What to Expect When You Meditate

By Paul Thomas Zenki

The purpose, pleasures, and pitfalls of sitting…


The first thing to know is that meditation is training. Gentle training, but still training.

So while it won’t change who you are, it will change you. (It’s tempting to go into it wanting the opposite.)

I started sitting in the early 1990s with a martial arts group, and I still got this part wrong for many years. You don’t use or deploy meditation like a tool or technique. You take it up —  like an art, a career, a sport, a vow.

Meditating occasionally is a lot like occasionally picking up a paintbrush or a compound bow or a guitar. Not likely to do anyone much good. But making it the end-all and be-all of our lives doesn’t hash out too well either.


My tradition is Soto Zen shikantaza, or “just sitting”, which is goalless, open-attention meditation. It’s arguably the simplest form, and although that doesn’t make it the easiest to do, it does make for an excellent introduction point.

Why sit?

Meditation can lower your blood pressure, increase productivity, reduce anxiety, make you happier, slow down aging, end insomnia, break addictions, enlighten you, bring about world peace, and even more if you listen to everything that’s said about it.

The truth is, mindfulness meditation does help do some of that for a lot of folks (although I’m not waiting up nights for world peace). But as a training, it most directly develops interoception, which is simply “body awareness in the moment”.

Not as sexy as making us younger, enlightened, and super productive, to be sure, but harnessing our attention — which is really what it boils down to — does set off a cascade of psychological, behavioral, even physical changes. That said, clarifying our awareness of the present moment itself is really what mindfulness training is all about, and our experience is most likely to be positive if we know this going in.

But before we get to that experience …

A young man seen from behind, sitting on the grass looking toward distant mountains at sunset
Photo by Benjamin Balazs (adapted)

Why not sit?

Like any kind of training, meditation can be done incorrectly and carries a certain risk. Not as high as, say, bare-hand rock climbing, but not zero either.

Here are a few pitfalls I’ve seen discussed lately:

  • Hallucinations
  • “Loss of self”
  • Losing interest in previous activities
  • Meditation addiction (preferring the meditative state to daily life)
  • Becoming detached from one’s emotions
  • Developing a passive mindset

Some of these issues are red flags for incorrect training. Passivity, detachment, and “addiction” specifically point to a very basic misalignment with proper practice, as we’ll see. Enhanced interoception makes the world more present and immediate, as awareness of the body goes hand-in-hand with awareness of the senses, so becoming passive or detached or using meditation to escape should set off alarms that something’s fundamentally wrong.

The most common problem caused by meditation is actually pain. If you’re not used to sitting still for 20–30 minutes, especially in a traditional meditation posture, it can hurt. And getting all jazzed up to go full lotus right off the bat can hurt a lot, unless you’re under the age of 12 or so.

But some of the other concerns do come with proper practice. Depriving the mind of its usual distractions can trigger it to invent new ones, which may appear as sensory distortions, intrusive thoughts, or disturbing memories. And in advanced stages, meditation can (and I believe, should) challenge our naive ideas of self and spur some re-evaluation of our habits, our values, even our trajectory in life.

Siddhartha “Buddha” Gautama is perhaps the most famous meditator of all time, and he ended up wandering around and begging food. It can happen. But he was spending quite a bit more of his day sitting than most readers of this article likely intend to. Still, any daily practice has the potential to suddenly or slowly change our perspective on ourselves, the world around us, and the boundaries between the two.

Damn you, Kung Fu

I’ll say up front, I’m an original fan of Kung Fu, the early ’70s TV series in which that quintessential American hero  — the itinerant incognito badass obliged at times by circumstance and justice to bust some heads  — took the form of a biracial Zen monk from China gone fugitive in the Old West. (I know, I know, but somehow this worked.) That said, I am not a fan of the enduring image it has lent to Zen in North America.

David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine from "Kung Fu" seated on the ground in robes in front of a stone wall
David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, 1972 (promotional, ABC Television)

While I can’t prove it, I suspect Kwai Chang Caine fathered, or at least co-parented, the popular American vision of a Zen master —  almost supernaturally calm, aloof, soft-spoken, and self-contained. And this enduring caricature can cause new practitioners to either strive for that state, or believe something’s wrong if their practice doesn’t move them toward it.

In fact, long-term practitioners tend to be very relaxed with who they happen to be, whether that’s naturally quiet and reserved or social and bubbly or, for that matter, brusque and cantankerous. As I said, meditation will not turn you into a different person.

