10/20/2011 08:29 am ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

Against a 'Perfect' Meditation Practice

Now that my book about meditating my way from panic to peace has become a bestseller, (thank you to everyone who made that happen) people are asking me for advice on how to begin a successful meditation practice.

Which puts a lot of pressure on me. What is a successful meditation practice, anyway?

The Dalai Lama suggests that people begin a practice by setting aside just five to 10 minutes a day. And I don't doubt the Dalai Lama.

If you pressure yourself to sit still for an hour, I heard him say to thousands of students assembled to hear his teachings in New York City a couple of years ago, "You might cultivate a bad habit!" You could spend 45 minutes meditating but be half asleep, His Holiness warned us, with his trademark grin.

He also explained that it's best to meditate at the beginning of the day, when our minds are clear and sharp. He likened this to charging our batteries for the next 24 hours. The ability to maintain stable attention is something we possess naturally, he assured everyone.

But I've never been someone who sticks to a routine, even if The Dalai Lama suggests it.

For two years, I've been meditating every day for at least 20 minutes, but I do that wherever and whenever I like.

I meditate sitting still or walking, lying in bed or perched on a rock overlooking Long Island Sound. I meditate to music, raindrops and guided imagery CDs. I've pulled over to the side of a road to meditate by a golden field.

At the first meditation retreat I ever attended, with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk who'd cured his panic attacks through meditation, I found the act of simply sitting still to be excruciating.

In a hall full of people who seemed to know exactly how to meditate, I couldn't even figure out where to meditate. If I sat on one cushion, my knees hurt. If I doubled up and sat on two, my back hurt. If I sat on the hard floor, everything hurt. And if I sat in a chair, I worried that I was cheating.

But that's what I did, at least for the first day. I put my hands on my lap, as the woman next to me did, closed my eyes, and tried to be perfect. That didn't work out too well. And the pressure I was putting on myself certainly didn't come from my teacher.

"This is not The College of Meditation," Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche told his students, "Where you will finish with a degree. Don't worry too much about the result. Good meditation is okay; bad meditation is okay. Try to develop positive motivation. Just say 'I'm going to try my best to meditate.'"

My inner New Yorker, however, was determined to turn meditation into a competitive sport. I wanted to instantly become a mellow monk. I wanted the quick fix my anxious brain craved. And I wasn't alone. Forty million Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. And many of them want an instant cure

But things moved very slowly at my first retreat. The dining hall was so quiet I could hear people munching on their steel cut oats. I slept restlessly in my little twin bed at night, tiptoeing down the corridor of what had once been an old monastery, waiting for dawn to come, so that I wouldn't have to lie in the dark wondering if I'd made a huge mistake committing to the act of sitting still, alone with myself.

One day, while I positioned myself in a wooden chair under a tree, outside of the meditation hall, away from all the people who I assumed were developing a perfect meditation practice, I managed to sit still, stare at a green bush, and feel my life, brain and soul settle down.

I was thrilled. Responding to an image Rinpoche had given us, I imagined I was a leaf, floating in the ocean. I was happy, relaxed and proud of myself.

Until later that afternoon, when I fidgeted, sighed and once again felt like a failure at meditation.

My practice didn't start off with a bang. And in the two years since then, I've experienced perfect moments when I feel at one with the world, and moments when I've cried with frustration. But the biggest gift I've given myself is permission to be imperfect, cranky and anxious. I'm able to laugh at my frantic desire to be calm.

How did I start a perfect meditation practice? By embracing my own imperfections.

Priscilla Warner co-authored The New York Times bestseller "The Faith Club." Her new memoir, "Learning to Breathe -- My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life", is published by Free Press. Follow her on twitter on facebook or on her website.