I've been practicing mindfulness meditation for around three months now. I've heard many times that a key aim for meditation is to be with whatever thoughts and feelings are present, without trying to change anything. I understand to a large extent why this is important, as much upset is caused by suppressing and mentally running away from things that we are afraid of.

However, in my practice I have found that if I consciously try to relax during a session (muscular tension is an issue with me) it can be a much more fulfilling, refreshing experience. Is this not an example of trying to change something, and therefore 'bad' practice?

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    I can't post an answer anymore, but keep in mind that you are fresh at it. Putting yourself in bodily pain during meditation does not help you. It is perfectly valid to spend, say, 5 minutes at the beginning of the meditation to get your body in a position where it does not bother you constantly with pain or tension. Also, depending on the type of meditation you are doing you certainly can "do something" about pain arising during the meditation. Of course, you should not hop around constantly, but when your knees start hurting, you better do something about that. Be nice to yourself!
    – AnoE
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 15:54

9 Answers 9


It is very important to distinguish what buddhists call threefold training (sikkha), see e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threefold_Training. Each of the training parts has different methods and different goals.

  1. Morality training (sila-sikkha), or, in today's language I'd say "personality development", deals with making one's ordinary life conditions suitable for meditation practice: both externally (like livelihood, relationships, health) and also internally (like some basic psychological sanity). It is called "first and last training", because one starts here (and it includes 5 precepts which are basic transgressions to be avoided) but is also never perfect and can always improve. The goal is not to harm oneself and others, and do good.

  2. Concentration training (citta-sikkha), which is samatha (tranquility, concentration) meditation. The goal is to be fluent in attaining various mind states, especially absorptions (jhanas) and to develop concentrative power of the mind. Some lineages don't do this training separately, e.g. Mahasi Saydaw taught practices where concentration is developed along the way with the next one. Whether this training has some end point is a question which is disputed.

  3. Insight training (panna-sikkha, wisdom training): vipassana meditation. The goal is to see clearly things as they are, especially (the accent depends on the lineage) in terms of 3 characteristics (uncontrollability, impermanence and unsatisfactoriness). Theory says that this training has an end-point, which is final enlightenment (attainment of the 4th path knowledge, thereby destroying all "fetters").

Note that in 1. and 2. you are supposed to manipulate your experience as a part of the training, where as in point 3 (vipassana), non-manipulation is essential. It is very important to be aware of this context, otherwise people might use meditation instruction in daily life (e.g. being mindful of pain or other's suffering instead of going to see doctor or helping someone).

During vipassana practice, you should be aware of things happening; this might include what you conventionally think you do, such as stretching or relaxing, but actually happening in a way by themselves (that is one of the 3 characteristics - anatta, non-self or non-controllability), though we are often in habit of ascribing them to ourselves and making ourselves guilty of such actions, thinking we are performing "badly". Before you relax, try to become aware of feelings taking you there (disliking, maybe feeling of helplessness, thoughts about the pain never going away, craving for peace or similar - dunno) which actually make you want to relax. And if you relax anyway, be mindful of judging thoughts or whatever else comes afterwards.

As others said, fulfillment from the practice is something very hard to measure and is definitely not co-extensive with good feelings during the practice. In the long run, you actually want to bring bad feelings up (so that you deal with them), a little bit in the line of "no pain, no gain", but let the practice take you there, it does its own thing quite well if you don't interfere :)

(PS: I attribute the 3 trainings discussion and difference in goals they have to D. Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.)

  • Thanks for this, I felt your answer was the most helpful for my current stage of practice. Also thanks to the others who answered - certainly a lot to chew on. All the best.
    – james6848
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 16:02
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    The 3 trainings are essentially one training, compared to 3 strands that comprise of one rope; or, in terms of the 8 fold path, 8 strands that make up 1 rope. They cannot be separated. Trainings 1 & 2 are the foundation. Training 3 cannot be done properly without trainings 1 & 2 being firmly established. Thus the scriptures state: calmness & insight occur in tandem; there is no wisdom without stability (concentration); the concentrated mind without an act of will sees things as they really are. Regards Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 19:35
  • @Dhammadhatu: Not sure if that's a comment or an objection. Of course they are sequential and intertwined, that's why #1 is #1 and so on. But they still should be separated conceptually, and also in the practice. When doing sport, workouts and stretching are also necessary for each other and work in tandem, but mixing them at the same moment makes the training ineffective. I will adjust the text to say "threefold training" rather than "three trainings", you have a good point.
    – eudoxos
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 5:37

'Not trying to change anything' is a modern idea and is not what is taught in the original Buddhist teachings.

