As someone who was introduced to the Twelve Steps as a means of overcoming some extremely destructive behaviors, I have to admit that many of the concepts captured in those simple Twelve Steps were not – at first – principles and actions that would have naturally occurred to me.  Okay, the truth is, almost NOTHING in the Twelve Steps were actions that I was inclined to practice without having come to a point where I believed that (1.) the kind of drinking I was doing was going to kill me, and (2.) the efforts I had taken to stop drinking (including therapy, doctors, medication, etc.) were entirely ineffective.  Getting to the point where I believed that both of these were true for me was necessary for me to be open to the rather specific and (seemingly) unattractive actions associated with the Twelve Steps.

But, having reached the critical crossroads where my willingness met someone with an actual answer based in their experience, I began little by little to attempt to see what these Steps could mean for me.  And what it has meant for me has meant the world.  Literally.  I don’t believe I would be alive today without them, and even if this belief were to have been proven wrong, I’m quite certain that I would be a lonely, miserable, useless wreck – because what I’ve come to learn through these Steps is that this is my default condition.  Isolation, self-pity, self-destruction – these define my way of looking at the world.  Only by making connection with others, and – importantly – by gaining an experience with a world outside my own self-conceived mind, do I begin to find a satisfying means of looking at the world.

Perhaps the actions described in the Steps that are most counter to my default condition are those contained in the Step Eleven, which reads:

“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

Now, there are plenty of reasons for a doubter like me to begin pulling this step apart.  Just the idea that somehow, someone like me is going to find some means of practicing prayer and meditation in order to begin to experience a conscious sense of “God” (prior to this step), let alone  improve that experience (as this Step states) sounds so overwhelming as to make someone like me give up before I’ve even tried.  Thankfully, there are ten Steps preceding these one, all meant to elicit the beginnings of a spiritual experience.  This Step begins to suggest additional actions that are directly intended to further that experience.  And the great news is, whatever I thought about prayer, and especially about meditation has been proven so deeply, absurdly wrong.  And I’m so grateful for that truth, because only by surrendering (most) of my pre-conceived ideas have I begun to have some kind of experience with meditation.

To be clear, here are some of the ideas I’ve come to realize about meditation since being introduced to it through the Twelve Steps, and attempting to practice it for myself.

  • Meditation does not require a specific position, special breathing or chanting – Although I’ve found that sitting on a cushion and counting my breath is very helpful to help me to become focused, it is NOT a requirement.  These are techniques that help me personally, but the amazing thing about meditation is that it can be practiced nearly at any time, nearly anywhere… which is a relief, because if I forget my meditation cushion on a trip, I can still sit in a chair and allow myself to be still and quiet.
  • Meditation does not require me to go a mountain top, or cloister myself in a temple – Again, huge relief for someone like me, who has lots of ideas about what meditation should look like.  If I really had to go find a bunch of monks, or journey to a mountain top in order to meditate, I would never begin.  I’d always worry about finding the right mountain, or the right monks.  Otherwise, I’m obviously “doing it wrong”.
  • Meditation does not mean I have a “quiet mind” free of distracting and sometimes terrifying thoughts – Quite the contrary, when I meditate, I begin to become aware of exactly how nuts the inside of my head is.  It’s a cacophony of ideas, fears, noises, and voices, all busy fighting for attention.  When I practice meditation, it allows me to become present to that noise, and to somehow begin to find a way of accepting that all that noise is part of who I am.
  • Meditation is not an end point that I reach and fulfill my own enlightenment – Again, huge relief to know that meditation is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.  If I could “finish” meditating, I’d likely start looking for shortcuts and checklists to reach the end more quickly.
  • Meditation is not dogma – Dogma implies an authoritative and incontrovertible set of practices and beliefs.  In my experience, one of the things that allows meditation to remain fully compatible with the Twelve Steps is the broad means of practicing it.  I’ve met many different practitioners of meditation who were part of Twelve Step Fellowships – Buddhists, Christians, atheists, Hindu and many who don’t identify with any religious tradition at all.  Each of them had their own way of reconciling their beliefs with the practice of meditation.
  • Meditation is not easy – There are some days when I try and meditate, and I’m so tired, I start to fall asleep.  (Sleeping is not meditation.)  Some days, I try and meditate, and every… single… second… lasts… FOREVER.  Some days, I never really feel like I’m really settled into my meditation.  I can get distracted by the noises in the room around me.  The car horns outside.  The stupid birds!  And WHY WON’T MY PHONE STOP ALERTING ME?  All of these make for practices within meditation sessions.  Meditation isn’t easy.  But I do find if I keep at it, it does get easier.  Over time, I’m more and more okay with the noises, and the beeping, and all the stuff outside of me (never mind all the stuff INSIDE of me).
  • There is no “right” or “wrong” way to formally meditate – Okay, this one is probably the one that someone could debate if they really wanted to.  There are many things you could try and call meditation that probably aren’t.  Reading a book probably isn’t formal practice.  Watching a made for TV movie probably isn’t meditation.  Staring out the window procrastinating while you’re supposed to be doing your taxes probably isn’t meditation.  But from what I’ve experienced, meditation is a good deal about INTENTION and ATTENTION.  And, if you sit down with the intention of meditating, and you allow yourself to be quiet, without a lot of other ideas about why you’re sitting there other than to meditate, and so you pay attention you’re probably doing what someone objectively could call formal meditation.  And that is a HUGE relief to me.  It means that meditation is immensely approachable, and available to pretty much anyone who wants to try and do it.