So, want to try it? Well, let’s be practical here and explore what all is involved….

Time, space, and a seat

Like any other training, you don’t want to take up meditation without thinking about how, where, and when you’re going to practice. If you don’t figure this out ahead of time, you’re likely to fail to keep it up.

It’s best to start with 5–10 minutes of daily sitting. After a while that will seem too short and you’ll want to expand your sit. A half hour at a stretch is about as long as is useful (or advisable) for most people. And if you find yourself encountering problems or avoiding meditation after adding time, just fall back to what you were doing before. There are no bonus points for sitting longer.

After a 20–30 minute daily sit has become routine, a session of two or three sits with 5 minutes of walking between them once a week is beneficial, especially with a sangha (community of meditators). But to start, just try 10 minutes once a day. It’s the “a day” bit that matters most.

You need a place where you can sit without being bothered, preferably on the floor but a chair is fine if you need one. It doesn’t have to be quiet, although that’s a plus. You do need to be uninterrupted. Set a subdued alarm so you know when your sit has ended — I use chimes on my phone but bells, birdsongs, and gongs can work, too. Whatever you do, don’t just sit until you feel like getting up. Your mind should be completely off the clock when your butt is on the cushion, and that can’t happen if you have to make a decision about when to stop.

Meditation mats and cushions in a botanical garden path
Zafus on zabutons before a sit at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (photo by Delene Porter, used with permission)

Speaking of which, you’ll need to choose from 6 types of seating commonly used for zazen (seated meditation):

  • The ground: This is the method I started with, on sand with my legs tucked under me, sitting on my heels in a “seiza” posture. Not recommended for most adult beginners.
  • Mats: Take a couple of mats (zabutons, see above), lay one out flat, then fold another one double and place it on the back portion of the first one. Sit on the folded mat, cross-legged (see below) with your knees on the lower mat. Not as bare-bones as seiza but also not likely best for beginner adults.
  • Round cushions: Traditional sitting cushions (zafus, see above) are shaped like a cheese wheel. They’re usually stuffed with kapok fiber or, more recently, buckwheat hulls, and are by far the most common zazen seat. You can sit on the edge of a cushion with your legs crossed in front of you, or place it on its side and sit seiza with your legs straddling.
  • Wedge cushions: Similar cushions are made in a wedge or “fortune cookie” shape. I prefer these because I sit Burmese style now with my heels in front of me (see below).
  • Benches: Small, folding wooden benches, sometimes with cushioned seats, can help you sit seiza without all the pressure and constriction on your legs. If you find sitting cross-legged difficult, you might want to try one.
  • Chairs, stools, ottomans, etc.: If a physical condition or circumstances keep you from sitting on the ground, you can sit in a chair or stool. It’s optimal if you can have your feet flat on the ground and your ankles and knees at right angles.

You can also meditate lying down, but it’s difficult. When the body’s horizontal, the brain begins to want to sleep, making it hard to stay aware and mindful. Holding the upper body upright keeps the mind alert.

How to actually sit

There are five common ways of sitting for zazen:

  • Seiza: As mentioned above, in this posture your knees are in front of you and your heels are under your body. You can either sit on your heels, on a bench with your shins beneath it, or on an upended cushion with your legs to either side.
  • Full lotus: In this cross-legged posture, the top of each foot rests on top of the opposite thigh. The younger you are when you start, the easier it is to sit this way, and many people can continue indefinitely with regular practice. I mean, check this guy!
An elderly man sits in full lotus posture atop a small stone wall along a road above the Ganges River.
Meditator along the Ganges (Photo by Ken Wieland, adapted)
  • Half lotus: Similar to the full lotus, but only one foot rests on the opposite thigh.
  • Burmese: In this posture, the heels are aligned in front of the body. Although I used to sit seiza and lotus, Burmese is now more comfortable and stable for me, and I recommend it as an easier starting point unless you’re already limber enough to sit lotus.
  • Chair position: Although the other postures are preferable, they’re not always possible. An ideal seat is armless and keeps the thighs parallel to the floor, but almost any sort of chair will do in a pinch. When beginning meditation, you may need to alternate between a chair and a cushion until your body adjusts.

What’s most important is that your posture be stable. If not in a chair, both knees should rest firmly on the ground.

