The Buddha is not my daddy: Transcending the shame of being a bad meditator

For many of us, supposedly spiritual activities like meditation become just one more activity we shoehorn into our morning routine:

• Start coffee machine

• Unload dishwasher

• Load washing machine

• Meditate 20 minutes

• Do online spin class

• Shower and dress

• Eat breakfast

• Head to work

On the one hand, such a rigorous, scheduled approach seems healthy and laudable precisely because it establishes meditation as a practice, as part of the rhythms of life. It’s a recognition that spiritual cultivation is as important as caring and maintaining our homes and bodies. But, on the other hand, as just one more item on one’s morning agenda, meditation may become framed as an obligation to cross off the list. It risks being experienced as another demand on our precious time, and, very likely, further proof that we’re failing to meet the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

I can report that I have had very few conversations with others about meditation that haven’t ended up with them expressing regret, embarrassment, or even shame, that they don’t do it “better” or more often. In my experience, as soon as the subject comes up — and I usually don’t initiate it — folks start fumbling to explain, to make excuses, to account for why they are not fulfilling a responsibility that has, for a certain Western demographic, come to be seen as a requirement that one is minimally psychologically and spiritually evolved. It’s partly because I too have felt this pressure that I don’t often raise the subject. For many, it is, quite understandably, a sore spot.

You don’t have a regular, “successful” meditation practice? Well, shame on you. One more failure to add to the pile: You don’t exercise enough, spend enough time with your kids, make enough home-cooked meals, or attend yoga regularly. You’ve postponed your teeth-cleaning, procrastinated ironing for over a year, and have a stack of self-edifying books that you never get to. Your gratitude notebook has no entries after January and you’ve got a mindfulness app on your phone that you’ve used exactly twice. On top of all this, let’s now add that you’re also a loser when it comes to meditation. Other people manage to have effortless, serene, regular meditation practices that lead them to the edge of enlightenment, don’t they? What’s wrong with you?

Well, nothing is wrong with me. Exactly nothing.

It turns out that when meditation is imagined as a necessary practice to open the door to enlightenment, its importance risks being both overemphasized and underemphasized. Certainly, any suggestion that a person’s worthiness as a spiritual seeker depends on meditation not only reflects an ego-based, fetishizing, spiritually materialist orientation, but also effectively overstates meditation’s power. After all, some who have realized high states of awareness — what we might as well call enlightenment — have never become “good” meditators. On the one hand — and this will come as a relief to some — the fact that one is a lazy or haphazard meditator doesn’t guarantee a benighted spiral of eternal recurrence.

But cutting meditation down to size may feel like bad news to any of us who imagine that, if we just cross “meditation” off our task list enough days, years, and decades in a row, then, surely, we will arrive. Then we will have earned our realization, as a diligent student earns their degree by writing enough papers and taking enough tests. Again, though, it seems not to work this way, although, of course, most dedicated meditators do report greater levels of calm and less reactivity and this can be life changing. In any case, when we find ourselves going through the motions, motivated by a desire for a particular spiritual state or to be a particular kind of person, then the meditation project is likely to lead to resistance, making spiritual “progress” ever more elusive.

Full disclosure: What I know about this is through my own experience. I was a “good” meditator and a “bad” one for many years. During the “good” stints — sometimes lasting months and years — there were benefits to my psychology and personality. Levels of chronic stress and anxiety were reduced as gaps began to appear between my thoughts. These incremental changes were important to my quality of life and also helped motivate me to continue on.

But I did also feel resentment at times, as if the Buddha were a parental figure whom I was disappointing. It was because of this pressure of not measuring up, of never achieving what I was “supposed” to that I would periodically give up on meditation. And I’m glad now that I did. Because what I learned was that I do not “need” to meditate at all, certainly not to prove to myself or anyone else that I’m spiritually worthy. Further, my meditation practice does not determine the path of my spiritual unfolding. To the contrary, the greatest spiritual “progress” I have ever made has been, precisely, as a result of abandoning the spiritual self-improvement project altogether, the one that had me self-flagellating at times because I was not a “good enough” meditator.

I suspect that the ironic consequence of all this will surprise very few: In giving up the self-admonitions to meditate, the “shoulds” of it, I eventually returned to the practice out of attraction and desire. And these days, although I do sit most days, I no longer force myself to do so as an exercise in learning to endure my demons or to tame my mind. Instead, beyond the boundaries of self-improvement, I have located the sheer pleasure of the experience of meditation, the self-communion that it has become for me. It turns out that the Buddha is not a judgmental, disappointed daddy after all, urging us to eat our peas and sit up straight. He is a reveler who knows the delights of sitting deeply within oneself and he has invited us to join the party.

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2 thoughts on “The Buddha is not my daddy: Transcending the shame of being a bad meditator

  1. OMG, Cathryn. I laughed, laughed, laughed out loud. Thank you. Send to NYT and other “major” outlets? I’m posting on my FB.


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