Mindfulness Meditation is Neither “Easy” Nor “Hard”

Look at this meditator, photographed at the Portland Dharma Center.  Does what he is doing look easy?  Does it look hard?

I’ve written here before claiming that “Mindfulness Meditation is Simple!”  And, of course, I think there’s much merit to that argument, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it!

However, to put a finer point on the matter, it would be more accurate to say, “meditation is neither easy nor hard.”  That would seem to be a contradiction in terms, one of those paradoxes that sound Zen-like but may come across as unnecessarily confusing, mystifying, or even nonsensical.

However, experienced meditators would probably agree that there are ways in which meditation is very hard, and ways in which it is quite easy — and that the apparent contradiction between these represents an important aspect of the experience of meditation, and one that we would do well to get a handle on.

Mindfulness Meditation is easy because all it is, is sitting still and paying attention.  Paying attention, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “In a particular way: On Purpose, Non-Judgmentally, and in the Present Moment.”  It is not usually difficult to sit still, unless we are extremely agitated.  Even then, we may, with a little effort, sit relatively still.

It is not difficult either, in any given moment, to direct one’s attention to a particular source of stimulus (say, one’s breathing in and out).  This is the part about paying attention “On Purpose.”  Then it’s not actually difficult to take a step further, and return attention to the target stimulus every time our minds wander away from it.  Each return to the target of attention is actually accomplished rather easily.

So in what way is meditation “hard”?

That would be in the remaining part of Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness: “Non-Judgmentally, in the Present Moment.”  Let’s handle these two components separately.

“Non-Judgmentally”

This is really the hard part, but not as hard as it first appears.  We naturally have judgmental thoughts about just about everything; that is part of why we need to practice mindfulness!  So we tend to think that this instruction means, “Squash any judgmental thoughts until they go away!”  However, that’s not the instruction.  The correct instruction is, “Notice any judgmental thoughts, and hold them lightly, don’t take them too seriously.”  We do particularly well to notice and NOT take seriously our evaluations about our meditation, whether we are “good at it” or whether it is “working.”  The mind thinks meditation is supposed to take away and neutralize any negative experiences, but that is not the purpose of meditation.  The purpose of meditation is to separate from the mind and take it less seriously, so that we may live authentically.  How can we do that when we are taking the mind’s judgments ABOUT our meditation so seriously?

So, some friction, some conflict in the mind, some apparent difficulty with meditation is manufactured in the mind, from this instruction to pay attention “Non-Judgmentally,” from the repeated injunction meditation teachers give us not to judge.  But what if having judgmental thoughts were okay?  What if we just focused on not taking them too seriously?  Anyhow, do they go away when we command ourselves not to judge?  I’m thinking not.

“In the Present Moment”

This instruction is particularly confusing to meditators, even ones who have been at it a long time, I think.  As a particularly clever and astute participant in one of our recent workshops said, “Aren’t we always in the present moment?”  And this is true: There is no other place to be but the present moment.

However, our minds THINK that we are elsewhere, sometimes.  There are times in which we lose contact with the present moment to some extent, and are immersed in an imaginary experience of the future or past, or some other hypothetical realm.  These are realms of “was,” “could,” “should,” “might have been,” “ought to be,” “ought not to have been,” and so forth.  These are the psychological states that Buddhist practitioners call ‘clinging.’

The true meditation instruction is to NOTICE when we have pretty much lost contact with the present moment, and then gently return our attention to stimuli that are actually present in this moment.  It is skillful and expedient to use some kind of bodily sensation (such as breathing), as an anchor, as a place to which we return when we notice we’ve wandered.

Now, since the tendency of the mind is to wander — OFTEN — to such hypothetical realms, to engage in thinking, we therefore frequently end up finding ourselves returning the attention again, and again, and again, and again to the point we’ve chosen as our focus for meditation (be it breath, body sensations, sound, or a mantra).  And then we get frustrated.  We think, “I SHOULD be able to do this BETTER than I’m doing it!”  That is how our minds manufacture the “difficulty” of meditation.  There is actually no difficulty there, but because we believe our judgmental thoughts so habitually, we have an experience of conflict, of difficulty.

So is meditation easy or hard?

Yes, it is.

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