Traditions differ on hand posture. Resting the backs of the hands on the knees with thumbs touching the index or middle fingers is common. In Japanese zazen, the dominant hand supports the other hand, wrists resting on thighs, palms up, with thumbs touching above. Or one hand will grasp the thumb of the other, and the fingers of the other hand wrap around the first hand, then the hands are held at the belly just below the navel.

Once seated, straighten the spine. The nose should be above the navel, and the ears above the shoulders above the hips. You might imagine a chain extending from the spine through the crown of the head, pulling you up. Relax the shoulders, letting them drop down, with shoulderblades together and flat.

In zazen, the eyes are open. Allow the lids to fall slightly, and the gaze to rest at about a 45 degree angle downward. Breathe naturally.

 

 

What to do after sitting down

To get settled into a stable upright posture, it helps to rock side to side and kind of wobble into place. You find your balance by not being off balance.

Let your gaze settle somewhere in the middle distance and pay attention to your breath. (Leaving the eyes open with eyelids relaxed prevents you from becoming lost in internal musings.) Some traditions focus on the breath or count breaths, and these are good techniques to start with because at first your brain won’t know how to cooperate and you’ll need an anchor for your attention. With time you’ll need it less.

You might spend 10 minutes a day for several weeks or months just counting your breaths from 1 to 10 and back down, or simply paying attention to your breathing. That’s fine. Remember, you aren’t going anywhere, so there’s no rush to get there.

If you’re new to this, your mind will rebel. Modern life exacerbates things, but the human mind naturally fills downtime with daydreaming, so we spend large chunks of our lives imagining the past, the future, other places, and alternate (non)realities. Expect your mind to flood with current worries, pointless speculations, random memories, supper options, old TV theme songs, and all manner of thought-junk.

There’s a reason daydreaming is our mental “default mode”. It helps us connect our current experience with our past and to imagine possible futures. But memory and imagination use the same neural real estate in our brains as actual experience does, so we can’t engage in them without dulling our awareness of the here and now, of ourselves and our circumstances.

Little girl in a classroom stares out the window into an undersea scene featuring a turtle, whale, shark, and scuba diver
Image by DarkmoonArt

Daydreaming, ruminating, and other mental “chatter” is a hard habit to break. After all, it’s enabled by a lifetime of thickly bundled neural patterns. We can’t just switch it off. Training the mind to rest calmly for as little as 15–30 minutes can take months or years of practice.

Which is why it’s important to remember that we never have to start over. In fact, we never can start over. We can only be-here-and-now here and now, constantly. So when our mind is following a thought and we suddenly wake up from it, we simply count or notice the breath, and hey, here we are, right now. There is nothing to “start”.

It’s all about attention

When you meditate, broadly speaking you’re either moving or still, and your attention is either focused or open.

Attention and posture are the double helix, the yin and yang of meditative practice.

Focused meditation may use breath, sounds, visual objects, the body, or contemplative objects such as the presence of God or goodwill toward others as targets of attention, to which the mind returns when it “wakes up” from daydreaming into the present moment. Open meditation may use objects of focus — breaths, mantras, bells, thwacks on the shoulder with a stick, and so forth — as temporary means to develop or regain presence in the moment, but its default state is expansive attention. Shohaku Okumura compares it to the kind of awareness we have while driving attentively, paying mind to everything but to nothing in particular at the same time.

With long-term practice, the mind is able for some periods to settle into a state of simply being, without attempting to conjure up stories or make judgments.

All traditional techniques of meditation recognize that the object of focus, and even the process of monitoring, is just a means to train the mind, so that effortless inner silence … can be discovered. Eventually, both the object of focus and the process itself is left behind, and there is only left the true self of the practitioner. (Giovanni Denstmann, author of Practical Meditation)

That’s really all “waking up” is. But you can’t be awake and try to wake up. You can only be awake.

Allowing the distractions to calm down lets our interoception, our sense of being a body in the world, occupy the neural real estate once squatted on by all the chatter. Over time, our brains learn this state and we carry it with us “off the cushion”. Along with it may come improved emotional regulation, resistance to depression, and any number of possible health benefits.

But what does it feel like?

A woman sits cross-legged on a yoga mat in a bare room
Photo by Irina L.

Boredom and pain

Once you’re settled in and paying attention, eventually your body will start to hurt and your mind will get bored and you’ll want to get up.

Paying attention to the present moment is not as easy as we think it should be, even when we make the present moment as simple as possible. But what to do is not that difficult.

