Six years ago this month, I meditated for the first time.
I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things about the practice, and thankfully, I’m still learning. There’s more ahead for me than there is behind, but I’d like to share a few brief insights into what meditation practice has been for me as well as what it hasn’t been. Because often, there are just as many misconceptions about spiritual practice from newcomers as there are genuine truths. Hopefully this clears some of it up for those of you who are seeking to embark on such a journey.
And make no mistake—it is a journey.
1. It’s not about self-improvement.
Meditation/Spirituality isn’t about becoming some ideal version of yourself or someone “better.” It’s about learning to sit with who you are, and discovering what lies beyond what you think about yourself. Because ultimately, that’s all self-improvement boils down to: trying to live up to a hyper-limited idea you’ve built in your head about what you should be. What you actually are is much, much bigger than that. Discovering it just takes some digging—or in this case, sitting.
2. You can’t think yourself there.
What I mean by this is that simply thinking about spirituality doesn’t make you spiritual and on this point I’m speaking from experience. While study is very important to the path, without practice, it’s just a collection of thoughts you can rattle off to people to convince them (and yourself) you’re some kind of guru. It’s like calling yourself an explorer, having watched a bunch of National Geographic specials and never left the house. Sure, it gives you something to talk about, but it lacks experience. And it’s experience that actually gets you somewhere.
3. It requires discipline.
You can file this one under “duh,” but it’s tougher—a LOT tougher—than it sounds. It can’t be an “if I have the time, I’ll do it” practice, because you’ll never have the time—other things will find a way to take priority, be it Game of Thrones, sleeping in or Instagram. You have to make the time, and commit to it each day. Will you fall off the wagon? Sure. I know I did (and at times, still do). But I also know what my life looks and feels like when devoid of a daily practice and it’s that feeling that brings me back to it each time.
4. It’s not always going to be enjoyable.
This is where discipline is paramount. There will be days where sitting is the last thing you want to do. Perhaps you’re not getting the same benefits from it that you once were. Or maybe you’ve touched something painful, like a repressed memory. If you practice enough, you’re going to run into some parts of yourself you’ve ignored for a long, long time—what Carl Jung called the Shadow. While it won’t be pleasant (it sucks) it’s an inevitable and necessary part of the process. It is like opening a door to a room that’s been ignored for a long time: you’ve forgotten its contents, but after airing it out, it becomes a part of the house again.
5. It will give you superpowers.
Not true. I just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.
6. You don’t have to be Buddhist to meditate…
Ever heard of Lectio Divina? No, it’s not a Hogwarts spell…it’s a form of Christian contemplative practice from the 6th Century that combines prayer, scripture reading, and, you guessed it, meditation. Many great modern Christian theologians such as Thomas Merton and Fr. Thomas Keating encourage contemplative practice as a means to better understand Christ and God; in fact, Fr. Keating runs an organization called Contemplative Outreach and offers instruction on centering prayer. Not particularly religious? Check out Jiddu Krishnamurti, Carl Jung or Ken Wilber. Any way you look at it, there is no ideological prerequisite to meditation. All you need is the willingness to practice, a teacher and a community, which leads me to my next two points.
7. …but you do need a teacher…
And the internet is not it. Articles, books and videos can teach you the “how” and “why,” but not the “I’ve been at this for a while…what now?” or “what do I do when [insert specific memory here] opens up?” While meditation instruction itself is relatively simple and can be adopted by anyone, each person’s individual path is very very different. You need someone who has made the journey themselves so that they can: (a) recognize what you’re going through and prescribe practices accordingly, and (b) hold you accountable. Accountability is just as important as the prescribed practice. Left to our own devices, meditation will become a sort of “in and out” affair— practicing only when we feel we need to.
8. …and a community.
Speaking of community, if you’re reading this, you probably live in or near Shreveport, LA and have an interest in meditation and/or spirituality. The Refuge Meditation Group is at 622 Jordan St., and we meet at 7:00 on Wednesday nights. Just so you know.
Anyway, back to the community stuffs. Human beings are wired to thrive in social environments— it’s how we’ve survived for hundreds of thousands of years without sharp claws, big muscles or fast legs, comparatively speaking. There’s strength in numbers, and the spiritual journey is no different. Like the teacher, the group offers support and accountability, but it also provides perspective. It is in others that we are able to see what’s going on in ourselves; through the honesty of others we ourselves are encouraged to be so; through their vulnerability our own is exposed; and when we encounter difficulty, it is the group that encourages us to push on.
9. It doesn’t just happen on the cushion.
I’ve heard Ben Riggs (teacher at the Refuge Meditation Group) talk about this for years, and while I knew it was true and experienced it in some aspects of my life, I’m now beginning to see that meditation is a part of every aspect of my life. Not just in my job and my relationships, but the mundane things— like mowing the lawn, brushing my teeth, and cleaning the kitchen. Anything and everything can be done mindfully. Meditation becomes like a tree, sprouting new branches that stretch into every aspect of my life. The more I practice, the deeper into my life the limbs expand.
10. It’s not an overnight process.
That speaks for itself. I started meditating six years ago, and I am still at it today.
11. You can’t ignore the body.
This one might be a bit touchy, but I believe it’s true. While a major aspect of meditation is getting out of our heads and exploring the awareness of the body, this isn’t what I mean. I’m talking about regular physical activity, be it running, yoga, gardening, or hell, Zumba. Meditation does involve body awareness practices, but nothing supplements it quite like physical activity. No one is more aware of his or her body than they are after a 10 mile run, or 2 hours of gardening in the summer heat. Prolonged spiritual practice also makes us more aware that our life is precious, and that we should take care of it. This is an area where the “limbs” of meditation begin to inhabit—we realize that regular activity, although uncomfortable for a period of time, improves our quality of life drastically.
12. It’s about touching the earth.
I’m not going to tell you what this one means. I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.
Michael Scott is a man of many masks. He spends his time as a loving husband and friend, dedicated high school teacher, liberal arts graduate student, avid chess player, semi-musician, mythology lover, and comic book enthusiast. He’s currently in the process of adding “woodworker” and “writer” to that list. He teaches various English courses at Captain Shreve High School, his own alma mater, and is a member of the Refuge Meditation Group.