The practice of meditation is not the practice of not being distracted.
It is the practice of bringing yourself
back from distraction
I remember learning how to meditate in college. I walked to the hippie liberal commune house on campus, where they had the drum circles (same drum circle that was linked to a case of anthrax, fun fact) and the protest sign making parties and met for the carpools down to the School of the Americas every year. But I wasn’t going to any of that, because that was 2008, and I was still feeling slightly guilty about how much I loved Thomas Merton (was he really orthodox??) and yes, I was lined up to vote for John McCain, and in a lot of ways I was pretty similar to how I am now – careful about new things, a little worried about my intellectual castles being raided by strangers, and working very hard to protect my religious identity from threats without and within.
But meditation seemed generally safe.
So every Thursday night, I’d walk across campus from my philosophy seminar comparing Nietzsche and Charles Taylor (we were pretty weird in my department, in all the good ways) across the little wooded side street to the hippie commune house full of gays and Marxists and Buddhists to learn to meditate.
We were a weird circle. Geeks, outsiders, the people on the edges, wearing big glasses that weren’t cool yet and making awkward small talk about Debussy or Dawkins. A few philosophy professors, some friendly neighbors, my Catholic pacifist anarchist friend showing up when he wasn’t protesting something. We’d get comfy on our cushions, I’d take off my glasses, and then – ding. Ding. Ding.
There we were.
The first thing I learned about myself while I meditated was son of a bitch I am bad at this. I am absolutely total shit at meditating.
My mind just goes. There is so much going on that sitting down to meditate felt like sitting down in a room full of terrified cats and being told you have 4 minutes to get them all in a box. There are too many cats. And they don’t stop moving!
My back kind of hurts. I’m supposed to be sitting up straight but that seems to be a lot of work and aren’t I supposed to be relaxing? I have really bad posture, I should start doing some back exercises to fix my posture. I haven’t really been running lately either, I wonder if I could run around campus. But then where would I shower? I wonder if Jenny would let me use her shower at her apartment. She seems super mad at me these days but isn’t really telling me why. I wonder if I should ask her about it or just let it go.
Whir whir whir.
Remember, the leader says before our next meeting. Meditation doesn’t mean not being distracted. If you never get distracted, you aren’t meditating. The definition of meditation is bringing yourself back from distraction. The distraction defines the meditation. Without distraction, there is no meditation. Bring yourself back.
That’s what it means to meditate.
Ah and this right here is why I’m so bad at meditation.
Because when I get distracted, I stay distracted.
I give up.
Eh damnit, lost focus. Welp, guess this session is a loss. Might as well think about what I’ll eat for dinner tonight.
Eh, well, I broke my running streak, so I guess I might as well stop running altogether.
Eh, I gossiped about that horrible person to one friend, may as well gossip about her to everyone.
I had a bad day, bad week, bad month, might as well fold over and call it a year.
In life, in meditation, coming back from distraction is much harder than staying focused.
But in life, just like in mediation, the practice is not the practice of perfection. The practice isn’t achieving a zen state of holiness, of fitness, of kindness, of prophetic wisdom, of sexual clarity, of relational sanctification, of faith and hope and love.
The practice is knowing how to come back – when you are not holy. When you are a blob of inactivity and sugar binges. When you’ve been really, really mean. When you have substituted self-righteous proclamations for mournful holy rage. When you are faithless, hopeless, loveless –
That’s the moment that the practice begins.
Before that, there is no practice.
The gritty, tenuous, meaningful way to dig your way through life is to get up every day expecting, anticipating that you will, in some way, in some action or inaction, fail yourself, fail your neighbors, and fail your God.
And that doesn’t mean that you’ve Capital F Failed, that the meditation has failed, that you need a Scarlett O’Hara moment of tomorrow is another day, because today’s art has been ruined by the spilled paint on top of it.
I think real art, real human life art, is spilled paint on barely-started canvas. I think real, fully lived, totally human life means finding yourself in the middle of a series of poor choices, and then finding your way through a series of decisions to come back.
I am tired of throwing out canvases just because a little paint, or a lot of paint, got tipped on top of it.
That mistake, what you do with that mistake, and what you let God do with that mistake, is the practice itself.
I never really learned to meditate well. I still don’t bring myself back from distraction very much when I’m sitting cross legged on my wood floor and the dogs are barking or the school buses are passing or my foot has fallen asleep.
But I am learning how to come back from distraction, every day, in little things, in big things. I’m learning how to see the spilled paint creatively. I’m learning how to not wait until tomorrow to start fresh, but to work with whatever silly mess has happened today.
I’m learning to come back.