Am I Doing This Right?

Here’s the latest installment in our ongoing series of helpful answers to common meditator questions.

Illustrations by Gwenda Kaczor

Is it OK to start out with the idea that I’ll keep meditating until I don’t feel like doing it anymore, or should I choose a set period of time?

First of all, to some degree if you sit down to practice meditation, then it’s always OK. The real question is whether a certain approach is advisable and whether it supports a regular and beneficial practice. I can also tell you what would happen for me if I decided not to meditate for a set period of time and just meditated until I didn’t want to meditate.

I believe my average time per meditation would be somewhere in the range of 30 seconds to a minute, tops. As long as that’s where you’re aiming for your daily practice, go for it. But most of us aspire for a tad more practice on a regular basis. The challenge is, of course, that the “not feeling like doing it” is simply a thought that the brain has offered up as if it is a truth. But what are thoughts anyway? Really, they’re just brain secretions. They have no inherent truth or fact to them, and they often come and go fairly randomly. When we settle in to the cushion or chair and allow our minds to settle as well, we can see the coming and going of this thought stream, and we don’t have to latch on to any given thought.

Setting a time to practice (even if it is a modest goal for you) allows you to have the stability of your intention (to stay in practice for a set time), which leaves you less subject to the impact of a random neuron firing that leads to an equally random thought entering your awareness. It is the stability that is developed through repeated encounters with all of the phenomena of attention—including ideas about having meditated enough—that deeply serves us in our daily lives when we are virtually bombarded with thoughts, feelings, sensations, and clowns. Well, the latter is a little less frequent, but remember, they don’t always wear makeup and big floppy shoes. They come in all forms and sometimes they’re kinda creepy.

Can I scratch an itch when I’m meditating?

The desire to relieve unpleasant body sensations—or, on the other hand, lean into those thoughts or sensations that are pleasant—is an incredibly strong one, and therefore provides the perfect place to practice working with discomfort.

Try this: The next time you meditate and you notice an itch, instead of scratching it as a way to relieve it, bring it into the tent of interest and curiosity. An itch, after all, is nothing more than a constellation of various sensations that we interpret as a minor annoyance. How do those sensations actually report themselves to us? To find out, bring curiosity and interest to your investigation of them. What do you notice? How does this change over time? Do the sensations increase, decrease, or remain static? Do they go away altogether? Do they contain elements of prickliness, or heat, or coolness? How do you relate to the experience overall?

The fact is that whether or not you scratch the itch, it will eventually go away. It will arise, have a life, and move on. What you can learn from this reality can be translated to all aspects of life: every thought, emotion, and body sensation will change over time. With practice this attitude supports us in relating to pain and discomfort with less resistance and, therefore, more ease of mind.

I just came back from a retreat. I feel like I need to have my entire body massaged. Am I doing something wrong? How good could this be if it’s making me hurt?

Meditation is not a “no pain, no gain” proposition. Being in a lot of pain is not a mark of doing it right. It can take some work, though, to find a position (or a few positions) that don’t lead to intense pain. Some folks sit cross-legged on a single cushion; others sit astride a tower of cushions; others perch on benches; still others prefer chairs. Each person finds the posture and support that best suits their bodily condition. So try out different postures and supports, and by all means don’t assume you’re cursed to experience meditating as akin to being stuck in the middle seat on a budget airline. On the other hand, a hugely important lesson of meditation is that even comfort is, well, bound to eventually become uncomfortable. For this reason, once you find a suitable posture and support, it’s a good idea to avoid making too many adjustments. Constantly tinkering can make you feel as though you’re trying to outrun the reality that the body is naturally going to drift in and out of states: some comfortable, some uncomfortable, and some neither/nor.

In one sense, a retreat is a laboratory for creating the conditions most conducive to meditation. It’s also a microcosm of life itself, a chance to observe deeply how things drift in and out of discord, regardless of how much effort we’ve put into creating an ideal environment. In the quietest place on Earth, a feather dropping can ring out like a gunshot. A minor ache, likewise, can scream like a broken limb. Take advantage of the supportive environment of the retreat to begin inoculating yourself against the tendency to react too strongly to these pangs, so you’re prepared to face discomforts of every shape and size back in “the real world.” You’re practicing for life, and all its wanted and unwanted elements. You can become comfortable with discomfort and aware that even when discomfort arises, it doesn’t have to totally define your experience.
People have found that as they relax that inner tension, it often results in less bodily tension.

Even so, maintaining any position for hours and hours a day for several days or more is bound to give any body a run for its money. One way to look at the lingering soreness is that it indicates a retreat well spent—a signal of the valuable work you’ve done in teaching yourself to unpack every sensation, in order to face them without drama or disconsolation. Finally, don’t forget to seek the counsel of wise, experienced teachers and meditators. They’ve been there. They are there.