What 50 Years of Meditation has Taught Me

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After nearly 50 years of meditation practice, author Natalie Goldberg sets out four sensible rules for making meditation a regular part of your life.

By Natalie Goldberg

More than four decades is a long time to be engaged in one activity. Have I managed to do meditation every day no matter what? No. Have I often experienced states of bliss that kept me going? No. Did my knees hurt? Yes. Did my shoulders ache? Yes. Was I sometimes filled with anger, aggression, tormented by old ragged memories? Yes. Did I burn with sexual desire, crave a hot fudge sundae so bad my teeth ached? Yes.

Why did I do it? What kept me going?

First, I liked that it was so simple, so dumb, so direct, so different from the constant rush of our human life. When I sat I wasn’t hurrying toward anything. The whole world, my entire inner life, was coming home to me. I was tasting my own mind; I was beginning a true relation­ship with myself. This was good—and it was inexpensive. All I needed was my breath, a cushion or chair, a little time.

Rule #1: Don't be Too Rigid

Over the years I have heard much instruction on how to meditate. Recently I listened to someone tell students that it is better to sit for five minutes every day than for an hour three times a week. I thought, That’s good advice.

Then I smiled to my­self. There are no prescriptions for a long relationship. Things change.

Five minutes every day might work beautifully for three months. But then what if you miss a day or a week? Have you failed? Do you quit altogether? I hope not. But sometimes our minds set up stiff expectations, and when they’re not met, we drop the whole thing. This is just the opposite of softening the mind, which we hope will be the result of meditation.

So maybe the first rule we should begin with, if we want meditation to be in our life for a long time, is: Don’t make a rigid structure and then chastise ourselves when we don’t live up to it. Better to keep a limber mind and develop a tender­ness toward existence. We missed a day? We’ll begin again the next day. There’s no race. Where are we going anyway but right where we are?

Rule #2: Don't be Too Loose

But I also want to encourage having a structure. Perhaps this is the second rule: Structure is a good thing. It’s easier to re­turn to something solid than to an amorphous intention. So let’s begin with that five minutes—that time structure—and even clarify it more: When will I sit those five minutes? First thing in the morning? Right before I go to sleep? When the clock says noon, no matter where or what I’m doing? If a time is picked, it sturdies the practice.

And if we pick a regular place, it deepens the intention. Where will I do it? At my desk before I begin work? In front of the altar in my bedroom? Under the sycamore in the yard?

Structure allows us to drop in more simply without giving monkey mind a lot of space.

What is monkey mind? You know. It’s the person in us that wiggles around a lot, that is indecisive, changes its mind, never settles, tries to talk us out of whatever we plan to do. It says: Not today. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m worried about my exam. I can’t sit still.

Look around. Is there anyone sitting still except the floors, the walls, the mountains? Monkey mind will have a hundred reasons not to meditate. Structure helps support our urge to do it anyway. A fluid mind keeps the structure from getting rigid.

A structure that worked fairly well for three years may suddenly collapse. We have a new job with different hours; we’re traveling for two months; our wife just gave birth to a second child and the house is endless chaos.

Rule #3: Be Creative

Maybe the third rule, which includes the first two, should read: Be creative and flexible at the same time that you continue your meditation relationship. Learn to meditate in a chair while sitting in the waiting room of the dentist’s office, or in the car as you wait for your daughter to finish soccer practice.

Meditation is about having our large life smack in the center of our everyday life. How do we stay open and continue?

I was at a retreat at Plum Village in southern France when the person next to me asked Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who was then in his sixties, how he kept his practice alive.

He smiled a wry, sweet smile. “So you want to know my secret?”

She nodded eagerly.

“I do whatever works and change it when it no longer works.”

I thought of the small round labels that were handed out to us at the beginning of the retreat. We were instructed to put them in the inside of our shoes. I still have that note glued on the left insole of my turquoise moccasins. I walk for you. Every time I put on those shoes in early summer, a gap opens and I remember: I live connected to everyone.

Rule #4: See Yourself as a Meditator on the Inside

When Writing Down the Bones first came out in 1986, I was invited to teach in Selma, Alabama. I was delighted by the thick air and the abundant trees, so different from my dry New Mexico, and I was curious about an author who lived an hour away in the country. She’d just won the Hemingway Award for a first collection of her short stories.

She was in her seventies. Unfor­tunately, my visit was too short for me to meet her, but I had the privilege of speaking to her on the phone.

“Have you been writing all of your life?” I asked her, elated at the victory a writer could still have at seventy.

“I wrote through my twenties and then got married and had a son. I didn’t start up again until my sixties, when my husband died.” 

I was a gung ho writer then, wouldn’t give it up for anything. “Well, was it hard? I mean, giving up writing. Did you resent it?”

“Oh, no, I didn’t feel bad. All the years I didn’t write I never stopped seeing myself as a writer.” She paused. “Anyway, I could never have created anything as fine as my son, David.”

I always remember that conversation. Even if you can’t write, you can see the way a writer does, notice, take in, digest the de­tails and stories of what surrounds you.

I think this is also true of a life of meditation. There might be periods—a year or even two—when we can’t get to the cush­ion, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up.

This might be the fourth rule: We can still carry meditation inside, still see and feel as a meditator, but physically practice differently.