In the original teachings, there are four right efforts, namely: (i) effort to prevent unwholesome states of mind; (ii) effort to dispel unwholesome states of mind; (iii) effort to cultivate wholesome states of mind; and (iv) effort to maintain & increase wholesome states of mind.

'Refreshing' calmness/tranquility ('samatha') is considered a wholesome state of mind that is preferably developed. To cultivate calmness requires a keen/observant yet very gentle effort to keep the mind clear & equanimous.

For him, having thus developed the noble eightfold path...the four right efforts... go to the culmination of their development. [And] for him these two qualities occur in tandem: tranquillity (samatha) & insight (vipassana).

MN 149

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    The OP speaks about mindfulness meditation (which is the English rendering of vipassana) which means "seeing things clearly/distincly/as they are" (I guess you know this better than me). "Not trying to change anything" is very much present in that "as they are", even though it is not the traditional way of putting it.
    – eudoxos
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 15:10
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    A mind that is not calm & clear cannot "see things as they are". The term "seeing things as they are" does not refer to a psychotherapy type of insight of seeing the neurosis of the mind as it is. This is why people go to psychotherapy because they actually cannot see clearly. "See things as they are" or "vipasssa" refers to seeing the inherent impermanence, unsatisfactoriness & non-self of things. When this occurs, the mind does not have any emotions. Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 19:29
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    From the suttas: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an11/an11.002.than.html ""For a person whose mind is concentrated, there is no need for an act of will, 'May I know & see things as they actually are.' It is in the nature of things that a person whose mind is concentrated knows & sees things as they actually are." Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 19:31

Insight or Vipassana meditation is about finding out the real nature of phenomena. Achieving relaxation or some kind of a refreshing feeling is not the goal. The correct method is to note all conditioned phenomena as they are without trying to alter or make things easy for you. The effort you put into doing that is the right effort indeed as it cuts-off(over time) the causes of unwholesome(greed, aversion, ignorance) mind states; It prevents already arisen unwholesome mind states from propagating; it cultivates & improves on wholesome(non-craving,non-aversion, wisdom) mind states.

"Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."[2] - Bāhiya Sutta

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    "This, just this" :)
    – user2341
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 16:49

"[...] a key aim for meditation is to be with whatever thoughts and feelings are present, without trying to change anything."

Regarding the "without trying to change anything" part, this advice is a popular (but often confusing) way of teaching equanimity (pali: upekkha), an important skill in the Buddhist curriculum. In a sense, the advice's purpose seems to aim both at preventing mindless habitual reactions to a certain event and preventing reactions based on aversion (pali: dosa) or craving (pali: taṇhā), two of the five hindrances that prevent us from progressing.

In Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, Ven. Analayo explains equanimity as follows:

"Equanimity or equipoise, upek(k)ha, from the etymological perspective suggests a mental attitude of 'looking upon', not an indifferent 'looking away'. The term thus conveys an awareness of whatever is happening combined with mental balance and the absence of favoring or opposing."

[...] "equanimity is [...] a mental equipoise that rounds off a systematic opening of the heart which has been brought about through cultivation of the other three divine abodes".

Here's, for example, how the Buddha teaches the development of equanimity in the suttas:

"Now how, Ananda, in the discipline of a noble one is there the unexcelled development of the faculties?

