How to Not Meditate
For years, meditation was one more activity I packed into my busy day.
It was yet another thing to check off my to-do list, like going to the gym or buying groceries. I would skid into my meditation session, set a timer, and dutifully bring my attention back to my breath, again and again, with a kind of grim determination. It was really not that much fun at all.
I was, in other words, bringing my everyday habits to the cushion. My overdrive, my overachieving, my over-everything.
Then, a few years ago, I hit a wall.
Not just with my meditation, but with my whole life. I was way overcommitted. I was teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at home (ironic, right?), then traveling all over the place teaching mindfulness and meditation workshops, plus coaching meditators for Ten Percent Happier.
I just wasn’t giving myself the downtime I needed.
That wall I hit was built of insomnia, migraines, and digestive troubles, plus a swirling, churning mess of thoughts and emotions. At first, I resisted it, but slowly, slowly, I began to learn from it. I realized something needed to change in the way I approached my life. And one big step was to change how I approached my meditation.
So I started to relax. In a big way. I mean, it takes effort to set aside time every day to meditate, and I still made that effort. But once “on the cushion,” so to speak, I changed how I was meditating. Perhaps surprisingly, I found that it wasn’t enough to continue my regular mindfulness practice but with a lighter touch. I actually needed to change my meditation practice.
What I did was move from focusing on the breath to what many teachers refer to as “resting in awareness” or “natural awareness.” My Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche calls it “not meditating, not distracted.”
I didn’t try to stay focused anymore. I simply allowed focus to occur. I didn’t strive to be a mindful person. I just let awareness be… aware. For me, it’s been a life saver. It’s allowed me to offset the ambitious striving that can so easily co-opt meditation. Beyond that, when I relax in meditation, I’m more prone to pause in my day. I’m more likely to remain resourced in the midst of the busyness.
So how do you do it? First, just set aside some time and space – a few minutes is fine, and there’s no particular posture you need to be in. You can do it with your eyes open or closed. Then try these four steps:
1. Set Your Intention
Resting in awareness isn’t taking a vacation; intention is essential. We’re relaxing in order to become more available—to ourselves, and to others. Because when we actually give our bodies and minds the ease they need, that’s when the energy and spaciousness and emotional resilience we’ve been missing starts to come back online. So, you might start by reminding yourself of that: that you’re doing this to be more awake, more alive, more available to others.
2. Don’t Meditate
Next, don’t meditate!
What does that mean? If you’ve been meditating for a while, as soon as you sit down and close your eyes, your attention will likely gravitate toward the breath. That’s fine, no need to fight it, but unlike meditation, you’re not going to continue it either. You don’t need to make any object the focus of your attention, or do anything at all really.
Just settle back into simple awareness. Like, what’s going on right now? A sound, a sight, a sensation. Fine. But don’t really focus on those things either. They pop in and out of awareness, and you’re hanging out with awareness. Stuff happens, and you’re just here aware of it.
We call this style of practice “non-meditation” because you’re not forcing anything. You’re not engaged in a big mindfulness meditation project. You’re just letting awareness be aware. It’s about being, not doing.
3. But Don’t Get Distracted Either
You knew there was a catch, though, right? As much as you’re not focusing on anything, you’re also not letting the mind wander off into thought. You’re not planning your next activity, or lost in some fantasy about your next vacation. So when your mind meanders, you bring it back to the simplicity of awareness right now. You’re aware! Again, no particular focus, just being “in the moment” without adding too much edge or effort.
4. Short Times, Many Times
You can do this for your daily meditation practice – take five or ten or fifteen minutes to rest in non-meditation/non-distraction – but you can also take it on the road. Try doing this non-distracted non-meditation at random times throughout the day. When you’ve been emailing for a while, or you’re lost in a story or a project, or you’re getting all emotional and wound up and tight, just stop for a minute and relax your mind. Guess what: you’re still aware.
Now, especially if you’re just starting out, this practice can be a little confusing. Can it really be that simple? In fact, yes!
Having said that, it’s not a cure-all. Personally, I just finished a month of traveling and teaching. I worked three online jobs in the middle of it all. And, yes, I burned myself out a bit.
But what’s different now is that I know how to find my ballast, to relax with what’s here, to stay with awareness. I’m learning to take breaks, to recalibrate. I’m learning, maybe for the first time in my life, how to truly relax.
With a little non-effort, I’m confident you can too.
Devon Hase is a coach on Ten Percent Happier and teaches mindfulness internationally. She is the co-author, with her husband Craig Hase, of the forthcoming book, How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Semi-Buddhist Guide for Surviving Modern Life, which offers perennial advice for staying grounded, being decent, and weathering the dumpster fire of these times.