Up Against a Wall? Sources of Unnecessary Confusion
Writings | Basics

Many problems in meditation practice come from confusion about what we think should happen, what we want to happen, and what actually happens. One way to clear up this confusion is to be clear about the purpose, method, effects and results of meditation practice.

The purpose of meditation practice is to cultivate attention. The method is what we do to cultivate attention: place attention on the breath and rest. Effects are the experiences that arise in meditation practice. Results are the qualities and abilities that develop from doing the practice.

Consider the same four categories in the context of running. The purpose of jogging is to be physically fit. The method is to regularly run a set distance or time at a set pace. The effects of running vary. You are energized and invigorated on some days, tired and worn out on others, stiff or sore on some days, flexible and relaxed on others. The effects vary from day to day, on some days positive, on other days negative. The results are increased strength, muscle tone, endurance and general fitness.

The same distinctions apply to meditation. The purpose is to cultivate attention. The method is placing and resting attention on the breath. The effects are varied. On some days, meditation is like a peaceful rest in infinite open space. On other days, it is more like a struggle through a howling storm. On some days, attention is clear and stable. On other days, all we experience is distraction and pain. The results are an increase in the level of attention, the ability to stay in attention in both formal practice and daily life, and less reactivity in our lives.

Confusing effects and results with method

New students often tell me how frustrated they are with meditation. They’ve read a book or two and the instructions include such phrases as “Open your mind,” “Be centered,” “Let your mind be empty,” or “Be one with your body.” They can’t figure out what to do. That’s because these “instructions” are some of the effects of practice, and not methods.

When students sit down and try to feel centered, try to open their minds, and try to be one with their bodies, nothing happens and they end up feeling frustrated.

Tell a tense person to relax and he will usually become tenser in the effort. He is tense because he doesn’t know how to relax. Tell him to take a deep breath, let it out slowly, then take another breath, and let it out slowly. Then he will relax. The method is breathing slowly and deeply. The result is relaxation. In meditation, the method is resting attention on the breath. When you do this, you will, at some point, feel centered, your mind will open and relax, and you will feel more connected with your body.

Confusing effects with purpose

People often come to meditation with the express intention to feel centered or to experience a clear mind, free from thoughts. After a week or two of practice, they are frustrated or disappointed “I can’t meditate,” they say. “My mind is all agitated, and when it’s not agitated, I fall asleep. This obviously doesn’t work.” They have confused the purpose of practice with the effects. They haven’t yet appreciated that meditation requires effort in repeatedly returning to the breath and working through distractions such as agitation and dullness. Clear, stable attention develops from practice, not just because you decide to have a clear mind. To view turbulence as an error rather than something to work with is to confuse effects with purpose. Such an attitude undermines confidence and prevents attention from developing.

To avoid such problems in meditation or in any other discipline, be clear about these elements. Know the purpose, understand what to do and do just that. Observe what arises but don’t get caught up in experience, and be patient and consistent in the practice. Let the results develop over time.

and Examples
Meditation Exercise
aim of practice
cultivating attention staying fit
what you do
return to what is
already there and rest
experiences arising
from practice
dull, distracted, relaxed,
clear, stable, anxious
energized, invigorated,
stiff, sore, tired
abilities that
develop over time
increased clarity and
stability in attention,
less reactivity
increased strength,
stamina and muscle tone