There is No Such Thing as a “Bad” Meditator

by Mindy Newman

If someone had suggested to me a few years ago that it would be a good idea for me to publicly share my experience with meditation by writing about it in a blog post, I frankly would have thought that they were insane and considered politely urging them to seek mental health treatment. My stream of consciousness probably would have gone something like: “I am a terrible meditator. I don’t have any discipline. My mind is an absolute mess. I don’t even like meditating. What is wrong with this person — isn’t is obvious that I am awful at this?” I really believed there was something wrong with me — a Buddhist practitioner who hated meditation, and I felt tremendous shame about it.

Nalanda Institute meditation. photo by Darren Ornitz

Students of the Contemplative Psychotherapy Program practicing meditation while on retreat at Menla Mountain House. Photo by Darren Ornitz.

For years, I sat in meditation classes and imagined that everyone else on the cushion was having some kind of better experience. I’d heard enough instructions from different teachers about the ubiquity of the “monkey mind” to accept that distraction was normal, but surely my amount of distraction was too much — much more than normal — and definitely more than anyone else’s.

The fantasies about other people’s meditation were endless: everyone else was able to gently return to the object of meditation, and if not, then to patiently tolerate their mind when it was unfocused and crazy. Everyone else’s visualization was clear, steady, and included all the minute details. Everyone else could discipline themselves to meditate daily, or at least more days than not. And so on and so forth.

While I am certainly not blaming anyone else for the way I reified myself as a “bad” meditator — my own long-held habits of intense self-criticism and a propensity to feeling shame were the main ingredients in this destructive pattern — there were traditional meditation instructions that unfortunately played right into this dynamic. I’ve heard multiple teachers say, “in all the time we are sitting on the cushion, we are actually meditating only a tiny bit of the time,” meaning that when were distracted or lost in thought, it doesn’t “count” as meditation. The frequent use of the word “laziness” is particularly unhelpful for someone like me. I also once heard a teacher refer to a certain category of people as “good meditators,” which implied that there are other people who are the opposite of that — of course, to my mind, that included me. This is not to say that these instructions are harmful for everyone; in fact, it may be that for some people it is exactly what they need to hear. But for me, when left unchallenged by my own reasoning or by taking in other types of views, they fed into a vicious cycle of self-criticism and de-motivation.

The dharma has a way of, like a magnet, drawing up all of the things within us that need healing.

I’m happy to say that over time, I’ve been able to dissolve this false view of myself as a “bad” meditator. One of the most important things that changed it was initiating honest conversations with other people, both teachers and peers, about relating to one’s mind, rather than sitting silently fearing exposure and embarrassment. And I learned that I was not alone, and that there was no reason for shame. When a very kind meditation teacher asked the students in a class on self-compassion that I was attending to verbalize why we struggled with sitting every day, I finally spoke the words out loud: “I avoid meditation because it is very hard for me to face what’s happening in my mind.” She looked at me with great compassion and said “Meditation is a courageous act. It takes courage to sit down and take a look at our minds.” Those words still bring tears to my eyes, even when I write them now.

I was also very fortunate to have found a compassionate, attuned therapist who is not only a very good match for me, but also a Buddhist practitioner. Within this relationship I have been able to safely explore the origins of my patterns of self-criticism and start to unhook the unconscious narrative that I need to be hard on myself or I will be unlovable or somehow “bad,” which was playing out in my meditation practice. I have become convinced that any serious practitioner of Buddhism needs to be in therapy. The dharma has a way of, like a magnet, drawing up all of the things within us that need healing. In my experience, when dharma practice is combined with good therapy it really becomes a powerful force for change.

Amazingly, once my attitude towards my mind and what was happening in it softened, my focus and concentration almost instantly became more settled. I hadn’t needed to try harder or discipline myself more — I needed to let go. Over time, I have continually found that I almost never need to “sharpen up” in terms of my efforts with meditation or anything else, I almost always need to keep softening, keep letting go, keep allowing whatever is happening to be ok. Sometimes I remind myself right before I sit down to meditate, “Whatever happens in today’s practice is totally fine. I fully accept whatever happens.” And believe it or not, I do meditate basically every day now. And I actually enjoy it.

I write this post with the hopes that it will helpful to someone else out there who is struggling with being too hard on themselves, and is therefore missing out on the joy that meditation can bring. There is no such thing as a “bad” meditator. As long as you are sincerely trying to stay with the object and intention of your meditation, you are meditating. The benefits will reveal themselves in their own time.

Editor’s Note: Mindy Newman often leads our meditation sessions. We offer Lunchtime Meditation Monday through Thursday and Tuesday evening meditation. “Bad,” new, and experienced meditators welcome! View our calendar for details. And jump-start your practice with some of our free guided meditations.

Elsewhere — Mindy Newman is the featured teacher for Meditation Month at Follow this link for information about Mindy’s wonderful guided video meditations on Tricycle.