How do we find the impetus to incorporate this seemingly enigmatic practice into our lives? Perhaps not so much by understanding what it is, but rather by simply removing our objections to doing it.
Meditation has been practiced by humans for thousands of years, yet it didn’t substantively hit American culture until the 1960’s, and even now, half a century later, meditating still seems to be somewhat of a foreign concept to most Americans. I recommend it to lots of patients (well, all of them, really) and am frequently met with either blank stares or dismissive hand waves. Yet it remains one of the most basic, simple, and effective ways that people can take care of themselves.
In simple terms, meditation is the access point to the peace we all need & crave in our lives, it’s the opening to understand and let go of patterns of thought & behavior that don’t serve us. It’s a huge part of how we become aware of who we are and what we’re doing. Along with eating, sleeping, and breathing, it’s one of the most basic nourishing things we can do.
So if meditating is so great, how come everybody doesn’t do it? How come it’s still such a foreign concept and unapproachable activity to so many of us?
Reasons not to meditate
There are none. Well, actually, there are plenty of reasons not to meditate, and all of them are completely lame. My teacher once verbalized a well known old Zen saying – you should meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you don’t have time, then you should meditate for an hour. The point here is that time is why we should meditate, not why we shouldn't.
Life is full of busyness, and that's all the more reason that the benefits of meditation are important. We live in a rapidly accelerating world, technology pretty much has us in a half-nelson no matter where we are or what we’re doing. We’re fully engaged with life responsibilities nearly 24/7.
Downtime, real actual downtime, is a rarity. I read recently that Americans rack up over 650 million hours of unused vacation time each year. We seriously need a break. Guess what meditation is good for? So the I-don’t-have-enough-time excuse isn’t going to get any significant traction.
There are plenty of other similar week excuses in circulation – my cat won’t leave me alone, I need to get my kids off to school, my work schedule is inflexible, my allergies are terrible, I get too sleepy, there’s no scientific proof it works, my s/o thinks it’s weird, on and on. There’s no shortage of reasons to not do something you don’t want to do.
One reason I’ve heard more than a few times that might actually be getting a little closer to the heart of the matter seems to revolve around the process itself. “I’ve tried it, but I’m not any good at it.” Or “it doesn’t work for me.” Seriously?
Does anyone honestly think there are any people anywhere who are actually good at meditating? Maybe some of those monks who sit around in nifty robes in ginormous mountain temples meditating all day, aren’t those guys good at it? They may be used to it, practiced at it, but in reality they are humans, just like you, who struggle with the same issues we all struggle with when we sit down to meditate.
Making the effort
Meditation is not about being good at it, or about having a successful experience with it (whatever that might look like), or even about feeling good while doing it. Meditation is simply about the process of making the effort to do it. It’s about making the effort to sit down and confront the fact that the annoying voice in your brain really hates to be ignored, and that a large part of the pablum swimming around in our heads is little more than worthless disjointed static.
There’s an amusing quote by Anne Lamott, where she says her mind is like a dangerous neighborhood, she doesn’t like to go there alone. This is what I think we all find most intolerable about sitting down to meditate. The dark recesses of our minds can be pretty unpleasant.
So what happens when we meditate? Nothing. That’s the entire point of it. And I think that’s the center of our objection to it – we’re so used to being engaged and entertained by our all of our moments and the devices in our pockets, that we almost panic without nearly constant stimulation.
We spend so much time in our busy worlds with our busy minds that we are almost never not doing something. Even when we’re sleeping, we’re doing that. (You can read up on the science of sleep, it’s an important activity that the body needs to accomplish regularly, it’s not nothing). Meditation is consciously nothing.
Unfortunately, that nothing doesn’t last very long. Several seconds, maybe a couple of minutes if you’re lucky or practiced at it. But then our active thinking mind suddenly realizes it no longer has the microphone, and it gets busy reasserting its command of your personal operating system.
And it will do anything it possibly can to get you to listen to it so that you end up spending your 20minutes in mindless mental chatter rather than the peaceful awareness you’re attempting to cultivate.
Some of the things your mind will suggest to distract you, to keep you away from that ‘nothing’ will be enticing thoughts, like what toppings you could get on your next slice of pizza, or what you’re going to do with the $23 million (after taxes) that this week’s scratch-off may indeed drop in your lap.
And if flattery or seduction don’t work, then of course there are threats and fears, and that’s where the sketchy neighborhood thing comes in.
There is a mountain of things you don’t want to think about lurking in the dark corners of your mind, and they will come floating up to greet you like a cockroach in a banana split, defecating all over your meditation process. This happens to everyone who tries to meditate. And the short-term emotional gratification factor there can be pretty low, and most people don’t like that.
And that is the real reason people don’t meditate, the reason they don’t have time, the reason it doesn’t work for them, why they’re not any good at it. We are, all of us, afraid of our own darkness, afraid of the heinous labor of confronting our own inner doubt and fear. And that makes sense, it’s totally reasonable to be afraid of that stuff. In fact, there’s probably something wrong with you if you’re not sketched out by it.
But meditating isn’t as scary as our mind would have us believe. Neither is the stuff we’re supposed to be afraid of. Our thinking mind wants to distract us so it will say anything to keep you from putting it on the back burner for 20 minutes, including telling you how bad you feel about whatever it can dredge up.
Finding a little peace
The truth is that meditating regularly gives us a little bit of space from our busy lives, a little personal quietude. And in that peace we can begin to recognize those hidden thoughts and feelings in the back of our minds for what they are: just thoughts, nothing more.
We’ve got a million stories stacked up in our inner filing cabinets, stories about who we are and how the world works. Most of it is not accurate, or even very conscious. And a large part of why it can seem scary is because we don’t totally know what’s there, and we don’t necessarily feel the inner solidity we need to untie some of those knots productively.
Mediation is a tool that allows us to make friends (or at least acquaintances) with the unknown, to see that the fear we all carry within is really just a part of ourselves that we’re out of touch with. Meditating regularly is like practicing being aware of who you are.
Meditating is really not so difficult, even though our thoughts would have us believe otherwise. Sitting down to try is all that’s needed. You don’t need to know any secrets or believe any philosophies, its not about religion, everyone can do it.
You just need to keep doing it. Like so many techniques, it doesn’t work if you don’t do it. There are many different methods, try some, and over time it will change your life.
Brad Warner, an American Zen teacher and author, has a book called “Sit Down and Shut Up,” which just may be one of the best book titles I’ve ever seen. Says it all.