Nothing can stop a beginning meditator dead in their tracks easier than the myths, memes and fantasy ideals about meditation that abound today.
As a teacher of meditation and mindfulness practices, I so often hear comments like, “I can’t stop my thoughts” or “I can’t find any peace.” We all read and hear about the benefits of meditation—the bliss, the deep everlasting joy and the peaceful clarity it will bring into our lives—and we believe it. So at some point we decide to give it a go, and usually give up quickly when we find the reality falls short.
Nobody mentions in these blissful ascension memes that a truly grounded meditation practice is hard work and takes time to develop. The pictures of someone beautiful sitting in lotus posture on a beach or mountain top at sunrise somehow never depict the common experience that sitting with yourself (as opposed to distracting yourself so you don’t see what’s really going on) can be uncomfortable or even downright painful. In promoting the deep joys of meditation practice, they often fail to reveal that (in the short term) meditation practice can in fact make you feel worse.
To be accurate, meditation doesn’t really make you feel worse. When you connect with your inner landscape in meditative practice, you often catch sight of the true turmoil of your inner processes for the first time ever. Most of us have gone for decades keeping ourselves busy so that we don’t need to take a deep look at what’s really going on inside. Meditation doesn’t make things bad, it just lets you see more clearly what is honestly going on, as opposed to the fantasy version you have created in your mind though decades of cultural concepts and programming. And it can be incredible to discover that the reality of our mental-emotional-spiritual world is often a very difficult place to be.
So when people tell me that their meditation practice wasn’t love and light and peace and happiness, I say yes, that’s it! That’s the way it is, but like everything else, it won’t stay that way forever. Just keep going and I promise it will change.
If you start meditation and, instead of joy and clarity, find utter discomfort and restlessness, then you’re on the right track. Don’t let other people’s delicious reports of how blissful meditation is convince you that you’ve failed and make you want to give up. if you do then you’re ignoring the reality of how difficult meditation is, and failing to understand that meditation is a skills to be learned and improved over time. Yep, that’s right—they call it meditation practice because the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Giving up on meditation after a few attempts is akin to going to the gym a few times and then stopping as you realise the sheer scale of effort needed to achieve a good level of fitness. Going to the gym regularly and working hard will make you physically fit over the long term, not in a few days. The progressive nature of training means you should almost always be facing the current edge of your ability, which lies outside your comfort zone.
It’s the same with meditation, which is simply mind training. If you’re doing the kind of work that will to bring changes to your ability to process mental-emotional stress and afflictive emotions such as anger, fear and so on, it will be tough going. Until you’ve worked with the dark stuff, all those undigested life experiences that programmed your mind to be as it is, things aren’t easy. But that very difficulty is what lets you know that they’re working, just like mild muscle pain and tiredness lets you know that you’ve exercised well.
Now don’t think it’s all doom and gloom. For sure, there are blissful times, deep clarity and wonderful insights into the nature of life all along the way. There is a real need to rest in the process of meditation practice, and to let the fruits of your hard work integrate into your psyche, so it shouldn’t all be hard work. But such joyous experiences arise naturally as an internal force, not as an external add-on created by your imagination. There is a huge difference between your natural inner bliss shining through after years of hard work and the deception of spiritual bypassing that comes when we pretend that life (and meditation) is only light and beauty. Without learning to accept both the shadow and the light aspects of our being, we will never feel the wholeness of complete being and thereby find freedom.
How do we find that acceptance? By learning to sit in our practice no matter how busy our mind is. We sit with the anger, the discomfort, the irritation and the boredom, and anything else that comes up whenever we are still. We just observe it, feel it, sit with it it for hour after hour and get to know it intimately. We learn how to deal with our emotions without acting out (unleashing them on others) or acting in (being mentally destructive towards ourselves). We slowly learn how to live an embodied life, neither grasping (at the “good” things) nor pushing away (the “bad” things), just enjoying life as it arises. We gradually develop skills in navigating these wild emotions and rampant thoughts without numbing out, avoiding them or switching off to everyday life.
The key attitude in changing our relationship with our mind is regentlessness. Now I’ll apologise for making up a word (read it again if your mind thought I wrote relentlessness), and confess that once upon a time I did used to preach that simple relentlessness was itself the key. But over time I have seen that there needs to be an element of kindness in the way we are relentless in pursuit of our deepest truth. Being relentlessly gentle to yourself in getting back to practice is my tried and tested advice to those who really want to do live life differently. Every time you are knocked down, get back on your feet—but do so with self-compassion, the same way as you would help your best friend back to their feet.
Just keep coming back to your cushion, without aggression or forcing, day after week after month after year. You are rewiring the neurological pathways of your brain and that won’t happen in one session, or even in a few weeks or months of consistent practice. How long did it take you to get your mind to the state it is in right now? Thirty? Forty? Fifty years or more? If meditation can make things better in say ten years, isn’t that a pretty good deal?
Your mind will change over time. Your practice, your efforts, will be worthwhile. Have faith, and keep coming back to the work—relentlessly gentle, committed and engaged with life as it arises.