On the Concept of Failure in Meditation Practice

This post is a first take on what is intended to be one of a series of instructions in developing good form for meditation practice that will be included in my forthcoming book on meditation. I have therefore avoided any in-depth explanations of concepts not of direct interest to the core idea of the text, except where I have included concepts necessary to support the message of the text, that may eventually appear elsewhere in the book.

When learning how to meditate, we typically receive instructions on a certain technique, and this will inevitably feature one or more admonitions on what to do or avoid doing with our attention - "don't get lost in thought", "attend to the sensations of the breath", "keep the mantra in mind at all times," and so on.

This easily leads onwards to the conclusion that failing to do/not do that thing you've been instructed to do/not do is a sign that you are doing something wrong, that you are not meditating properly. But really, nothing could be further from the truth.

Let's take as an example the form of mantra practice that I teach my students. Here, we repeat a word or phrase - for example, "sunflower" - over and over in the mind, returning to the mantra every time a distraction pulls attention away from it. This is difficult, and tends to lead to a stream of consciousness that looks something like this:

"Sunflower, sunflower, sunflower - oh, I wonder what my friend is doing today. I haven't seen them for a while, maybe OH DAMNIT, MANTRA - sunflower, sunflower, what's that sound; is it something dangerous?"

I picked this example because mantra meditation is particularly difficult in the start, and proficiency declines swiftly when the practice is discontinued, so this form of distraction is an extremely common and recognizable failure mode.

If you aren't familiar with mantra meditation, you can try it right now to see what I mean. Pick a word to repeat in your mind - best if it's something that doesn't have strong associations for you, so "sunflower" may serve unless you're a botanist! - and then repeat it, repeat it, repeat it, returning to it every time your mind wanders. Repeat, repeat, repeat, return if any distractions occur. Mantra, mantra, mantra - distraction - oh shit! - mantra, mantra, mantra. Strive to make it just mantra, mantra, mantra on repeat, with 0 distractions. Got it?

Try this for a full minute. Set a timer and go!

Difficult, isn't it?

Sometimes, you may only realize that you were lost thinking about something else when the bell rings and the session ends. It's tempting to scold yourself over this, or to fret that "maybe this meditation stuff just isn't for me!" But I am asking you, please, to not do that. You haven't failed at anything. This is actually the expected outcome.

The purpose of meditation is not to meditate "perfectly" on the cushion, chair (or whatever else you have opted to plant your butt on today), but rather to develop your attentional skills to the point where they start to transform your life for the better.

You will see effects from the meditation you do on the cushion in real life, and they tend to become obvious with time. Reflexes improve. Senses become more attuned to the environment. Concentration or overall attentiveness improves. Sometimes, eventually, really weird things happen to your consciousness.

The point is: success, in the sense of doing what is instructed with perfect, unerring steadiness, is not the point of the practice. At least, it certainly isn't for beginners.

In fact, the point of engaging in formal meditation, where you strive only to meditate and do nothing else, is usually twofold:

One, to develop the technique in a relatively controlled environment, one where you can clearly attend to every step of the procedure and correct errors with relative ease. This is essential to learning good technique.

Two, to gain an outsize benefit from the relative difficulty of controlling your attention in an environment where nothing inherently interesting is happening. It's actually much harder to meditate on the cushion than in daily life.

As you mature in your practice, you will find that things tend to get better, even on the cushion. Here's what you may sound like after a week, month or year of daily mantras, time subject to your personal strengths and weaknesses as a meditator:

"Sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower - oh, it's raining - sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower, sunflower - itchy on the neck - sunflower, sunflower."

All this represents, is the ease and fluidity that comes with repeated practice. There is no special requirement for getting there, other than to 1) practice regularly, daily if you can and 2) following the instructions, rather than monitoring your performance in any other way.

For mantra meditation, if you catch yourself veering from the mantra into thoughts or attending to body sensations, veer back into the mantra. This is not an occasion to engage in self-blame or criticism or complaining - just follow the instructions and let bygones be bygones.

For other forms of meditation, the same principle applies: just follow the fucking instructions. Don't beat yourself up over failing to do so. Just do it deliberately, over and over, until the process becomes autonomic and you don't have to think about doing it, you just do it!

The true failure mode, and this can't be stressed enough, is to feel obliged to do anything else than to calmly follow the instructions. No matter how frustrated you feel with yourself, the correct response is always to dust yourself off and try again.