How to Meditate When You're Really, Really Bad at Meditating
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How to Meditate When You’re Really, Really Bad at Meditating


how-to-meditate-when-youre-really-bad-at-meditationSit quietly. Keep sitting. DON’T MOVE. Do this for 10 minutes. Surely, you have 10 minutes. You spend at least that much time reading your Facebook notifications. Keep breathing…Wait. Am I breathing wrong? Can you breathe wrong? Is that even possible? Need to Google that later. Hey, this feels okay. I should try 20 minutes next time. Ugh. My stomach is growling. Shut up down there. I’m trying to be spiritual. Hmm. Should I have tacos for lunch? That sounds good. Or maybe I just want guacamole. Is that my phone vibrating? I bet it’s been 10 minutes anyway. Oh. It’s only been three. Dammit.

And so it goes nearly every single time I sit down to meditate. This is particularly unfortunate, because ever since I got sober all anyone has told me is how fantastic meditation is. There’s all sorts of science that backs this up and celebrities who are big fans. So I really, really want to be amazing at meditation. My body, my spirit and most likely the other people who come in contact with me would all be thankful if I meditated more. But the reality is I sort of suck at it.

I did it once in the backroom of a coffee shop in Silver Lake with the lights turned out. It was the summer of 2010, and I was chicken-sitting (like one does in Silver Lake) and I had become a regular at a meditation meeting on Wednesday nights. It was a typical AA meeting, but with five minutes of meditation at the beginning and 20 minutes again at the end. I was trying to meditate every day for 30 minutes at the chicken house with varying success, so this meeting was a Godsend. I found it really helpful at the time, but if I’m honest, the appeal of the meeting certainly had more than a little to do with the cute, messy haired, tattooed guys in skinny jeans that could be found there. Whatever the motivation, it was helpful to meditate with other people. I mean—if all these cool kids could sit still for 20 minutes in the dark and pretend not to hear the milk foaming in the background, or the Latina girls laughing outside, then gosh darn it so could I. It’s amazing what I’m capable of when I want to fit in. Plus, I was new to meditation and only 18 months sober so hearing others share about their “practice” kind of blew my mind open.

Some people would admit that they only rarely meditated, but felt good anyway. Others would share about this elaborate process wherein incense, music and the proper lighting were all employed to create a perfect meditation setting. But the ones who really ticked me off were the happy types who chirped that they prayed and meditated every day since they got sober and it’s always been peachy keen with nary a day off nor an off day in sight. Well, good for them, I thought to myself while listening to their shares. I personally had to work really hard to sit still and even when I was able to tough out the entire 20 minutes (be it with hipsters at the meeting or by my lonesome) it was always a battle.

Look, I don’t know if I have ADD or dyslexia or any other undiagnosed disorder from childhood that might make the simple act of sitting down really difficult. But I do know that in the 1980s kids like me always had “talks too much” or “disrupts the entire class” routinely put on their report cards. I never sat still as a child, and sure the hell didn’t as an adult. As a flighty, cocaine-fueled social butterfly in my 20s and a drunk who didn’t exactly want to savor the moment in my 30s, being present was never my thing. It felt overrated. Like, really. Why would I stay here and look at my life when I could be high and avoid everything?

Nevertheless, when I got sober, self-reflection is something I had to do in spades. There was so much writing, confessing and thinking about how it all went tragically awry and how I could I live today differently to avoid going through it again. Prayer and meditation were just another part of this 12-step gig. In the beginning, I was totally on board. My brain was Jell-O after 20 years of drinking and drugs, so I basically did whatever people told me that might make me feel better. Praying was a piece of cake even though I’m not religious. I basically prayed to Whatever to keep me from killing myself—and it seemed to be working, so hooray for that! But meditation was more foggy. There wasn’t ever clear guidelines or a solid how-to on the topic. (Okay, maybe there was—but I hate self-help books, and with my gnat-like attention span attending a weekend retreat or seminar on meditation was out of the question.) The only thing that ever worked for me was hearing how other people did it, even the perfect ones who seemingly never struggled like me.

Flash forward—five years later and I’m back in a meeting in Los Angeles at one of my old haunts with my second sponsor and a group of beloved friends. The speaker was a woman with 30 plus years of sobriety. She shared that after 29 years sober she was finally able to meditate for 10 minutes a day, 3 times a week. I exhaled. This felt like a bombshell. After three decades of sobriety, she only did this little amount? I would have thought she’d be walking on water by now and able to sit in silence for days at a time. Yet here she was, smiling proudly at her tiny, normal meditation process. Her practice sounded doable and realistic—unlike the strenuous one I was attempting back in early recovery in the chicken house. If she could be okay with just trying to meditate for a little bitty amount of time, then I could be too.

I soon started to meditate 10 minutes a day in the morning. Yes, I’d still squirm or think about what I was going to eat or watch on Amazon Prime later. The point is, like this lady (whose name I didn’t even get), I was trying.

Today, I’m still sort of terrible at this spiritual practice thing. Just last week after sitting in a meeting with me, my sponsor suggested, “Maybe you need to up the prayer and meditation part of your day.” Busted. He has seen my brand of crazy enough times that he can spot it from across the room. He was right, of course. I’ve got a lot of chaos happening with juggling multiple commitments and getting ready to move, so a little extra time to breathe couldn’t be a bad thing. It’s the one part really missing from my recovery diet, and I’ve been feeling it.

But the good news is I know now that meditation doesn’t have to be some marathon thing that I need to be great at every single time. As a matter of fact, I’ve recently discovered that it can happen in five minutes, or three or even one minute. I’ve even begun to get more flexible about when and where it happens. Maybe it can’t go down every morning—that’s okay. I can do it at work, at night or even on a walk. Also, there are some folks who say that you can’t actually be “bad” at meditating. With a cell phone alarm set to a realistic goal and a little forgiveness, I’m willing to keep trying, and to me that’s what being good at meditation is all about.

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About Author

Sean Paul Mahoney is a writer, playwright, blogger, tweeter, critic, podcaster and smartass for hire. He lives in Portland, Oregon with two ridiculous cats and one amazing husband. His book of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying will be published by Zephyr Bookshelf in fall 2018.