“I don’t feel anything.” How to get the benefits of meditation

A member of the Wisdom Heart community writes:

I’ve stopped and started meditation several times. While I’m sure I haven’t given it a fair trial, when I’ve done it I haven’t gotten anything out of it …. unlike exercising, for example. After a 25-minute jog I feel better. I don’t feel anything after a meditation session.

But I have stress and anxiety that I’d like to deal with better and meditation has great reviews when it comes to stress and anxiety. I’m willing to commit to 10 minutes/day and short deep breath breaks during the day but I can’t see going any further until I see at least a glimpse of benefit from it.

Thank you for writing.
You’d like to experience the benefits of meditation. (Me too!)
Given that we’re in the same boat, I have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is:
You can learn how to meditate
And experience the benefits.

The bad news is:
You’re never done learning how to meditate
The benefits will come – but not in the way you imagine.

The problem with the good news is that it sets you up for frustration.
You read about meditation and learn about all the amazing benefits. You listen to teachers and are inspired to practice. You want what they promise. You want the benefits.

Reading about meditation is like reading a menu.
As you read the menu, you create mental representations of the different items. You “taste” the food in your mind. When you read a description that generates a particularly tasty mental experience, you stop and say, “That sounds good. I’ll have that!”

Then the meal arrives.
No matter what you’ve imagined, the actual meal isn’t what you thought it would be. It’s not a thought; it’s what’s on your plate. The one you’re chewing on, tasting, and swallowing.

You may be disappointed or you may be ecstatic.
Either way – you’re experiencing something that is more primary than your initial ideas about the meal.
Your ideas are secondary representations of the meal. They’re not the meal; they got you to order the meal. Now you’re chewing on the real thing.

It’s the same with meditation.
Reading books and listening to teachings generates mental
representations of what meditation could be like. When you read a text or hear a teaching that generates a particularly pleasant mental experience, you stop and say, “That sounds good. I’ll have that!”
You start practicing.

You’d never start if you didn’t have an idea about the benefits.
So the reading, the listening, and the resultant idea generating is useful. It provides initial motivation. It gets you started. Teachings provide you with mental representations of what you want meditation to feel like and do for you.

Ideas get you to sit down.
That’s when the contrast between your ideas of how you want it to be and the way it is arises.
Because no matter how carefully you’ve constructed your mental representation, it will never match for the actual experience of this moment. This moment is what it is . . . despite your ideas and expectations.

This is true at restaurants and on the meditation cushion.
As you practice this contrast because more and more obvious.

  • How you meet this contrast is learning how to meditate.
  • How you meet this contrast is what will bring you benefits that you cannot imagine.

Notice the word . . . how.
This word how is the key to embracing the bad news about meditation that:
You’re never done learning how to meditate.
The benefits will come – but not in the way you imagine.

Any and all ideas about what meditation is or even can be are then seen for what they are – thoughts. Thoughts aren’t wrong or bad.

Thoughts are secondary.
These secondary mental constructions are useful as they motivate us to practice. They bring you to the cushion . . . but then it’s time turn from the mind’s fascination with secondary phenomenon to that which is primary.
What is primary?

The direct experience of this moment is primary.
While thoughts about benefits may bring you to the cushion, holding on to those thoughts will drive you away. Thoughts about peace of mind, awakening, freedom can bring you to the practice. But thinking won’t sustain practice. That’s not a problem. It’s just a realization of the limits of thought.

Once you’re on the cushion. thinking about how you would like this moment to be is a distraction.
Comparing your experience of this moment to your expectations and hopes will always end in disappointment. That’s guaranteed.
Still, you don’t have to push thoughts away (that only entangles you more and more.)

Honor thought for what it can do.
Once you’re on the cushion, thought has fulfilled its purpose. Now it’s time let go of assessing, measuring, and evaluating whether or not you’re getting what you thought you wanted. It’s time to open up to what is primary – the full and radiant experience of this moment.

This opening up is a practice.
You don’t push thoughts about meditation away. Where could they go, anyway?
Instead, you look deeply and see – thoughts have fulfilled their purpose. When you see this, your attention naturally shifts towards that which is primary.

And then, with a breath, thoughts dissolve.
As they do, a new vista emerges. A new awareness of the meaning and benefit of meditation. And you smile. Because what you experience, in this moment, is something you couldn’t have imagined.

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Showing 6 comments
  • dana buchman

    good morning, eric,
    yet another one of your (many) extraordinary dharma doodles–oh, my. how do you know?
    off for an early morning vote.

  • Stephanie

    Good morning Eric,
    A perfect way to explain meditation!!! I’ve ha the same thoughts, many times , as the person who wrote in regarding meditation. Once you get beyond expectations the experience is ever changing! Thank for sharing your insights, today’s post inspired me to keep letting go and welcome whatever shows up ony cushion ;) have a beautiful day!

  • Kylie

    Wow, what a fabulous post. I think it resonates with me because it feels familiar to me. There’s something so totally inexplicable about the “benefits” of meditation. And I love the way you talked about the primary and secondary thoughts and experiences as they relate to actually coming to and experiencing meditation. Thank you.

  • Bianca

    Really good! Thank you!

  • Kathleen Winfrey

    Meditation will give you a tranquil mind and will make you aware of the reality deep within. Though, you will not appreciate it at first try because it needs constant practice until your mind and body in ready to open up and be focus on your meditation. Till one day you will find yourself mindful of the process.

  • Bonnie Culler

    In meditation you can’t directly feel the effect of it, most specially if it is your first time. This will take time until you are used to it and you are really focused and submitting your whole self to the meditation practice. Then you will find peace and tranquility.

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