What No One Else Will Tell You About Meditation
I knew she was in trouble long before she sat down on the cushion next to me. Her attire of tight jeans and a form-fitting white tank top were perfect for happy hour but made her stick out like a sore thumb in the black sea of modest clothing worn by the fifty or so other people settling onto their meditation mats at Upaya Zen Center. It was clearly her first time, and she’d shown up for the black belt class – an hour of meditating with one five-minute break of silent walking.
Truth is a tough pill to swallow. Especially raw. The hardest truths to swallow are the ones that come from inside ourselves. Actually, it’s not the truths that are hard, but all the bullshit we have to sort through to get to them. Someone had lied to this young lady, or she’d lied to herself about her own capabilities. It was no surprise to me that two minutes in I began to hear her fidget as the agitation of her mind started to wreak havoc on her sensibilities.
Two overly exaggerated exhales later, she got up and walked right out of the Zendo. Congratulations, you were able to deal with your thoughts for less than five minutes. Good luck with life. Harsh? Maybe, but so is reality for most people. Confronting it isn’t for the faint of heart. Had she been given some insight, some truth into what she could expect and that she would need to be prepared for her own harsh truths, she may have made it through the experience.
Here are three things no one else is going to tell you about meditation.
Sitting Quietly With Ourselves Is Not Easy
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – Blaise Pascal
Well said, Frenchy. My cushion neighbor didn’t freak out due to the discomfort in her body that is bound to happen during longer sits, because she didn’t give herself a chance to get to that point. Her mind fucked her. When you sit down in silent contemplation, yours is most likely going to do the same to you – with a vigor – if it’s not already doing so.
Mindfulness is easy to read about. It makes for wonderful Internet memes with serene backdrops and peaceful foregrounds. Fountains and sunsets abound. But when you actually sit down and engage in mindfulness, it’s more like a scene from the Allied invasion of Normandy.
When we turn down the volume of our minds that constantly drowns out the crashing waves of our own fears, insecurities, anger, heartbreak, and disappointments, all that’s left for us to hear is the sound of those things breaking on the shores of our consciousness. And they break hard.
You are there, sitting in silence to learn the moment-to-moment ability to deal with them. Not to not freak out, but to hold your shit together in the face of difficulty. To breathe through your own patterning and personal psychological warfare.
A meditative practice is simple, yet profoundly difficult. The goal can be broken down into one sentence, “Complete acceptance of the present moment without judgment.” Volumes have been written on how to do that, all trying to get us to the same outcome just with different nomenclature.
The spiritual path is not for the faint at heart. Know that before you settle in for your five minutes of peace. The main teaching tools of any inner work – adversity, difficulty, and pain – are there to guide us, push us, and teach us. Before they can do their work, we have to be able to sit with them without allowing them to force us to get up and run out of the room.
You’re Not Going to Stop Thinking
Trust me on this, your mind is not going to stop thinking just because your butt is on a cushion or chair. For your entire life – 20, 30, 40, or 50-plus years – your mind has had its way. Think of it like a toddler, a toddler with advanced degrees in some cases, but a toddler nonetheless.
For your whole life this toddler has gotten to do whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. It’s been your friend and your foe, often not at your choosing. Some days your mind has been moderately obedient, asked to be excused after dinner, and used “please” and “thank you.” Some days it’s thrown itself on the ground of the supermarket and committed emotional terrorism over not getting Hostess Snowballs.
Your lungs breathe, your heart beats, and your mind thinks. It’s what your mind does. Arbitrarily choosing a day and saying, “Ok lungs, today I’m a meditator. Stop doing your thing,” is about as effective as saying the exact same thing to your mind. Good luck with that.
I’m breathing as I write this, however, my breaths aren’t in the forefront of my consciousness. I’m not pissed because one breath was shorter than the one before it or longer than the one coming up. I’m not upset I just coughed twice, or wondering what’s wrong with me and praying it never happens again. I don’t really notice my breathing. It’s there, but it’s not carrying me places I don’t want to go or know I’m going.
Let your thoughts exist in the same fashion. They’re there, but they don’t own you.
Our goal is not to stop our thoughts. It’s to allow them to arise in our minds and then leave. They are the cars that drive in front of your house and down your street. Give up the idea that meditating has anything to do with stopping your thoughts from coming forward.
When You Squeeze Oranges, Orange Juice Comes Out
Wayne Dyer left us with this brilliant quotation,
“When you squeeze an orange, you’ll always get orange juice to come out. What comes out is what’s inside.”
When we meditate, we hold up a mirror to our insides. If we are angry, we can expect to find anger when we go silent. If we are depressed, we can expect depression to come and knock on the door of our consciousness. This holds true for whatever is in us, be it rage, shame, judgment, and more. What is in us comes to us. When I have to speak to attorneys during the day, my nightly meditations are murder scenes. It happens.
Many people will read that and feel apprehension. Why would we want to experience emotions we classify as negative? Because meditation is our training ground. It’s our dojo. It’s where we go to get shit done. Except for the rare occasion it’s a vacation, a sunny beach, or a mental massage. On the days that it shows up as one of those, soak up the rays, but know that work starts again when you get home.
Before we can transform an emotion, or transform from an emotion, we have to be able to sit with it. Think of someone in your life who is a challenge. Before you can transform your relationship from one of anger, dislike, or downright loathing, you have to be able to be in the same room with them, don’t you? We don’t go from thoughts of strangulation to being BFFs in an instant with our fellow humans, and the same holds true for our emotions. There is nothing wrong with anger unless it is causing us to do things we later wish we hadn’t – like kill lawyers. Sitting with our anger, looking at it, feeling it and realizing we’re just dandy even though it’s there is a monumental step. That step happens in silence. That step happens in meditation.
Welcome the uncomfortable feelings – let them show you what’s stirring around inside of you. Welcome them into the safe place of your practice. Better to experience them there than in traffic, or with your spouse, or with your children. By creating a space where we can experience difficulty but also get up after a set period of time, shake ourselves off, and walk out of the room, we teach ourselves that emotions don’t have the power over us that we bestowed on them in the past.
Be Willing. Be Open. Be Brave.
I’ll admit it, I had a less than enlightened thought when my struggling cushion neighbor got up and stomped her way out of the room. “Couldn’t hack it, huh?” was the first thing that popped into my mind. I know, I’ve got my own work to do.
My second thought was more profound – it was one of sorrow. Sorrow for all of the beauty that she’s going to miss out on by running from being present. Sorrow for the pain that swirls around in her leading her to not be able to sit with her own thoughts and mind. Sorrow for her inability to be in her own skin. Someone should have spent five minutes with her and said,
“You’re amazing. You’re the most incredible human being you’ll ever know and the practice you’re about to begin is going to show you that over and over and over again. But first it’s going to break you down. First you’re going to have to go through some pain. Be willing. Be open. Be brave.
Know what you’re getting into when you begin a meditation practice and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Five minutes is a great starting point. Stay there for a while. Stay there for weeks if you need to. Be equally brave and compassionate as you begin to look into the mirror of your mind.
One Day Stronger Action Steps:
1. Be willing. Be open. Be brave.
2. Be quiet. Start your meditation practice with five minutes a day, that’s it. Give yourself the gift of beginning this beautiful practice with only five minutes.
3. Download Headspace or other guided meditations and begin there if the silence is too overwhelming for you.