I have a confession to make. I really dislike doing things I'm bad at. Skiing, playing guitar, baking bread and salsa dancing all fall into this category. I've tried them, decided I was terrible at them, and promptly avoided them. For many, many years, meditation was similarly a "no-go" zone for me. Why? Because I was convinced I was bad at it. My patient yoga teacher told me that the only bad meditation practice is the one you didn’t do. But for someone like me, who is used to judging every aspect of my life, it was hard to accept that.
Judgment and assessment are deeply ingrained in our psyches. We go to school and are awarded grades to evaluate our performance. At work, we might go through appraisals or be given bonuses according to our sales figures. If we’re self-employed, it’s likely we’ll make daily judgments as to how well our business is doing. Our relationships will likely not escape our judgmental scrutiny as to how they are progressing. Even in yoga, it can be all too tempting to judge our practice. "How is today compared to yesterday? How far am I into the posture? How do I look compared to the images on my Instagram feed?"
So, it’s no wonder that when we begin meditation that our minds want to judge the experience, to measure it up, and to see how well it is going. Like everything else in our lives, we want to make progress with meditation. We’re investing time in it and so it seems natural to seek reassurance that we’re getting better. (When we really should just be Trusting the Practice of Meditation.)
Except meditation does not really work like that. In fact, it’s likely to be a non-linear journey. Even the very question of how to judge meditation is troublesome. How exactly do you judge your meditation? Let’s look at a few options:
- The amount of time you sit for. But this begs the question of whether an hour of mindless drifting is better than a few focused minutes? And to experience “good” meditation, do you have to give over hours and hours every day for it?
- Your level of concentration. But does that mean meditation when you’re tired or stressed isn’t as valuable? Should meditation be reserved only for days when you feel incredibly focused and composed?
- The quality of your thoughts. But then should you judge meditation by whether the thoughts that you are having are suitably loving and kind? And if they aren’t, is that the meditation which is at fault or who you are as a person?
None of these work. Meditation by its very nature simply needs to be experienced. The mind will want to judge it, to analyze it and to give it a pat on the back, or to admonish it. But to judge meditation misses the point of it.
The real purpose of meditation is to understand the nature of the mind. It is not about emptying the mind, but looking into it. It is about deepening your awareness of what is there, understanding it and exploring it. Only once I realized that, was I able to actually begin an honest meditation practice. I found that the process of learning and acceptance is one that cannot be judged. (All of which are part of the yogic principle of Ahimsa: A Self-Practice.)
There is as much power in the moments when you notice the mind has wandered as in the times when it is focused on the breath. Like everything in life, sometimes meditation will feel good, sometimes it won’t. Not every meditation needs to be an overwhelming encounter with transformative spiritual fireworks. In fact, it probably won’t be. It’s a more subtle process than that; and that’s okay. Judging meditation only turns it into another task to be accomplished, another achievement to be had and another box to be ticked.
So, what can you do instead? Recognize that meditation is different. You might well be bad at salsa dancing or skateboarding, but you can allow meditation to be something that just is. Something to just be experienced. Let those minutes become a precious gift of non-judgmental existence in your day. Surrender to the perfection of the experience exactly as it shows up each time and accept that you will get exactly what you need right then.
In the words of Pema Chodron:
"Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we are."