“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
I meet with a lot of people who say things like, “Oh, I’ve tried meditation before but I’m just not good at it.” When asked to explain, the most common answer is, “I just can’t make my mind get quiet.”
I’ve heard responses like this so often that I’ve come to realize that this is the single greatest misunderstanding about meditation. In truth, meditation is not about calming our mind or achieving a state free from mental noise and cognitive clutter. Far from it, actually.
I have many decades worth of experience practicing meditation. Still, when I sit cross-legged, my mind floats and roams through shifting states like a cloud-adorned sky filled with hundreds of colorful kites.
Thoughts of my wife and children mix with those of household chores, distant goals, past memories, judgments about a fly that lands on my ear, or the sound of a neighbor’s lawnmower I wish was not there.
And, sure, there are times when my consciousness—my sense of an individual self—dissolves into a state of vacuous bliss and timelessness, but this just happens sometimes, and that’s okay. Whenever it does happen, that’s successful meditation. Whenever it doesn’t, that’s successful meditation too.
During meditation, no matter how busied and chaotic the inner activity of your mind may be, you’re successfully meditating, because meditation isn’t about calming your mind. It’s about spending quality time with the most important person in your life: you!
This is the true method (and goal) of meditation. We sit, pausing to pay attention to what’s really going on inside ourselves.
We enter our home and witness what’s happening there, whatever this may be. In so doing, we discover ourselves, who and how we really are, something we only fully notice when we allow ourselves to take a brief hiatus from the daily hustle of life on planet Earth.
It’s like taking a moment to sit down with someone over a cup of coffee or tea, except that, in this case, this someone is you.
And once you’re face-to-face with this person, you can really start to build an extraordinary relationship with him or her.
You can genuinely connect with yourself in a way that is rarely possible while the “two of you” are preoccupied with picking up the dry cleaning, taking the kids to school, answering emails, or a thousands other activities that so quickly seem to crowd each day.
Really, this is such an important relationship! But how often do we set aside time to connect with ourselves in such a simple yet beautiful way, to truly meet and spend time with ourselves?
That’s all that meditation is. It’s an opportunity for us to build a peaceful, harmonious friendship with this essential person in our life, just like we would with anyone else.
Our favorite people in the world are those who we know judge us the least. These are the people who we know like us for who and how we are exactly. They don’t criticize or scold us or demand us to be different. Around such people, we know we can be most fully ourselves, without walking on eggshells or fearing reprimand. This is the very definition of true friendship.
Meditation provides us with a chance to build such a relationship with ourselves. I call this internal friendship and it’s cultivated just like any other friendship, by sparing this person from judgment about right or wrong, good or bad.
When you like this person that is yourself for who he or she is exactly, demanding nothing, then a true internal friendship develops from this (not that it’s always easy).
When I was living at one monastery, we’d meditate each morning and night for an hour and half each sitting.
I didn’t have a ton of experience at the time, so this was supremely tortuous for me. I remember often angrily glaring at the master—a docile, elderly Sri Lankan monk—psychically trying to get him to ring the bell that would conclude our session. I adamantly blamed my discomfort and anguish on him.
When my resentful stares failed, I’d have no choice but to turn inward again, facing all my thoughts about how “I can’t do this,” “This sucks,” “Why am I so much more pathetic than everyone else meditating around me?” “I’m not cut out for this.”
Then one day, it dawned on me. All I was doing was fighting with myself and, instead, I chose to let go, to embrace myself for being just as I was.
If I was in physical pain, I let myself just feel it. If I felt angry or frustrated, I gently reminded myself that this was okay. If my mind bounced around all over the place instead of resting in stillness, I allowed it. I stopped criticizing myself.
“This is me right now and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is me and that’s okay.” And, from this, I began to befriend myself, to genuinely like me for me.
Unexpectedly, as I did this, meditation suddenly became enjoyable for me. I’d sit, focus on my breathing, and just experience myself as is.
The internal chatter faded away and I’d become fully present, not only to myself, but to all around me, to each bird singing in the trees outside, each creak in the shifting walls of the temple, each whisper of breath from those around me.
By befriending myself in this way, a friendship to all existence developed. I finally experienced the calm I had chased for so long.
It is relatively easy for us to experience harmony, peacefulness, and calm within our relationships to our best and closest friends. As our internal friendship grows through meditation (just sitting with ourselves as we are without complaint), the calm that exists within our mental and emotional interior grows right along with it. See how this works?
Meditation builds friendship; friendship builds calm. This is so important that it bears repeating. Meditation builds friendship; friendship builds calm.
As we aim for greater calm in our lives, we cannot skip this important middle step of building friendship and still expect to reap great rewards.
The stillness that slowly emerges from a continued practice of meditation comes not from forcing ourselves to think less; it comes from allowing ourselves to be exactly as we are.
It comes from liking ourselves enough to spend some quality, unfettered time with ourselves, to just sit alone together for a bit, experiencing all that it means to be us in the moment amidst the limitless vastness of time and space.
As we sit with ourselves without judgment, friendship grows. We experience the joys of being liked and the joys of liking, both simultaneously. And when this all-important relationship blossoms as a result, a bounty of benefits emerge.
We begin to experience greater mental clarity, insight, awareness, and stillness. Meanwhile, we enjoy the emotional rewards of this internal harmony—more compassion, patience, calm, and feelings of loving-kindness.
As we cultivate friendship within ourselves, our overall ability to live in a spirit of friendship unfolds. Everything around us appears worthy of friendship. All of life, including its greatest difficulties and challenges, its ugliest scars and hardest woes, invites a graceful smile upon our hearts. We become capable of embracing everything with friendship.
This is what meditation is truly about, not creating an emptier mind, but building a true spirit of friendship, starting with the internal friendship we have with ourselves.
So, the next time this important person in your life asks you to sit down with him or her for a while, accept the invitation and see what happens.
Enjoy a little time together. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than this and, best of all, there’s nothing you can do to mess it up. Every moment of Buddhist meditation is successful meditation.