"[...] when touching a tactile sensation with the body, there arises in a monk what is agreeable, what is disagreeable, what is agreeable & disagreeable. He discerns that 'This agreeable thing has arisen in me, this disagreeable thing... this agreeable & disagreeable thing has arisen in me. And that is compounded, gross, dependently co-arisen. But this is peaceful, this is exquisite, i.e., equanimity.' With that, the arisen agreeable thing... disagreeable thing... agreeable & disagreeable thing ceases, and equanimity takes its stance. Just as a strong man might easily extend his flexed arm or flex his extended arm, that is how quickly, how rapidly, how easily, no matter what it refers to, the arisen agreeable thing... disagreeable thing... agreeable & disagreeable thing ceases, and equanimity takes its stance. In the discipline of a noble one, this is called the unexcelled development of the faculties with regard to tactile sensations cognizable by the body.

-- Indriya-bhavana Sutta, MN 152 (Thanissaro Trans.)

As illustration, here's a sutta narrating the attitude of the Buddha when in physical pain:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha at the Maddakucchi Deer Reserve. Now at that time his foot had been pierced by a stone sliver. Excruciating were the bodily feelings that developed within him — painful, fierce, sharp, wracking, repellent, disagreeable — but he endured them mindful, alert, & unperturbed. Having had his outer robe folded in four and laid out, he lay down on his right side in the lion's posture, with one foot placed on top of the other, mindful & alert.

-- SN 1.38

It's important to note that equanimity is not some kind of passivity as if one should remain idle when facing a threat to one's health. One should still take care of one self and others equanimously - instead of trying to take care of oneself and others moved by fear, despair, anger or craving.

Another related sutta is the The Arrow which illustrates the differences between pain and suffering.

"However, in my practice I have found that if I consciously try to relax during a session (muscular tension is an issue with me) it can be a much more fulfilling, refreshing experience."

During meditation, specially, the samatha aspect of the practice, that's good. Here's the Buddha describing his own experience:

[...] But with excessive thinking and pondering I might tire my body, and when the body is tired, the mind becomes strained, and when the mind is strained, it is far from concentration. So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness, and concentrated it. Why is that? So my mind should not be strained.

-- Dvedhāvitakka Sutta [Bodhi trans.], MN 19

So, as you can see, "consciously trying" is necessary in the Buddhist training. Knowing what to try to do and what to prevent doing, however, requires understanding what are wholesome actions and attitudes (those leading to enlightenment) and unwholesome actions (those that lead to more suffering) as well as knowing the skills and goals to be developed during a certain practice.

On the importance of equanimity, it is an important factor in many doctrinal aspects, among them, the 7 enlightenment factors. They are:

  • Mindfulness (sati)
  • Investigation (dhamma vicaya)
  • Energy (viriya)
  • Joy or rapture (pīti)
  • Relaxation or tranquility (passaddhi)
  • Concentration (samādhi)
  • Equanimity (upekkha)

On the five hindrances:

“Bhikkhus, there are these five hindrances. What five? The hindrance of sensual desire, the hindrance of ill will [aversion], the hindrance of sloth and torpor, the hindrance of restlessness and remorse, the hindrance of doubt. These are the five hindrances. This Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these five hindrances, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning.”

SN 45.177


In meditation one observes everything. That includes your muscular tension, you're subsequent conscious effort to relax, en your enjoyment of your relaxed posture afterwards. It can include your thoughts about "bad practice". After you are done sitting you can continue your meditation by observing your body and thoughts move around again. After a while you will conclude that you were actually never not meditating.

My advice is to forget about "bad practice". Observing yourself as you truly are is the essence of meditation.


There is nothing wrong with making a concious effort to relax your body (you mentioned having muscular tension) during meditation. Indeed, it's helpful. It's also good to approach your meditation with an open, relaxed mental state. The rest will follow naturally -- give it time. I think some of the other replies are over thinking/analyzing the issue.


Its not really not trying to change anything. This probably stems from a bad interpretation of Zen/Chan Buddhism where one practice is to observe the mind. Thoughts that come whether good or bad will arise then pass so you can observe them realizing they are impermanent, non-self, etc or simply observe them without attaching to them.

A Chan master taught a series of five techniques of increasing subtlety. All are misguided in some way apart from the fifth and ultimate method.