Man in white meditating on a beach

Here are three of the simple things I’ve discovered that meditation is, beyond my expectations or preconceived notions.

  • Meditation has always been a part of practicing the Twelve Steps – For the earliest practitioners of the Twelve Steps in the 1930s, even before there were Twelve Steps, meditation was a part of recovery along a spiritual path.  The predecessor of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Oxford Group, practiced a type of meditation they called “quiet time”.  While this specific process of meditation isn’t what I practice, it’s a relief for me to know that I share practices in my recovery that tie directly to the practices many hopeless drunks in early A.A. also practiced.  And many of them were able to recover.  This gives me hope, and allows me to experience a connection with very early practitioners in A.A.
  • Meditation is “like coming home” – With respects to the great American psychologist, Lawrence LeShan, this phrase is lifted directly from his wonderful and practical guidebook, “How to Meditate” – and it’s still the one that sums up my experience with meditation most simply.  There is a measure of comfort I get, just by making a decision to sit and meditate.  There is comfort that I’ve been able to realize, just by becoming aware of my own body.  There is a comfort, just from closing my eyes and allowing myself to listen, and feel, and breathe – without any expectation of what I need to do next, or what else I’m missing out on.  The presence and awareness that is available to me right now is immensely comforting, and does, indeed, feel to my like coming home.

This brings me to the final and most important conclusion I’ve reached about meditation so far: meditation isn’t what I think.  When I say, “meditation isn’t what I think”, I mean that in two important ways.

First, I mean that any ideas and pre-conceived notions I have about what meditation is, or (more importantly) what it can mean to me, that really doesn’t matter.  This is because all of those ideas and pre-conceived notions are a way of me labelling meditation, it’s a way of me trying to define something that is actually quite difficult to define.  By labeling meditation, I already begin to try and sort it and put it into a box, and leave it there, allowing me to be satisfied that I somehow “know” what that thing is about.  Meditation is first and foremost about experiencing something.  Something that is part of me, but also, something that is much, much larger than I am.  Something that much more universal, something that is available – I believe – to all of us.

Second, “meditation isn’t what I think” points to a very basic truth at the heart of what is so meaningful to me about meditation.  When I sit to meditate, I intend to be quiet and still, frequently what I experience is a mind full of racing thoughts and ideas… thoughts and ideas that quite often, I seem to have no ability to control or stop.  And yet, they still come!  During meditation, I begin to become very, very present to the reality that my thoughts arise and happen even without me wanting them to – in fact, often when I don’t want them to!  If the “I” that I identify with is sitting to meditate, and I’m able to observe all these seemingly random thoughts and ideas and fears, then that points to the reality that I am not my thoughts.  The idea that “I” can meditate and somehow begin to exist separate from my thoughts, then meditation clearly isn’t the same as my thoughts – it isn’t what I think.

I know meditation is a difficult topic to try and discuss.  Often, in trying to describe the elusive nature of meditation, I fear I risk explaining the best parts away.  But if you’ve read through this article to this point, and you haven’t sat and attempted to intentionally meditate today – I hope now you’ll give it a go.  You may also find for yourself, it isn’t what you think.