Treat pain as you would in any other sort of training. You can handle your foot falling asleep for a few minutes. Stabbing pains along your thigh are saying something’s wrong that needs immediate change. Tell your doctors what you’re doing and how it’s going. Use common sense.

Boredom is your mind’s signal that it has idle capacity. It’s part of the landscape of zazen. I can’t tell you how to stop the boredom, but there are ways to navigate it.

First, accept the boredom like you accept everything else when you sit. Feel your breath and your posture, straighten up if you’ve slouched. Then notice how much there is to pay attention to. The way your body feels, the sounds it’s making, sounds in the room and outside, the colors of the wall and the floor, the smell of dust, the lingering flavor of lunch.

You’ll notice you can’t experience them all together. Even in a moment this simple, there’s is more to experience than you can handle at once! But as you sit, as you are less inclined to chase thoughts, gradually your attention sweeps a broader compass.

As you settle into your daily practice, and your brain gets less noisy, there are times when you’re awake on your cushion like a frog sitting on a rock. You’re not doing anything, you have no goals, you’re just there. Expect to lose mental balance at first whenever you realize this is happening. But don’t worry, you do stop falling off the rock.

A small frog on a slanted rock faces the viewer.
Image by Pixabay

Now your neurons start playing tricks on you. Relaxing your gaze for several minutes can trigger neural noise, appearing as optical illusions. You can lose track of where your hands, feet, or limbs are, or even feel strongly that they’re where they shouldn’t be. All sorts of things can happen. As Steve Hagen says, don’t get caught up in the magic show. Just maintain posture, breathe, and let your attention settle naturally.

Unless, of course, you start freaking out, which can happen, in which case take a break. Anxiety, panic, and profound disorientation do occur for some people. If it keeps up, shorten your sit and/or talk to one or more pros — doctor, therapist, meditation instructor. Meditation isn’t high risk, but nothing’s for everybody.

What to expect

When flocks of birds migrate, all the birds follow the same path, but each bird takes a unique path. We can listen to people tell their own experiences, and we note they’re all different but they form patterns. What our own path will be cannot be said until we create it.

Don’t expect happiness. Practice may well bring you more happiness, especially in the long term, but since we don’t get to know how happy we would have been had we chosen not to sit, how could we ever be sure if it did?

And don’t expect immediate changes. There may be some, such as improved posture or mood. But it’s not much different from taking up pottery or archery or piano or strength training. Not a lot happens in a few weeks, but something can happen in a few months, and a great deal happens over the years.

Physical improvements, if any, can be invisible like lower blood pressure, or apparent like better sleep or less anxiety. Cognitively, as your attention becomes more present and expansive “off the cushion”, your brain relies less on “schemas” (something akin to web browser page caches) and more on immediate sensations, which can sharpen the details of the world and make time seem to move more slowly. Which can feel weirdly as though part of you is getting mentally younger.

Sitting accustoms the brain to stillness, so you may find yourself tuning out old distractions. (And yes, this can mean losing interest in some stuff you used to do.) And although emotions and daydreams are still there, they aren’t as sticky. They can come and go more easily without dragging you along. So yeah, there’s some Kung Fu component to it, but increased interoception means clearer awareness of our own emotions as bodily states. And training on the cushion frees us up to let those emotions be what they are without trying to push them away or chase after them.

Your decisions are the best barometers of your practice.

As the mental chatter subsides, and our emotions stop pulling the leash, and the diffuse “situational awareness” of mindfulness arises, we add fewer labels to things and complain less about them, because why bother? Feeling the immediate situation, the question becomes “What do I do now?” We stop fussing so much over whether things are good or bad — because they are whatever they are regardless — and aim our thoughts at the consequences of our options. We stop fretting over what is and start asking what’s best to do.

Sepia image of an egret taking off from a marsh in fog
Image by Kim Dae Jeung

Avoiding the Pit

Tennis has its “tennis elbow”, archery has its “string slap”, meditation has the “pit of the void”. (Yes, that’s what it’s called.)

Falling into the Pit of the Void… entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. What makes it problematic is that the person interprets it as a bad trip…. In a sense, it’s Enlightenment’s Evil Twin. (Shinzen Young)

When we simply pay attention and stop trying to impose our concepts on the world, we notice nothing is truly independent and all is in flux. That bird calling outside the window cannot be there without the earth, the air, its parents, the sill, or the laws of physics arising from the very stuff of the universe. And its song, its motion, quite literally every part and feature and action is constantly changing, never identical moment to moment. Everything affects everything else, and everything constantly transforms. You can’t hold onto anything, or even be anything for any length of time.

