey mind” immediately recall that scene from Disney’s Jungle Book where the wily orangutan leader sings like Louis Armstrong? Okay yes, I admit it. I do have the attention span of a gnat. But who am I to say that gnats have short attention spans? Relative to what? What do I really know about gnats anyway, and why do they always seem to aim for my eyes?

You begin to see the dilemma. I am not alone in this.

The next obstacle to meditation for me is that I’m supposed to focus on my breath. Or rather “the breath.” The word the comes up a lot in talking about meditation: the breath, the mind, the body. (Depersonalization conveys greater universality and a sense of unity with others.) The basic problem is that my breath is just not all that riveting. I breathe in, I breathe out. What’s the big hairy deal? Where’s the hook to focus on? How can a subtle thing like my breath begin to compete with the stampede of goony thoughts in my runaway brain?

Well it can’t, at first.

The next problem is bigger and more subtle still: it’s a fundamental clash of values. I’ve always thought that having a lively mind is A Good Thing. Having a brain that moves nimbly in different directions means that I’m intelligent, creative, and imaginative, right? Besides, if I (and the culture I’ve marinated in) have exalted thinking as A Good Thing, doing absolutely tops the List of Good Things. Doing is king: the more you do, the better you are. Besides, the opposite of doing is not doing, right? Not doing is lazy and indolent, and No Way Am I That! I have always been terrific at doing, and I’ve cultivated it on a grand scale: I’ve been the consummate multi-tasker, my motor always revving. I am a thinker, a doer. A dynamic, productive person whose greatest assets in any situation are an active mind, a can-do spirit and boundless energy for action. All Good Things, by gum!

Not quite. As always, there’s another side to the story.

I am also impulsive, reactive and occasionally volatile and frantic. Ready to burst in with opinions. Poised to spring into a frenzy of compulsive problem-solving. A talker, not a listener. Or rather I listen…just long enough to hear my cue: for a particularly pithy bit of wisdom, a well-rehearsed story, or the chance to set off on a spasm of brainstorming or analysis. At any give moment I’ll be utterly lost in thoughts. Caught in the past: revisiting old, often depressing ideas or spouting old speeches to myself. Or I’ll be off in the future: planning, strategizing, reacting preemptively to imagined scenarios. Absorbed in my own stuff, somewhere. I’ll be anywhere but here, now, breathing in and breathing out.

These were things I began to learn as classes progressed, and they were not especially flattering.

And It Works Anyway
It is not easy to sit and be quiet. Ask any kindergartener, or any newbie meditator. As soon as I closed my eyes and settled in, my face would start to itch. I found the clock incredibly loud. In my first few classes, I lived for the moments of discussion, and I’d always have plenty to say. Then, during the next bit of in-class meditation I’d think about what I said, what others had said, and I’d plunge into a rip-roaring spate of analysis and judgment.

My teacher’s voice would quietly remind us to come back to our breath or to direct our awareness to the sensations in our hands.

Gradually, it got easier. I began to take baby steps. I began to notice that I was thinking, rather than simply getting hijacked by the thoughts themselves. I began to experience my inner chatter as precisely that: a cacophony of blather that wasn’t especially bright or clever or even interesting—just noisy and distracting. I began to recognize patterns to my inner chatter: voices I could label as the Judge, the Scorekeeper, the Conceptualizer, the Victim, the Planner, the Color Commentator, and so on. And I began to identify storylines: prefabricated interpretations I’d apply to new thoughts or situations reflexively, whether they fit or not.

Sometimes I would find the zipping thoughts annoying, like my daughter’s habit of switching radio stations in the car every few seconds. Sometimes I found them amusing, in a there-goes-rabbit-mind-again kind of way. Along the way, however, I began to treasure the fractional moments when the chatter would subside a little. Those in-between times of momentary stillness were remarkably refreshing. They had a calming quality to them. No wonder: I got to take a frigging break from myself. And I wanted more.

We tried walking meditation, pacing slowly around the room in total silence (and looking mighty bizarre to anyone peeking in through the glass panel in the door, might I add). This, too, was hard: I’m a fast walker and could scarcely balance at a snail’s pace. Nor could I easily coordinate my breathing with my steps, as suggested. But that was okay, too. Eventually I found what worked for me, and I grew to love those quiet moments when I had nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other slowly, silently.

