How I’ve failed at meditation

I’ve been failing at meditation for a solid twenty years.

Alright. I suspect it isn’t possible to ‘fail’ at meditation, but I have walked away, frustrated, over and over again.

Conversely, of course, that means I have come back ‘to the mat’ over and over again. Something in me has persisted in believing that there would be value in this practice. And along the way, without realising, I have learned two decades’ worth of practical lessons about the process of meditation.

What I’ve learned about meditation

I have learned that I do not need to stop my thoughts or still my mind. I just need to keep noticing that I am thinking. Giving my mind something else to do, like watching my breath, or counting, or moving, helps it stay focused. Sometimes.

In the same vein, I have learned that a person can meditate anywhere, under any circumstance. I have learned that yoga or a body scan can be meditation. I have learned that my massage work can be meditation. I have learned that sitting cross-legged on my sofa with the fleece throw wrapped around me and the small cat on my lap is my natural setting: this is how meditation works best for me. (Small cat plus big cat on my lap is a rare bonus feature.)

I have learned that the days when my mind gnaws relentlessly on a problem, or solution, or fantasy I’m weaving, are just as much ‘meditation’, and just as valid, as the¬†days where I have a clear instant of absolute awareness and peace. I have not failed just because my mind has wandered. That is what the mind does. I have learned that I can always, always intentionally choose an instant of awareness and peace. I have learned that usually, I will forget to do so.

I have learned that what I’ve wanted from meditation has been exactly what has stood in my way. Once I stopped wanting anything at all except to do it, it became impossible to fail.

And once it became impossible to fail, I stopped needing to walk away.

What I’ve gained from meditation

Then, I started reaping amazing benefits. Immobilising panic attacks: vanished. Caught in my own delusions: well, of course I am, and usually I can’t tell, yet I have learned to doubt my own story about how right and justified I am in any situation. Happier, more at ease in the world, less afraid of engagement, more able Ellen and chickadeeto focus on others, more genuine, perhaps a little kinder: these states have crept up on me and made my daily life more enjoyable. Cranky, judgemental, short-tempered, overwhelmed: thank you, yes, these persist and keep me humble.

Summing up what meditation has given me so far is simple: the ability to recognise myself as the default centre of My Universe, but not the centre of The Universe; and the ability to step aside from any experience (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) and to see that it is only one of the choices open to me in this moment. There is space between me, and my reactions. Awareness and peace are always available.

How I learned to meditate

Encouraged by Leo Babauta’s assertion that the smallest increment possible builds the greatest success over time, I started by sitting down in my meditation spot. Every day. Bum on the cushion.

Then, using Apple’s Do Nothing for Two Minutes, I let myself be lulled into stillness for 120 seconds, day after day.

It felt good. I wanted more. As the days went on, I wrote down very realistic goals for increasing my meditation time; they were so modest, I easily exceeded them, which made me feel successful and made it easier to continue.

I haven’t missed a day in a year and a half, and it is not effortful to keep this habit going. Some days it is a long practice, sometimes short; sometimes focused, sometimes sleepy; sometimes filled with tears, and sometimes with incredible peace.


It is always good for me, and for the world. Because of meditation, it becomes possible for me to take my best, clearest self out and about, which creates a better environment for everyone around me.

Can you fail at meditation?

If you don’t already meditate, but you think you might like to, here’s what I recommend. Sit yourself down, close your eyes, and take a slow breath. Follow it in, follow it out. Don’t try to do it right, just do it. Every day. Pick a trigger (right before your morning coffee; right before reading in bed; while riding the bus to work) to make it easy to remember. After seven days, make it two breaths. You can’t fail.

A few resources

(Photo of Abbot of Watkungtaphao in Phu Soidao Waterfall from Wikipedia; all other photos (c) Ellen Symons)

The cardinal announces

His bright voice swoops
through bare branches, spreads
across the grass,

Woosh, and he sits on the wood fence

head bold as a warning
throat an unquenchable fire
wings like an ambush

Zooming across the garden

to his brown-and-rose mate at the top
of the stark old maple
he proclaims the day’s beginning.

The Garden, Uncovered

When the cardinal called out –
his song like drops of light spilling over a dawn field –
I ran outside

that first day of his voice
as Spring’s soft sun
opened the heart of the brisk, grey winds

I ran to answer him
then stopped

at the tender, naked garden
suddenly uncovered:

after months of snow
the smell of earth
rising to meet the bird’s song.