We notice that we ourselves have no independent existence or essential nature. We find there is nothing to our selves, our souls, other than the experience. There is no perceiver, only the perception. Sounds, colors, odors, the sense of a body and emotions, pain and pleasure, all these come and go in waking life and in dreams, rise and fall away, and collectively they are our conscious minds.

These realizations can lead to a profound insight into our own being and the nature of the world around us, and the understanding that we are the world and cannot ever be separate from it, like an underwater current in the sea.

 

Or they can lead to a sense of being trapped inside the body, or of losing one’s self altogether. We fall into the pit of the void when our minds shed their old sense of identity without forming a new one or developing an outlook in which a new one isn’t needed.

These changes to the mind are real, and they’re so basic we literally can’t escape them. It’s like finding out your parents aren’t who you thought they were. There’s no reset and no exit from what you know. I’ve experienced it myself and won’t describe it so as not to plant that seed in anyone else’s mind, but I felt the kind of terror you might feel realizing you’ve been permanently sealed into a tiny underground vault.

What got me in, got me out — I reminded myself that, regardless, everything was the same as it had always been, nothing had changed. For a while, though, I had to fend off stark panic.

The #1 way to avoid such problems is simply be patient. Ease your way into a half-hour daily sit, and resist the urge to push beyond in order to “gain” something. Sit longer with a group once a week when you’re ready — or don’t. You don’t need to be on the cushion more than 20 minutes a day if you’re not motivated to. Sitting isn’t a contest.

If you get comfortable with periodic longer sits, perhaps try day-long or half-day sits once a month. Don’t attempt a sesshin (a multi-day sit or “retreat”) until you have been practicing a few years — even if you don’t quit and don’t freak out, you’re unlikely to get anything useful out of it and may even reinforce your existing delusions, mistaking them for progress.

In fact, I wouldn’t recommend a sesshin if you don’t have a teacher. Once you’ve tried some options and decided to take up a meditation routine, if you can find an experienced teacher I’d recommend seeking out one (or more). A good teacher can save you some time, frustration, and maybe pain. If there’s a sangha nearby, go sit with them when you can.

Serious problems from meditation are rare. And when they arise, in the case studies I’ve seen it’s typically in one of three situations:

  1. Ramping up daily sitting time well above half an hour, and/or attending an intensive multi-day sit without sufficient preparation;
  2. Reading intensely about emptiness, non-attachment, “no self”, or related topics;
  3. Maintaining sustained, serious practice over a period of several years.

Point one is easy to avoid.

Reading is actually helpful. Just take it in stride, like you do your sitting. Don’t try to figure out too quickly everything that experienced meditators are saying. When it comes to the “learning” side, taking up meditation can be like pursuing mathematics or a trade or military service, or any other serious endeavor. Some of it seems incomprehensible at first, and you just have to get it when you get to it.

I started sitting nearly 3 decades ago, so I can’t honestly advise against long-term meditation. I will say, though, it has a way of revealing sides of ourselves we’ve developed a habit of ignoring, and ain’t all of them pretty. But we can’t fix what we don’t see.

The pathless path

You might start out with reasons for meditating, goals you want to reach. That’s fine to start. But you can’t “just sit” and try to reach goals.

Let go of your goals on the cushion. You can pick them up again afterward.

Eventually you may come to see that you’re sitting because you’re sitting, without feeling that you have to invent a story to explain it. You’re just being upright, not leaning toward anything or away from anything. You are not detached from your senses and emotions, and you can’t really be attached to them either, since they’re not different from you and they change.

Zazen is the path to right here, where we discover the ordinary, which is all there is, which cannot be put into words or conceived of, but can only be experienced.

Woman on a bench under a tree, seen from the back, facing across a body of water with low land in the distance
Image by Christian (adapted)

Some final perspective

Please keep in mind that the above is something like a sophomore telling a freshman what to expect their first year. I am not a meditation instructor. I’m someone who sits.

Shikantaza is my preferred way of sitting, and I have always gravitated toward it. But although its simplicity makes it a convenient way to introduce meditation, in practice it can be more difficult for the beginner than focused-attention practices. So before deciding whether to start sitting, I recommend reading around and asking around and trying a few methods before settling into a regular practice. It’s best not to rush into any kind of training. Be mindful.

 

Peace …


Header image by Michal Jarmoluk

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.