You Can’t Meditate If You Should.
Mindfulness is an “is”, not an “ought”.
Take a second to think about all the things you should be doing today. Maybe there’s some work you’ve been putting off or an errand you should run. Maybe you should be looking for a job or working on a business idea. Even if you’re taking a day off — as you should, it’s a Sunday after all — there’s still probably a fairly long list. In fact, days off are often busier than workdays, they’re just a different kind of busy.
Instead of going out and earning money, days off end up being a chance to catch up on all the things we haven’t had time to do. They’re an opportunity to get some laundry done, or to sort out the finances, or do odd jobs around the house. If we’re lucky, we might even have some time left over to catch up with friends or, more likely, some sleep.
I’m not saying this is all bad. There’s no good way to live free from responsibilities, and the attempt to do so would doubtless lead to a small, sad life. There really are things we should do. But responsibilities aren’t the whole game, and most of us take on too many. There’s a sense that if we aren’t doing something that we can point to, if we can’t prove to ourselves in every moment that we’re useful, then we won’t be able to justify our existence. Not just to others, but to ourselves.
The tendency to think of ourselves only in terms of what we achieve places us on an endless loop where our happiness and sense of self-worth is permanently attached to something that has yet to happen, or worse, to something that has already passed. The focus is always on how successful what we just did was, before swirly shifting to what we’re going to do next. And the compulsion to do this extends even to the one thing that’s supposed to give us a break from it.
There’s a long list of things that meditation is supposed to do too. It’s supposed to bring us inner peace. It’s supposed to inspire compassion. It’s supposed to teach wisdom, or humility, or acceptance. We meant to empty our minds but also accept whatever thoughts come along. We should breathe slowly and deeply but shouldn’t try to control your breathing. There is no goal, but the goal is enlightenment, or bliss, or the dissolution of the self.
So of course, what happens is that people begin to meditate, and they judge their success as meditators — and the value of meditation — on whether meditation achieves what it’s “supposed to do”. They meditate for a certain amount of time and wonder whether they’re progressing quickly enough, or why they’re not happy yet. Even here, we struggle to appreciate meditation for what it is and instead look for evidence of what it does.
The question is; can sitting down and waiting for a particular state to arise in the mind be called meditation? How is it possible to be in the present moment if you’re waiting for something to happen in the future? How can the mind be still if it’s constantly checking whether the right conditions have been achieved?
Meditation is an opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity in your entire life, to take a break from all of the “shoulds” that define the borders of your life. As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche once put it “The essence of meditation practice is to let go of all your expectations about meditation.” This isn’t just some kind of spiritual doublespeak. The essence of meditation is to spend some part of your day, whether it’s 5 minutes or an hour, experiencing life without passing it through the usual filters of “good” or “bad”, “useful” or “useless”, “correct” or “incorrect”.
In the moments when we’re not too caught up in things, we can get a glimpse of this in everyday life. We can appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or the sound of a bird singing, or the feeling of the grass beneath our feet. None of these things serve any particular purpose. None of them are achieving anything. They’re just being what they are. And because that’s all we ask from them, we can sense their innate beauty.
The same is true of ourselves. We can’t see ourselves when we’re busy trying to figure out what we’re for. We can’t see others when we’re busy trying to work out what they can do for us. Our true value is revealed when we stop and look at ourselves for what we are. We’re not perfect, we’re not the sum of our achievements, we’re not even our strengths or our weaknesses. We’re just ourselves.
Life is full of things that we should do, but that doesn’t mean there’s something that we should be. Yes, the way we behave, the work we do, the contributions we make to the world, all of these things matter. But none of them defines who we are, and none of them defines our worth. Taking the time to see who we really are, not who we think we should be, is the ultimate liberation. Not because it frees us from our responsibilities, but because it frees us from the fear of taking them.