How can “failing” to meditate be useful in any way at all? If you are like me, and you have trouble keeping those well-meaning, if sometimes over-ambitious, New Year’s Resolutions, please give me one minute of your valuable time, and keep reading.
Many meditation methods emphasize maintaining a tight mental focus on the breath, or a “mantra” (sound, like Ommm…), or other objects (such as one’s own navel). What many of these methods don’t teach is why it’s actually GOOD to lose your meditation focus, to lose track of the breath or the mantra or the navel gazing.
How can that be?
Well, what my wonderful teachers Stephen and Ondrea Levine, and Jack Kornfield, have taught me is this: If you can notice that you’ve lost your focus, and instantly return your attention to your meditation object without a mini-second of self-criticism or discouragement…then you can apply this skill to any circumstance in your life. The practice of noticing that you’re off the track, and immediately working to find your way, is at the heart of success, in mindfulness, and in life. To paraphrase the way in which another of my teachers, Dr. Charles Garfield, “When a lunar module heads for the moon, it’s off-course ninety-nine per cent of the time. But it is constantly self-correcting, and thus it ends up where it means to go…”
When learning to play the harmonica, just like in meditation, we lose our way. We make mistakes. We play the wrong note, or hold the right one for too long, or not long enough. Not even the most self-critical person amongst us would expect to be able to play an amplified blues or rock solo, or a piece of Beethoven’s Ninth, right away (although every participant at workshops will be able to do both by the end of day, guaranteed!). But often, in other circumstances, we do rush to self-judgement, and do so harshly.
However, when we practice any form of meditation — whether walking meditation, breathing meditation, Harmonica Meditation — and train ourselves with compassion and diligence to avoid those moments of self-criticism or discouragement that occur when we lose our focus, and instantly return to our given focus object…what else are we doing? We are training ourselves to pick ourselves up gently when we trip and fall. Not cursing the road, or our own clumsiness, or those who “should have” cleared that icy spot. Not feeling despondent or hopeless or even dispirited. Just returning, with renewed focus, to the task at hand.
For many of us, New Year’s Resolutions are custom-made opportunities for failure, followed by self-criticism. Yet if we can learn to “pick ourselves up gently, then re-focus” when we play a wrong note on the harmonica, if we can do the same thing in a walking or breathing meditation: we can apply the exact same skill to our resolutions for a healthier, happier, more successful, and more mindful New Year.
When we notice ourselves gorging at the party, when we notice ourselves time-wasting with that same boring app, when we notice ourselves being short-tempered with that annoying relative or colleague: we don’t give up the resolution in disgust (“I can’t DO this.” “I quit!”). Noticing our “failure” just becomes a reminder, a cue: to gently, mindfully re-focus our attention onto our desired behavior, without angst, without self-judgement, without anger or fear. And we do this again, and again, and again, eventually re-training our mind to do our bidding, as the wonderful, creative servant it can be, rather than the judgmental, self-critical master it so often is.
And that’s Why Failing at Meditation Can Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions!
On January 12, David Harp leads a course in a mindful approach to learning the harmonica. Visit the class page to learn more.
By David Harp