The other day, everything went wrong. It was one of those days that had all the ingredients for anxiety: money, miscommunication, bureaucracy, bad timing, bad weather, bad mood. And all these factors converged in a short time. I got frustrated, and when it sank in I really couldn’t fix all the things I wanted to fix, I got kind of wound up. Grumpy, but also antsy, like I just wanted to run around the block a few times. I wanted to listen to loud music in the car. I wanted to eat something that was bad for me, and too much of it.
I also did not want to do any of the opposite things. I didn’t want to slow down, or talk it through with someone. I didn’t want to do something gentle like yoga. And I definitely didn’t want to meditate.
Now, this might seem like the moment to say that meditation would have been just the thing in that moment, that it could have helped ground me or calm me down. But that isn’t what I want to say. Instead, I want to say that meditation shouldn’t be something we choose.
It seems to me that there are three basic ways to relate to meditation practice. One is to treat it as medicine. I hear this one a lot. Sometimes it takes the form of “I’m really stressed out—I should meditate.” In that scenario, stress is the symptom, and meditation is something like an aspirin, something to treat it on the spot. Another version is to say, “I was pretty rude to that guy at the station today—I guess I should meditate more.” In this version, some quality (equanimity, maybe, or kindness) operates in you in direct proportion to how much you meditate. So if you want to be kinder, meditate more. Simple.
A second way is to treat meditation as a fair-weather practice—not to turn to it when things are bad, but instead to only turn to it when it’s easy to do so. When it feels right. In this approach, you don’t meditate to feel or be a certain way; you meditate because you feel that way already, and feeling that way is conducive to meditating. If things are going well, you might sit every day, but on a day like the one I just had, you wouldn’t. It just wouldn’t seem like a fit.
Whether meditation is medicine or a complement to how you already feel, you’re choosing it based on circumstances. When the moment calls for it (or when the moment is right, or whatever), you sit, and when it’s not that kind of moment, you don’t. Every day, you have to revisit it. Every day, you have to negotiate the terms.
All of that makes sense, but if we practice that way, then we never get to find out what meditation really is. We’re evaluating it according to a metric we’ve invented, but that’s all? What if I’m stressed out, so I meditate, but then I don’t feel better? Does that mean meditation doesn’t work? And if I feel meditative so I meditate, what then? I’m only reinforcing how I already feel.
So we take up the third way: just meditate regardless. Not because we need it, not because it does this or that, not because it serves some specific purpose, but because by just sitting every day, we can let go of those questions and let it be what it is. When we allow for that, then we start to discover what it really does do—and what it doesn’t.
Some people hear this kind of talk and feel it’s a description of faith, and in a way, it is. It takes a kind of faith, I guess, to do something every day without any particular expectation or condition. But it’s also a letting go of faith, a stepping away from the belief that meditation does something. It’s a step into a realm where faith is kind of beside the point.
Some days, meditation is easy. Some days, it’s really, really hard to get to that cushion. So stop negotiating. Stop doing that thing where you lick your finger and hold it up to see if the wind is blowing in the right direction to sit today. Free yourself from that one decision, and see what unfolds.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.