Ben • • 4 min read
The Key to Meditation is Noble Failure
Consciousness & Meditation Philosophy Psychology & Happiness
Meditation, like many other things, is really about failing. Over and over again.
In his book The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living, Stephen Cope describes something that he calls The Noble Failure. It’s a moment one experiences when meditation practice shows you just how out-of-control your mind really is:
“Our first experiment with a meditation technique of this kind inevitably brings us face-to-face with an alarming discovery: we cannot do the technique at all! We cannot let awareness rest in the breath for even a few seconds together without it slipping off and thinking about dinner tonight, or that irritating snoring sound coming from our neighbor. We’ve given awareness a very simple object – the breath. And such a simple directive: Stay!! Stay, Lassie, stay. Stay on the breath. But Lassie just keeps romping off to play in the woods.
I sometimes call this discovery ‘the Noble Failure.’ It is certainly a failure – because we discover that the mind will simply not rest on the object. But it is also noble, because it gives us (perhaps for the first time) a vantage point from which to observe the nature of ordinary mind.”
One realizes that the mind isn’t really something you direct most of the time; you’re not usually guiding it in a specific, productive direction. Rather, thoughts, emotions, and other mental experiences arise and pass away, seemingly out of our control. We can’t help but think stuff. During meditation we attempt to stop thinking, we attempt to stop our mind’s chatter, and realize we can’t. We don’t have a choice. Even when we want it to sit still for just a couple minutes, the mind rambles on.
Fortunately, we’re in the position of being able to train our own mind through contemplative disciplines such as meditation.
We can train the mind through trying over and over to control it and repeatedly failing.
How to Utilize Our Failings
Close your eyes and try to focus on your breathing. Try to do nothing but focus on the sensation of the air flowing in and out of your nostrils, your lungs. See how long you can do this, without becoming distracted by thought or mental noise.
How long did you last? Five seconds? Half a minute?
Your first reaction may be to see this as a failure, but it’s actually an opportunity! Here’s your chance! All you’ve got to do to be successful in meditation is recognize that your attention was lost, and return it to the breath! Just see your failure, and bring awareness back to the breath, your anchor.
If your awareness never faltered, you would never have a chance to strengthen it through this process.
You have to lose your concentration in order to find it again. Meditation is all about finding it again; over and over and over again.
Eventually your ability to concentrate improves and you can keep attention on the anchor for longer stretches. This leads to a quieting of the mind, relaxation, and the many other benefits generally associated with meditation.
But even sweeter is the fact that your mind learns to recognize what it is doing. Normally we pass hours, days, and maybe even entire lives without a significant awareness of what our own minds are doing. In meditation, every time you see that your mind has wandered from the anchor, you strengthen the awareness muscle. You have a moment of recognition: this is where my mind is.
This guides us to live in the present moment, and enables us to use our minds far more effectively.
If you practice meditation regularly, you will start to have “wake-up” moments. Your practice will plant the seeds for spontaneous moments in day-to-day life in which you realize that you’re not living in the present. It will just hit you that you’ve been lost in thought about the past, future, your to-do list, or some other fantasy. This is an opportunity to bring yourself to the present, just as you do in meditation.
Meditation reveals the beautiful bloom of the present every time you recognize what is happening within you and in the world around you.
When we consistently take account of what the mind does, we start to develop more control and autonomy in relation to the mind. In a given moment, when we wake up to what our mind is doing, we may let it continue doing whatever it is doing, or we may decide to change its track. Regardless of what we choose, the important thing to recognize is that we only have the choice if we become aware of what the mind is doing.
It’s only possible to change the direction of your thoughts, or think more purposefully on a topic, when you’re being present with what is going on in the mind. We aren’t really in control of the usual daydreaming or casual thought trains that occupy the mind the majority of the time. We’re more like passengers going for a ride on the train. We only get to drive if we wake up and pay attention to what is going on.
So don’t be afraid of failure—not in meditation, not anywhere. An expert is just someone who has failed way more times at something than most people. That uber-Zen person you know has just realized, through a lot of practice, how thoroughly out of control the mind truly is.
Meditation practice is the cultivation of awareness through repeated failure to control the mind. When the mind refuses to be silent, don’t be discouraged.
It’s not because meditation isn’t for you. It’s not because you lack discipline. It’s because you’re a human practicing meditation. Stick with your rebellious mind and one day, perhaps sooner than you think, you’ll uncover something vital.
If you’re ready to build a long-term meditation practice and other life-revolutionizing habits, take our course, 30 Challenges to Enlightenment.
The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living
by Stephen Cope
The Wisdom of Yoga paints a rich picture of how psychological change can happen through yoga practice. Stephen Cope tells personal stories from his relationships with several close friends who were practicing yoga to change their habits and themselves. Through these stories he elucidates the principles by which yoga operates to catalyze internal growth. An excellent introduction to the yogic perspective on personal growth, and the mechanics of how contemplative practice affects the mind.