  1. A direct awareness of the arising of deluded thoughts.
  2. An examination of that awareness.
  3. The prevention of the arising of thoughts.
  4. The perception that thoughts have no intrinsic nature (that is, they are empty).
  5. Awareness of the arising of deluded thoughts without analysing or pursuing this awareness, so that thoughts are freed the instant they arise.

Some Chan Teachings: Therefore you should not suppress concepts. Whenever they arise, if you do not fabricate anything but instead let them go, then they will stay as they are and come to rest by themselves; thus you will not pursue them.

Some Chan teachings: When you are engaged in contemplation itself, look at your own mind. Then, the lack of any mental activity at all is non-thought. If there is movement of the conceptual mind, be aware of it. “How should one be aware?” Do not analyse the mind which is moving in terms of any kind of quality at all: do not analyse it as moving or not moving; do not analyse it as existing or not existing; do not analyse it as virtuous or non-virtuous; and do not analyse it as defiled or pure. If you are aware of mind in this way, it is natureless. This is the practice of the dharma path.


Meditation and 'not trying to change anything'

Yes. You are not trying to do something through you are doing it with a objective relieve your stress.

If you try there is a possibility of subtle craving. If at all you are changing anything is to calm your fabrications and tame your afflictions.

However, in my practice I have found that if I consciously try to relax during a session (muscular tension is an issue with me) it can be a much more fulfilling, refreshing experience. Is this not an example of trying to change something, and therefore 'bad' practice?

If you generate any anger or aversion towards this feeling or any liking towards another state or wanting something else then it is bad. Otherwise it is good. Relaxing means you can:

  • meditate for long hours
  • concentrate your mind
  • and perhaps a basis for Piti and Passaddhi

Also see: What is Mindfulness? What are the 6 Rs?


Whether relaxation is "good" or "bad" or whether not changing anything is "good" or "bad" is not a helpful framework. It gets into unhelpful all-or-nothing thinking, or "always" thinking.

A better framework is "Is it helpful, in this instance?"


A few points:

  • If you are trying to change your tension to get relaxation, and that is helpful, go for it. One clear example is if the relaxation can help you stay concentrated on the breath, if that is your goal. Then go for it.
  • However, if you can be concentrated on the breath, but you keep on "futzing" and adjusting and searching for "how can I be even more relaxed?", that is not helpful to your goal. I have seen this happen, where people are looking for the "perfect" way to sit on the cushion where there is no discomfort.

A humorous way to put it: If you can never concentrate on the breath (anapanasati) if there are mosquitoes buzzing, then how will you learn to concentrate when your mind is buzzing even more! However, you shouldn't start meditating in a room full of mosquitoes, as it will sap your resolve.

It is possible, also, for something to be helpful today, but not be helpful in 5 years. At the start, I would say that most beginner meditators in America need more relaxation. However, an experienced meditator (even in America) who is just focused on relaxation is not following the Buddhist path as fully as they could.


Similarly, for not changing anything, when is it helpful and when is it not helpful?

  • If your goal is to watch the subtle sequences in how your mind is involved in all processes, then it's important to look at where the urges (like the urge to relax) comes from, and not change anything. Just watch. This applies for specific thoughts (just watch the worrying about family drama) all the way to fundamental perspectives (just watch selfing, me-making, I-making).
  • If you are watching the subtle sequences of your mind, but you are being overwhelmed by anxiety that prevents you from watching, it is probably helpful/skillful to address the anxiety. (At some point, you might choose to watch the anxiety process and not change anything. But, early on, you won't be able to. Gritting your teeth and watching the anxiety does't always work. For one reason, the "gritting your teeth" is also an action. And that would be a violation of not change anything.)

I'd also add that you are free to try it both ways, and see for yourself. (Ehipassiko)


Again, it is possible for something to be useful today, but not useful at the end of the path. At the end of the path, even conceptualization has to be let go of. And "not changing anything" and "changing things" both have to be let go. But before then, conceptualization is a very important part of building the skills for the path.

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