"Paradoxically, not trying so hard to meditate is a better way to meditate. "

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Episode 20 -- June 5, 2020

In a Time of Crisis, Stop Trying to Be "Good" at Meditation

We've all heard that stress is bad for us. Too much stress can put us at risk of relapse and harm our health. But, how can we not feel stressed at a time like this? There are, of course, plenty of things we can't control right now, but we can try to manage our responses to what's happening, and work to reduce the stress we carry. One technique we can try is meditation. If this practice hasn't seemed to be your thing, you're not alone. Author Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart has some insights that might help. In this excerpt from her book A Kinder Voice: Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans, Jacobs-Stewart offers this paradox: meditation will work much better for us when we stop trying so hard.

This excerpt is from A Kinder Voice by Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart. It has been edited for brevity.

People tend to think that meditation is making the mind be quiet and getting rid of discursive thought--doing something. Instead, with mindfulness, we relax with whatever thoughts and feelings come up and--this is the tricky part--just let our thoughts and sensations go on by, neither pushing away our inner critics nor grabbing on to their stories.

My husband and I spent a few months in Mexico last winter to get away from the frigid cold and deep-freeze temperatures of January and February in Minnesota. At a social gathering, we were introduced to a friend of a friend with the opening, "You both share an interest in meditation." Louise started studying mindfulness meditation some years ago, at the suggestion of her physician. He said it would likely help her with the stress of her power job.

"For the first several years, I didn't think I was very good at meditation and it was super frustrating!" Louise said. "I just could not get my mind to settle. I kept trying and failing at getting my thoughts to quiet down. My monkey-mind is impossible!"

Louise went on to say that she was now taking a class with a new teacher. "Right off, he told me not to try so hard. [He said,] ¿Don't try to be "good" at meditating. Just let your mind rest and relax with whatever comes up. Notice your thoughts without judging yourself, and when you get distracted, don't worry. Just bring yourself back to your breath and begin again (and again and again).'" She said this new approach was a breakthrough, and asked, "Is that how you do meditation?"

With a slight nod, I said, "That is what meditation is."

I felt sad that Louise had taken classes for years and, in that time, hadn't learned the fundamental practice of resting in the openness of mind. Paradoxically, not trying so hard to meditate is a better way to meditate.

I received this suggestion years ago at Mount Madonna Center, which stretches across acres of mountaintop redwood forest and grassland overlooking Monterey Bay in Northern California. Lush, pacific grounds are interposed there with birdsong and the ringing of temple bells. My husband and I had come for a weekend retreat with Tenshin Reb Anderson, one of our beloved teachers from the San Francisco Zen Center.

The conference room at the center was beige on beige with a solo candle holding vigil for the small wooden statue of the Buddha. Between the fifty-some participants, the hours of sitting meditation, and the late afternoon sunlight, the space had become sticky and close. Tenshin-roshi's voice was also hoarse from a head cold, almost a whisper. After his lecture on being in the present moment and "resting in suchness," he rasped, "What are your questions?"

A young, petite woman ventured this: "Tenshin, I notice that I have been struggling with sleepiness during your talk, finding it hard to keep my eyes open. And, I realize that I'm often tired at this time of day. I'm so good at being responsible, going to my job every day and raising my son. I practice hard at meditation, too." Tearing up, she continued, "I simply have no idea how to stop ¿doing.' I don't know how to rest. Can you help me with this?"

Tenshin-roshi looked at her with immense kindness and said, "Resting is good. And, you should be very kind to yourself about your struggle."

My husband gently poked me and said, "You, too."

We are not trying to make ourselves be a certain way when we meditate. In fact, the venerable Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, whose name means "precious jewel," introduces meditation with the following "non-meditating exercise" that his grandfather taught his father, and his father taught him. All were Tibetan monks and honored meditation teachers.

They said:

Rest in the openness of mind...

Rest the mind...

Just rest....

And here's the exercise:

Don't try to make yourself do anything except sit down on the cushion or in your chair, hold the posture, and breathe. Once seated, simply be present to and curious about whatever arises. Observe your mind as if watching clouds pass in the sky. Acknowledge, with kindness, whatever is happening. The idea in this practice is to simply rest the mind for three minutes.

Next, sit with your spine straight. Make sure you can breathe easily, with the body relaxed.

Finally, allow your mind to rest. Let it go anywhere it goes. Whatever happens--or doesn't happen--is part of the mental experiment. Simply notice it. You might feel physically comfortable or uncomfortable. You might hear sounds or smell smells in your environment. You might get lost in thoughts or become aware of feelings of anger, sadness, fear, or other emotions. Just go with any of it. Anything that happens--or doesn't happen--is simply part of the experience.

When the three minutes are up, reflect. Ask yourself: How was this experiment? Don't judge or evaluate, or try to explain. Just review what happened and how you felt.

And then try it again when you're ready.

For more inspiration and meditation, read A Kinder Voice by Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart.

About the Author:
Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart, a licensed psychotherapist for more than thirty-five years, was among the pioneers in recognizing the similarity between Twelve Step recovery programs and the ancient Buddhist path of mindfulness. A noted lecturer and retreat leader, Thérèse is a recognized expert in contemplative meditation techniques and compassion-based cognitive psychotherapy and is the author of Paths Are Made by Walking: Practical Steps for Attaining Serenity (2003), Mindfulness and the 12 Steps (2010), and A Kinder Voice: Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans (2016).

© 2016 by Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart
All rights reserved