Sometimes people think meditation isn’t for them because their minds won’t stay still. It’s as if they believe it should be easy to keep the mind free from thoughts, fantasies, memories, anticipations, and anxieties. It’s completely understandable; “just clear the mind and keep it calm” sounds easy. The problem is that some teachers don’t talk much about the mechanisms of why we meditate or what is reasonable to expect.
The reason we meditate is because we want to give primacy to our larger selves rather than our egos. It is the larger self, often called the soul, that approaches the world with an attitude of compassion, joy, and love. It is our egos that get caught up in shoulds, judgement of self and others, anticipation, regrets, and fears. When we’re meditating, we have the intention to stay in the present moment, and when we find ourselves moving into past or future, even a second into past or future, we bring our mind back to the present. Our egos cannot be in the present moment. Ego is only in play when living in the past or the future, even if it’s only a millisecond into past or future. The ego cannot simply be with what is.
When we meditate, what we’re doing is being with what is-- whether we focus on the breath, a candle flame, nature, or a mantrum. The more time we spend simply being present, the more we are calling our souls to the forefront of our experience. In this way, we strengthen the soul and weaken the ego.
The ego resists this process fiercely. The ego thinks that it is you, and that it is all the you there is. It does not want to get into the back seat and let the soul drive. Your ego will be smart about how it distracts you. It won’t just plant pleasant little thoughts. It will plant the thoughts that grab your attention, that either make you feel like you had better think about this right now, or sink you into a pit of regret, or provide a fantasy of anticipated ego tripping, or pop into mind an issue yet to be resolved. Notice that all of these examples are past or future, not present. Another of the ego’s sneaky tactics is to produce itches and tickles, hunger pangs, pain… anything to distract from being completely here and now.
The more time we spend simply being present, the more we are calling our souls to the forefront of our experience.
In this culture, when we learn a new task, we aim to do it correctly, preferably in a short amount of time. But with meditation, we need to adjust our expectations. It isn’t useful for a beginning meditator to expect to maintain stillness and presence for the duration of the meditation. It is more useful to keep bringing the mind back to the present, because in continually doing so, you are giving your mind to the soul’s control rather than to the ego’s control, hence strengthening the soul. Imagine if a strength trainer asked you to set a goal of lifting a 200 pound weight. You might start with a 5 pound weight, and you wouldn’t expect to be able to lift 200 pounds today, or even next month. You would know it takes time and practice to strengthen those muscles. Similarly, it takes time and practice to strengthen the soul’s presence.
It’s easy for us to have realistic expectations of weightlifting. It may be more difficult to have realistic expectations of meditation. This may be because meditation teachers don’t often talk about what success looks and feels like in the early stages of meditation. It’s reasonable for them not to do that because judgement and comparison are functions of the ego. If you start assessing your meditation practice while you’re meditating, you won’t be meditating; you’ll be judging, which is a function of the ego. When we judge we strengthen the ego. In fact, everything we do, think and feel strengthens either the ego or the soul.
We all have an inner critic that wants to judge us, and demands to know how we’re doing -- in comparison to others and sometimes ourselves. If you will only meditate with the approval of your inner critic, please tell it that spending one third of the meditation time actually fully present is good, right, a worthy goal and even something to be proud of… and at the same time, realize that all those judging words strengthen the ego.
We don’t really want to strengthen the ego, though, so here is something you can do. Before you start meditating, set the intention that you will lengthen the time between ego heists and that you will also notice early when the ego starts to distract you from being fully present. Every moment you spend in presence and every time you pull your ego out of the forefront, you’re loosening the ego’s grip on your sense of self. After your meditation, wonder what proportion of the time your soul was at the forefront of your experience, in full presence, simply being completely here and now.
Your full presence during your meditation will increase by setting the intention to maintain presence and return to presence, and by assessing afterward. But be careful to avoid judging yourself. Assessing only means looking into the proportion of time you were fully present; it does not mean feeling bad about yourself or giving yourself negative messages. And watch out for the positive side of judgment, too. It’s healthy to feel pleased about your progress, but ego tripping, which is essentially feeling better than others, feeds the ego and starves the soul.
Many everyday thoughts and actions feed either the soul or the ego. If you think about this on your own or discuss it with someone, you’ll be able to sense what is being strengthened. Try this: At the end of a day, look back through the day for a few moments that were memorable. Memorable moments usually involve intense emotion or judgment, sometimes both. In each of those moments, did your thoughts and actions feed the ego or the soul?
The more you strengthen the soul, the easier it is to meditate. And the more you meditate, which strengthens the soul, the easier it becomes to live in the present, in your true self.