I frequently hear people — often in the midst of expressing how stressed out they are — utter the phrase, “I should be meditating more.” I’m sure I utter it myself sometimes.

It’s a classic Western-style cause-and-effect thing: “I am stressed out, so if I meditate more, I’ll be more relaxed.” It’s like a diet or an exercise regimen. It treats meditation as a health remedy.

But is that really how meditation works? Does meditating more often reduce one’s stress level? I don’t have clinical evidence, but it’s certainly not that straightforward in my personal experience. If anything, the causal relationship is reversed; being stressed out causes me to meditate less, and when I’m less stressed out, I meditate more.

The amount of meditation I’m doing doesn’t seem to determine in any way when or how often I get stressed out. It’s possible that I respond better to being stressed out when I’ve been meditating frequently — that I notice my stress enough to cool my reactions and be more forgiving of myself and others — but it’s also possible I just believe that because it’s what all my teachers and books tell me is supposed to happen. I can’t actually measure that and know it to be true.

So — it seems fair to ask at this point — what does meditation do, and why does it generate anxiety about not doing it enough?

Meditation reveals the mind’s true nature. I think it’s important to let that be all it does. Loading the practice with relieving all neuroses and anxieties and aspirations fills it with distractions from the task at hand. Don’t overcomplicate it; attending to reality is all there is to do. “Should” is anxiety, and anxiety obscures reality. Insight may indeed reduce anxiety, but “should” will never let you get there.