Keeping my eyes closed as much as possible, I opened them only to prevent collision with walls, chairs or fellow students. And when I did, I saw nothing more than the carpet and the heel of the person ahead of me—yet even that felt like a nearly overwhelming onslaught of stimuli compared with the relative peace I’d arrived at. And I realized that we are truly assaulted by things throughout our day. Whether these things are internal or external, pleasant or unpleasant, wanted or unwanted, our minds, hearts and nervous systems are constantly under attack: for attention, for processing, for sense-making.

It is a brave act to face the day. Is it any wonder we take such delight in simple things like a child’s face, a good cup of coffee, the glimpse of sunlight on water? And sometimes, even, simply breathing in and breathing out.

Our teacher had enormous patience, grace and humor. She had been meditating seriously since the 1970s. She knew and/or had studied with most of the famous teachers and authors in the field, but this never came across as name-dropping. She had tremendous respect for them, and for us. She treated each observation with careful and delighted attention. She was joyous and humble. She was radiant. Clearly, she was onto something—something I wanted, too. We all wanted it. And it had nothing to do with being clever or on-the-go. She had an inner tranquility and a limitless sense of wonder, born not of naïveté, but of an excited engagement with the world.

Our discussions took on a new dimension, too. With the exception of one or two all-me-all-the-time students, people spoke thoughtfully, honestly—and sparingly. We enjoyed the silences together. There was a peaceful intimacy that, no exaggeration, bordered on the sacred.

Tricky Bits…
Several things confound me in meditation, starting with the core terminology. We are aiming for awareness, we are told, for mindfulness. Yet to me those words are bound up with some of the very things I am trying to flee, namely a kind of mental hyper-vigilance and self-consciousness that represent a genuine barrier between me and my own experience of the world. Who the hell needs more awareness or mindfulness if that’s what’s meant? (It isn’t, but words are full of baggage.) Others words seem to work much better, such as attention, immersion and openness.

When we are really paying attention to something—full attention, turning off the play-by-play in our heads—the results can be magical. For those of us who are parents, the closest we may have come to this experience is watching an infant sleep, perhaps especially our firstborn. Has anything ever been as spellbinding as watching our baby sleep during those first few days or weeks? What a miracle! Yes, breathing can be riveting in this context. We want no more than what we have, and we are fully absorbed in the moment. Another experience, for some, may be the “like wow, man” experience of, say, simply staring at our hand while stoned. (“My hand, man, what an amazing freaking thing, huh?”) Mind you, I haven’t tried recreational drugs since the Carter Administration, but the memory remains: of looking with new eyes in wonder at something ordinary, fully engaged in the experience. Every now and again, it will happen: I will be looking at the car ahead of me as I’m driving, for example, and actually seeing it. It’s as if a transparent film has been peeled away, revealing everything in sharper focus and brighter colors.

Another tricky aspect of meditation for me is its focus on the appreciation of simple things. To concentrate our attention on breathing and walking, our teacher often spoke of these in the context of people for whom such activities are difficult or impossible. To make a breath seem more precious, for example, she would ask us to imagine those suffering from emphysema. Similarly, during slow walking meditation, she would ask us to imagine we were walking for those who couldn’t, such as the wheelchair-bound. Now I’m a big fan of simplicity and I’m relatively tender-hearted toward the suffering, but…This particular approach instantly triggered a complex of unhelpful associations and familiar voices intoning things like:
“Count your blessings!”
“Don’t you realize how lucky you are?”
“Think, for once, about those who don’t have it nearly good as you, little lady.”

Any of these sound familiar? I’m sure I’m not alone here. For many of us, there is a very thin line separating a sincere appreciation of the power and beauty of simple things from a voice which chides us mercilessly to trim our aspirations and stop being greedy, ungrateful little buggers. When this nasty voice kicks in, I have to forget about the respiratorially and ambulatorially-challenged, because their presence in my thoughts invites in an unruly crowd of psychological reflections and clamoring distractions, none of which helps simplify my experience. Sorry guys, but you gotta go for now.

At other times, stressing the simplicity of the task works: I’m able to dive in and appreciate the purity of breathing and the unimaginable wonder of walking without worrying about cleaning my plate for the starving millions in China. Ultimately, the test for me is how the thoughts feel and where they are coming from. If thoughts about simplicity feel good and are coming from the heart, bingo: I’m in the zone. If they feel bad and come from the head: time for the hook. Time, too, for one of my little secrets.

