What Makes a “Good” Meditation?

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What Makes a “Good” Meditation?

By Tasha Friedman

How’s your meditation going?

A simple question, but not always easy to answer.

When you’re learning to cook or training to run long distances, for example, it’s fairly clear how things are going. Does it taste good? Are you able to run further or faster?

With meditation, things are not so straightforward. What makes for a “good” meditation? Is it a session in which you are very relaxed, or very focused? When you have no thoughts? When you see pure white light, or release some strong emotion, or have a profound insight?

You are entering a highly subjective inner world where the ordinary rules and measures of the mind do not apply—and will actually hold you back.

Yet if you want to go deeper in your practice, it is very helpful to understand what qualifies as progress in the path and what standards can be left aside.

Don’t Give Up

A good meditation is simply one in which you do not give up.

It’s very easy to give up in meditation without realizing it. An obvious mistake is if you have the intention to meditate for a certain amount of time but get frustrated and quit before the timer goes off. But you might give up in subtler ways, too.

For example, let’s say your mind is very agitated and keeps drawing you into an obsessive thought spiral. Not a problem in itself, but imagine that you’re resisting it, trying very hard not to have those thoughts—at that moment, you’ve stopped meditating. You’ve given up on that quality of spaciousness and equanimity that distinguishes true meditation from concentration.

Or let’s say you have the opposite reaction. You get tired of resisting and let yourself be swept away by the current. Whether the thoughts are pleasant or unpleasant, it might feel as satisfying as dropping into sleep when you’re worn out and nodding off.

But again, you’ve dropped what you were doing. Your one “job” while meditating is to stay present for as long as you can and come back to yourself as soon as you realize you’re lost. As long as you do this sincerely, to the best of your capacity at that moment, your meditation is a success.

It’s Not about Not Thinking or Feeling Good

The content of the mind does not matter in meditation. This is a major shift in perspective from ordinary life, where usually we give all of our attention to this content.

Some meditative techniques use specific mental content: objects of concentration, visualizations, mantras, etc. But the practice becomes meditation only when that object is transcended to some degree. The technique starts to eat itself, leaving the space around it to shine.

In Self-Inquiry, the object of meditation is the subject itself, the Awareness that witnesses all objects while having no form of its own. Awareness remains as it is, no matter what appears within it. It watches thoughts and mental content in the same way the Sun watches the Earth: without judgment, simply illuminating whatever its rays fall on.

Whether your thoughts are beautiful or horrible, and whether your mind is quiet or incessantly chattering, makes no real difference. When there are thoughts, you witness the mind filled with thoughts. When there are no thoughts, you witness an empty mind. The same space is there.

That space is easier to perceive when there are fewer thoughts, or when you can observe the gaps between thoughts, yet it is there all the same when your mind is very loud.

Sometimes, if you are able to witness the mind when it’s at its craziest, it can even highlight the background of Stillness all the more clearly. When your mind is loud and active, but you are quiet and still, it becomes obvious that you are not your thoughts.

Some people have exciting experiences during meditation. They may see bright lights, hear beautiful subtle sounds, have visions of angels or deities, or feel intense bliss. These experiences might be inspiring and encouraging, though if you get fixated on trying to recreate them and feel disappointed when you can’t, they may cause more trouble than anything else.

In any case, they are not the point of meditation. You can get by just fine without them.

Meditation doesn’t need to be anything flashy. It doesn’t even need to feel particularly good, at least not how we normally understand things to feel good. It doesn’t benefit the ego in any way.

Meditation is the simplest thing possible. It’s only the entertainment-seeking mind that wants to make it into something else.

Moments of Spaciousness

When you first started meditating, you might have had the idea that it was going to be all peace and quiet and were bitterly disappointed when you found you couldn’t sit for even a minute without getting lost in all sorts of thoughts. Your meditations were probably spent thinking, with perhaps a moment or two of silence if you were lucky.

With practice, it’s possible to have long periods of quiet in meditation. This takes time and careful training to develop, as well as some grace—it will not happen in every session, no matter how advanced your practice is.

Don’t look to this as a yardstick for how your meditation is going. Instead, pay attention to those brief moments when suddenly, like lightning from a clear blue sky, space appears.

You are lost in a train of thought, with one flowing right into the other, when you realize, “Ah, I’m thinking!” In that moment of shock, you remember where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a moment of clarity, of vivid self-awareness, of being awake.

Life is very fair in this field. The more time you spend in unconsciousness, falling into patterns and identification with thoughts, the more unconscious you’ll become. The more you remember to be present, the more often and easily you’ll remember.

This is precisely the “muscle” we want to strengthen in meditation: recognizing unconsciousness and stepping out of it. Becoming that flash of light.

Instead of a habit of following thoughts, you will develop one of circling back to Self-Inquiry. Thoughts arise, and they remind you of the one who is witnessing those thoughts.

With this understanding, a difficult meditation is a great practice. It gives you all the more opportunities to strengthen that habit of Self-remembrance.

Staying with the Echoes 

After a meditation where it seems nothing has gone right, you might still notice something has changed. The bell rings, the pressure is released, and as you open your eyes and stretch out your legs, you finally feel that peace and relaxation you were hoping for during the meditation session.

Go outside, enjoy the touch of leaves and the color of the sky. Everything seems brighter and clearer, a little closer to you somehow.

This is the blessing of meditation, which you may receive whenever you give your heart to the practice.

Resting in Stillness brings deep purification, even when there’s agitation on the surface. It’s a process that runs ever deeper with time and repetition. While you might not enjoy the fruits of meditation in every sitting, gradually, the echoes ripple out through your entire being, and life itself starts to take on a different hue.

You can’t really evaluate your progress from any single meditation, but only by looking at the course of your practice and of your life in general. Your practice blossoms into more moments of peace, an appreciation of beauty, and openness to the ineffable, both on and off the meditation cushion. You know your practice has taken root when you naturally remain calm and loving in situations that used to provoke you, and when you feel trust in the face of what you used to fear.

Surrender More

“Sometimes, meditation is nothing but an unsuccessful struggle to turn ourselves to God, to seek His Face by faith. Any number of things beyond our control may make it morally impossible for one to meditate effectively. In that case, faith and goodwill are sufficient. If one has made a really sincere and honest effort to turn himself to God and cannot seem to get his wits together at all, then the attempt will have to count as a meditation. This means that God, in His mercy, accepts our unsuccessful efforts in the place of a real meditation. Sometimes it happens that this interior helplessness is a sign of real progress in the interior life—for it makes us depend more completely and peacefully on the mercy of God.” –Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

This quote is often shared during Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreats as part of the teachings on surrender.

Faith, goodwill, trust, pure intention, and complete humility: these are the fundamental ingredients of a coherent spiritual life. We must be humble regarding our ability to accomplish anything through our own effort, including accomplishments in meditation.

In reality, we have much less control and understanding of our inner processes than we often wish or believe. Effort and discipline are important, but at a certain point, that same ego that tries so hard and wants to make things happen is exactly what you must surrender. This is a challenge, but also the greatest joy of going deeper into a meditative process.

The mind is very capable of creating the best conditions for meditation, and this is where discipline, concentration, and techniques are helpful. You use these like you would a bucket to catch rainwater.

A good meditation eventually burns through the techniques that created it, and even through the concept of meditation itself.

Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

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