Are We Actually Meditating During Meditation?

How much of our attention during any one meditation is actually meditative? Are our meditations truly meditations? Sadly, I had this thought on two mornings set aside for meditating.

Once one has devoted oneself to having a regular meditation practice, it is easy to become complacent with oneself. The first hurdle was even being able to sit quietly for 10 minutes. The second was being able to do so a bit more regularly. Then after some years there comes a time when one meditates perhaps twice a day virtually without fail, and it seems as if one has accomplished something. Something, sure, but accomplishment? Doubtful. Man, we’re just getting started.

Some will say that a meditation is good so long as you continue to do it. Some have said that a meditation is good no matter how much “noise” or “chatter” there is. I don’t buy either, both seeming just examples of the ways I too can be complacent. If meditation is anything, it’s not about ticking off boxes.

For during your meditation, you could be gathering wool, planning your day, worrying about a deadline or family member, puzzling through a math problem, recalling memories from adolescence, fantasizing, devising fictional philosophical conversations, strategizing, and so on. Are we really going to say that a 30-40 minute period in which one has thought solely of these matters and others counts as a meditation? If it does count as one, are we going to say that it was a good one?

The great danger in meditating so often is that one isn’t doing much meditating. You can begin to grasp how greedy your thinking truly is: the ego likes its own thoughts and, being exceptionally greedy, always wants more of them. You might say, “How could someone who is sad want more of her own thoughts, which continue to be sad? Doesn’t she not want to be sad?” Yes, she doesn’t want to be sad and she may not like her sad thoughts, but she prefers sad thoughts to non-attachment to her thoughts. Scarier than having sad thoughts is cultivating an apatheia toward one’s thoughts.

Because I’m a philosopher, I’m especially aware of the danger that meditation can be used to perpetuate our greedy thinking while we delude ourselves afterward into believing that we’ve been meditating. A philosopher is, if nothing else, someone who loves thinking, indeed, loves to think about thinking. Letting go of such a love during meditation is like letting go of a good friend, perhaps my best friend.

Now, though, and for quite some time, there has been born in me (as I hope also in you) a spark, a conflict. On the one hand, the ego greedily and possessively thinks, always wanting more of its own thoughts. On the other hand, something within us, something deeper, naturally moves toward not being attached to our thoughts. What ensues is a good struggle between wanting to think, this default wanting like a steady motor or a humming, and resting into what is “beneath” or “below” the stream of thoughts. In this subtle awareness (which is not yet and by no means non-duality), the gaze is subtly perched or held, the attention finding this space of otherwise. That attention is, at least for me, not held for long, it is overcome by the ego’s slow-moving yet hungry thoughts, yet if there is vigilance it returns again and again during the period when I’m meditating.

Despite what is commonly said, there is a certain force applied during meditation to ensure that one’s attention moves in the direction of this “place” of non-attachment. If we’re not vigilant, then we’ll easily slip back into feeding and feeding off of our own thoughts. And if we continue to feed off of our own thoughts, then either we’ll not be meditating at all or not well anyway. Sadly, we’ll not only be cultivating self-delusion, believing that we were meditating when we clearly were not, but also self-importance, insisting that we just accomplished something. And meditating, whatever it is, is no accomplishment; it is anything but.