And little cheats…
Throughout meditation classes our teacher has given us helpful hints to make the process easier. To concentrate our attention on our breath, for example, she has us focus on different things during the in-breath vs. the out-breath. For my money, the in-breath is a bore: it just happens, and it’s hard to tart it up and make it interesting. Feeling the cool feeling on the in-breath does not light my fire, nor does focusing on the gentle rising of my abdomen or chest. The out-breath, however, now that is where the action is. That’s where we’re encouraged to let go: of thoughts, preoccupations, tension, boredom, whatever. And I’ve always got plenty to let go of. For me, the out-breath is a glorious opportunity for releasing whatever’s been colonizing my mind. I find myself palpably relaxing, to the point where I often experience a sensation of falling. It’s uncanny, but not really scary, and I’ve grown to appreciate it as a welcome sign that I can deliberately relinquish some of the (illusory) control my mind would like to think it has over me.

Some thoughts are too tenacious to wash out with the tide of the out-breath. The persistent ones can be simply absurd, like 3-am-style thoughts about whether I signed the check for the telephone bill I just mailed, or they can be pretty disturbing and revealing, like those count-your-blessings-little-lady-who-do-you-think-you-are thoughts. At these times, I choose a special mantra to clear my mind. It has no wondrous imagery or noble Sanskrit heritage, but darned if it doesn’t work. On every out-breath, I repeat inwardly: “I don’t have to think about this…I don’t have to think about this.”

A thought arises? I don’t have to think about this. Seven more arise? I don’t have to think about these, either. It’s astonishing how soothing it can be to just say “no” to thinking, sounding like a broken record in the process. At other times, more traditional mantras can work, like “calm” on the in-breath and “ease” on the out-breath. Real meditators and teachers have plenty of wonderfully wise mantras to offer (or the leaders of Transcendental Meditation will be happy to sell you one). But for you, my fellow rabbit-minders, sometimes the blunt colloquial approach can be the ticket. I don’t have to think about this. Neither do you. Really.

Although one of the goals of meditation is to create a space of silence, I find it infinitely easier to do this with headphones on and a little tape spooling. Not just any tape, either. A tape of my teacher: 17 minutes on one side, 22 on the other. Her familiar, friendly voice says the same things every blessed time, and I know everything by heart, from the pacing of the pauses to the place where I can hear her stomach gurgle in the white-noise silence toward the end of side B. This tape is my blankie, my Goodnight, Moon before I go to bed but hey, it works. If I didn’t have it, I know I would not sit down in the armchair, back straight, hands resting comfortably in my lap and start by taking a few deep cleansing breaths. Not that I do this every day, though I mean to. But having the tape reminds me that I can do this, and it’s only a few minutes. It’s not a blank page of silence for me to create from scratch—it’s a familiar walk with an old friend.

All for a good cause
So here I am, a lousy meditator, clinging for life to my little cassette tape, and happy to be doing it. At its best, I emerge from a session feeling refreshed, buoyant and joyful, my mind scrubbed of dingy residue, my energy humming, my heart full of love for humanity. No, this doesn’t happen every time—or even often. But at a minimum, any time I make the effort to meditate I feel better than I did when I started. Less snarly, less fragmented. Calmer and more open-minded.

The goal is not bliss, or even a reduction in snarliness. The goal is simply to show up, to create a little expectation-free zone in my life where for 17 or 22 minutes I sit still and breathe and am okay with whatever shows up. At the beginning of a session, my mind starts off like a bad home page: like AOL at its late-1990’s worst, a cheesy carnival with lots of tawdry flashing bits. But it eventually progresses to the calmer slate of Google: a place, nonetheless, that can still take me a zillion places in a heartbeat.

So if you are tempted to try it, find yourself a teacher—and a tape. Be gentle with yourself when you sit for meditation, and when you don’t. Remember that when you rise from the chair or cushion, tomorrow’s troubles will still be there. Trust me. So will the tug of memory and the clamor of the thousand competing claims on your attention and energy. But just for now, your only task is to sit and breathe. That is plenty, and it is far from easy. If ol’ rabbit-mind can do it, so can you. And if you try it, some of those thoughts will fade and be more bearable, and afterwards life will sometimes be bathed in brighter colors. But right now, you don’t have to think about that.

Tracy Carlson is a consultant, writer, speaker and founder of Right Brain Brands. For more info on Tracy go to