Science

In Praise of Distracted Meditation

As with most things in life, when it comes to meditating, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Woman with an angry face trying to meditate.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Antonio Guillem/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

When people learn that I meditate every day, they often sheepishly admit that they wish they could, but that they just aren’t suited for it, or their mind is too active, or they don’t have the time. This always reminds me of Anne Lamott’s iconic gem of an essay, “Shitty First Drafts.” While nonwriters tend to conceive of the writing process as a montage of steaming mugs of tea and meaningful glances outside windows frosted just so, in reality, writing is a grind. Words arrive slowly, and in direct proportion to how much time your ass is touching the chair and your fingers stroking the keyboard. And so I try and explain that meditation is exactly the same.

Many burgeoning meditators have visions of rapturous sitting rounds spent floating upon the meditation cushion, the incense burning just so, the mind clear and calm. The reasoning for this misconception is twofold: first, this is exactly how every meditator appears, since no one else is privy to the cacophony inside your skull; second, meditation is big business these days, and serenity sells. The truth, though, is that meditation can also be a real grind, the understanding arriving slowly and in direct proportion to how much time your ass is touching the sitting cushion and your breath rising and falling. When I wake up early to sit on the cushion for 30 minutes, it is often begrudgingly, and my sitting round is often, well, shitty. But this kind of message does not fill dharma halls and lead to best-sellers. (If a meditation instructor tells the truth and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?)

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” writes Lamott. “You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.” I would offer the same advice to meditators. Maybe, as often happens to me even 17 years into my meditation career, you’ll sit there for 30 minutes wondering what the heck that dream was about, or figuring out what you want to be when you grow up, or fighting off sleep. And you’ll get up thinking, well that was a waste of time. But nothing could be further from the truth. There is real value to shitty sitting, and I’d like to point out, in the spirit of the Bodhisattva Anne Lamott, why you should not be discouraged.

One way to see value in the task is to think about it as a form of preservation. Were meditation practice to go the way of the dodo, a wonderful tool for alleviating suffering would no longer exist, and that would be unfortunate. It’s likely you won’t reach enlightenment, but one of the most compassionate things you can do is keep the thread alive and share it with others. To be a very small part of a very long lineage is a worthwhile aspiration.

I have always admired this selfless approach, but during one particularly shitty sitting round I had a very selfish realization: Practice, especially when I least feel like it, is a form of preservation not only for others, but for myself. I might not get anything out of it, but following through on the commitment I’ve made is what keeps that commitment alive. I’ve seen many a meditator taper off from one sitting a day, to one a week, to once in a while, to I-just-don’t-have-the-time. But even a shitty sitting round is time spent stoking the fire, and keeping it stoked is what actually will preserve it, both for yourself and for future generations.

We’re also very bad at judging what is good practice. A Zen teacher once explained to me that what we think is “good practice” could just be a case of feeling good (or being overcaffeinated), and what we think is “bad practice” could actually be a mindful recognition of how we are in that moment. We’re really not very skilled at judging our practice, because our judgments are often based on misconceptions (“I wasn’t serene enough!”) or self-interest (“I am the most serene!”). But when we sit up straight, and breathe in and breathe out, we are doing the practice, regardless of how we feel about it. So our “shitty” sitting round might not have been so shitty after all.

On a similar note, when we are not practicing, our habitual thoughts often weigh us down, quite literally, causing us to slouch, or grind our teeth, or enter an unhealthy ruminative state. When we practice, we have the opportunity to introduce this tendency or this state to the context of the present moment. This doesn’t always feel good—it can be alarming to see clearly how you typically are—but it can also be one of the best things you can do. You are teaching yourself not to respond to stress and anxiety by slouching, or grinding your teeth, or ruminating, but by sitting up straight. It is a lesson for your spine, if not your mind.

What would I do if I wasn’t meditating? I could watch Netflix, or have a mindless session of scrolling on social media, or take a trip to the freezer for some ice cream, or sleep. What I mean to say is it is strangely comforting to know that when I rise from a shitty sitting round, all the things I would’ve been doing were probably shittier anyway. Instead I spent 30 minutes trying (and perhaps failing) to be present. It could’ve been worse. Meditation has a caloric net gain of zero, metaphysically speaking. It’s like water: It’s always a better choice than the alternative.

“All good writers write them,” says Lamott of shitty first drafts. “This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” Herein lies the beauty of meditation. It is only through sitting, again and again and again, that one might come to the liberating recognition that there is nothing to produce. There is no end to meditation practice. It is simply something one does, and the shittiness or lack thereof in no way degrades the final product. Rather than looking back with discouragement, one can always look forward to the next draft. It might not be terrific, or even good, but meditation is a grind. Unlike writing, though, the final deadline is often a long way off. Perhaps that can take some of the pressure off.