Woman meditating in Bali under a palm tree - anxiety relief

This is a photo of me meditating. My usual place of meditation is on a prayer mat on a picturesque wooden balcony in Bali.

Just kidding. That’s not me—though the photo really is of a woman doing yoga in Bali.

In reality, I sometimes meditate in an awkward cross-legged position on my rumpled bed, in the dark in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Other times I meditate, um, not at all.

I would like to meditate more often. My trouble is, I often tense up while meditating. The more I try not to tense up, the more tense I get. By the time the session is over, I often have a headache and muscle pain and feel awful. And yet, I have, on rare occasions, had blissful sessions that leave me feeling relaxed, refreshed, and at peace.

It’s easy to diagnose my problem: I’m trying too hard. The solution is harder to come by. Robert Wright, in his book Why Buddhism Is True, notes that meditation presents a paradox:

“You can best achieve success at meditation by not pursuing success, and achieving this success may mean caring less about success, at least as success is conventionally defined.”

Wright points out that meditation teachers tend to discourage students from thinking in terms of success and failure, advising them to avoid judging a meditation session as good or bad. At the same time, it’s obvious to him (and to me) that a session in which anxious thoughts race around at high speed (or in which muscles tense up in full panic mode) is not really what the meditator is going for.

The goal is to stop caring about success, whereupon it might arrive. I’ve tried this, with mixed results—probably because I tried something in the first place. It seems that my anxieties are preventing me from using meditation as an anti-anxiety technique. Tips, anyone?