All Work and no Play Makes Zack’s Meditation Devoid of Joy

By Zack Lynn

My first experience of meditation came when I was a young teenager while listening to a self-relaxation cassette tape that my mother had obtained from somewhere. The instructions were very vague and simple, mostly dealing with breath and body sensation, so I improvised and found ways to take myself deeper. I remember feeling a sense of relaxation and profound quiet that I had never experienced before. I played with the techniques described on that tape for a year and often used them to fall asleep or to relax when I was feeling particularly stressed, but eventually I forgot about that tape and the experiences that I had.

My first actual instruction in meditation came in college from a man with whom I was taking an off-campus speed reading class. I’m not sure of the exact instructions, but they were something like “just sit there and clear your mind and meditate.” I followed his instruction for weeks, but began to believe that I was a failure because no matter how hard I tried, I could not force the thoughts from my mind or relax my body. The harder I tried, the louder my mind became. So, as often happens with meditators, I quit practicing. I wasn’t even open to the idea of meditation because I knew I couldn’t do it.

When I tried to meditate again, I developed a somewhat dedicated practice, but was still finding that I was “bad” at it and often stopped. It was just one more thing at which I failed so instead of the practice providing useful insight, it was just another activity in my life that made me feel inadequate. Finally, I found my stride and now have a deeply satisfying and healthy practice that enhances my life and it’s experiences and, for that, I am truly grateful.

As a new meditation teacher, I’m “surprised” to hear that many people have similar stories. In some ways it saddens me that so many people tend to struggle with a practice that might be as intuitive and natural as reaching for a glass of water or taking a breath. In response, I have begun to view myself not as a teacher who offers a set of techniques that must be followed, but as a fellow human being who may have some had some insight that others might find useful in their practice. My role has become to support them in whatever way is appropriate for their wellbeing.

In his book Meditation Made Easy, Dr. Lorin Roche describes some mistakes people make when learning to meditate. Near the top of his list is what he terms “technique-itis”, which happens when a practitioner is tied to a particular technique or instruction even though it’s not working for them. In many cases, this happens because of something that he or she has read, or because a teacher or friend has told them that “this is the way to meditate” and they assume that it’s the “right” way. Unfortunately, some teachers even proclaim that their way is the only proper way for everyone.

I think it is important to understand is that many of the techniques and practices to which we are exposed come from monastic lineages. Is that a problem? Maybe. Keep in mind that monks and nuns have chosen a lifestyle that goes beyond just a meditation technique. It’s a lifestyle that is much different from the life led outside of a monastery. They spend years meditating for hours a day, every day, with the support of teachers and peers. It’s important to remember that they don’t have jobs outside the monastery, spouses, children, mortgages, or many of the other things that we “householders” juggle in our lives. Is it realistic to assume that the techniques used by sadhus will be healthy for us? Maybe not.

I’m not saying that any meditation techniques aren’t useful. They exist because they work for some, possibly large, groups of people. But are they all useful all of us? Absolutely not. A particular technique that is fantastically healthy and useful to one person could be downright unhealthy and even devastating to another. If someone is injured, most people agree that certain asanas should not be practiced if they could make the injury worse. Why would we view meditation any differently?

As a meditation teacher I believe that the best way to support my students is to view each as a unique individual with thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs that are different from anyone else’s. I try to meet them where they are now and offer a variety of practices with which they can experiment. Then they can determine their usefulness for themselves. In the end, a technique isn’t even required. After all, meditation is something so natural that we as humans are practically programmed to do it—just practices and techniques that are there to help us along.

As an individual practitioner, I offer this advice: Take a realistic and honest look at the way you are meditating. If you find that it’s perfect for you, then please develop it further as you’re ready. However, if you consistently walk away from your practice feeling frustrated, inadequate or anything less than content, I hope that you will muster up a sense of adventure and try something else. If that doesn’t work out, your old practice will still be there waiting for you.

You see, for many years I forgot about my first experience where I was able to play, experiment, and do what came naturally. It took many years for that circle to complete, but once it did, I created a practice that is deeply gratifying…and healthy.