Meditation — an ancient spiritual practice turned modern wellness craze. What began mostly in East Asia has been exported to the West. Conveniently stripped of most of it’s spiritual baggage that would have made it unpalatable to our modern day sensibilities. Meditation is promoted as having a number of positive impacts on both mental and physical health: Reducing anxiety and depression, better self awareness, improved concentration and sleep. The list is almost endless. Because meditation helps us to better understand the root of our human experience, most of these claims have some truth to them. The changes may not be as dramatic as your favourite Instagram mindfulness “guru” may make them out to be, but there are certainly positive changes to be had. However, most people have a difficult time integrating meditation into their daily routine. What is often touted as being a blissful state of self transcendence can often be painful and miserable. The self-judgment and the aching back can make finding twenty minutes to sit feel like a Herculean task. And then, you have to contend with all the different opinions about how to meditate. Vipassana or Loving-Kindness? What’s the difference anyway? At this point, it’s no wonder that people give up. Just like most things in our lives, we’ve turned it in to another thing to do and achieve, when in fact, it should be the precise opposite: something to not do, with nothing to achieve.
Too busy to meditate
You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour. — Zen Proverb
Finding enough time in your day to sit uninterrupted can often be the first challenge most people encounter when developing a regular meditation practice. With our growing to do lists, sitting quietly in meditation can feel like a difficult practice to justify. However, sitting quietly for twenty minutes is often what we need to combat the overwhelming sense of dread that comes with a looming deadline and the aforementioned to do list. Take a step back. Put things in perspective. By doing so, we can break free of the anxiety-induced shackles of our daily routine which can, paradoxically, make us more productive. By making it easier to focus and to prioritise doing the most effective things instead of drowning in a sea of yet undone tasks, it makes it easier to feel as though you can swim.
Making meditation a priority can also be difficult because the benefits are not always clear. In contrast with physical training, it can be much more difficult to identify when you are making progress, or indeed, what progress even is. When you run, you lose weight. You can run further every week. Progress in meditation is much more opaque. It’s not even clear that you should be trying to make progress. Meditation requires a different mindset than our usual western goal-orientation. You may have already arrived.
Finally, the benefits of meditation practice tend to accrue with regularity. It’s important that meditation be built into your daily routine so that the mental load of finding the time no longer becomes an issue. It’s also important to find the time so that you don’t feel rushed or as though you will be interrupted. Feeling like you need to rush off somewhere, or as though someone will come bursting through the door at any minute is great way to increase the significantly increase the difficulty of your meditation session. However, this regularity can also bring a number of its own challenges.
Novelty & Beginners Mind
Another element of my own practice that I’ve found difficult is the relationship between consistency and complacency. By that, I mean that the more consistent I am with my meditation practice; the more I feel like it becomes routine. Just another thing to tick off the list. This feels paradoxical. One would assume that the more mindful you become, the harder it should be to be complacent about your practice. Unfortunately, monotony, routine and the associated mindlessness that can arise is (obviously) the antithesis of what we are trying to cultivate in meditation. The goal here would be to still be able to be mindful in the presence of the routine. I’ve found this difficult to achieve, especially as a beginner. This is why, especially early in the practice, novelty can serve a few important purposes. It can help keep things exciting and interesting as you begin to explore the landscape of your mind. More importantly, it can help you discover what settings, styles of meditation and postures resonate with you the most. Just like anything in life, you need to try a variety of things before you settle on that which you enjoy the most.
There is a danger here. In one sense, we are incredibly lucky to have access to a wide range of teachings and styles in the form of meditation apps, podcasts and videos. On the other hand, like in so many areas of our life this can present us with a feeling of analysis paralysis. There are too many opinions about how to practice, when to practice and how long to practice for that we can feel overwhelmed. The idea that I always come back to here is that we aren’t looking for anything external. We have everything we need to practice effectively and to examine our own minds. There is definitely value in exploring all of these traditions and techniques. However, I think ultimately, just as in life, simplicity is the easiest way to stay on the path.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki
Shoshin (初心) is a Zen buddhist word that describes the concept of “Beginners Mind”. Shunryu Suzuki explores this idea in depth in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. This is an incredibly deep idea (i.e. not something that I can do justice in this essay). It refers to a state of mind that one can culativate that is simple, pure and open to possibilities. The idea being that when your mind is devoid of concepts, hypotheses and judgment it ceases to think in a dualistic way and relaxes into pure experience. If you continue to approach your practice with the mind of a beginner, novelty is present in every breath and every itch. We no longer seek novelty externally. Instead, we rest in the novelty of being alive in each moment.
One of the most immediately obvious difficulties that seems to present itself when we sit to meditate is physical discomfort. The experience of sitting down to meditate for the first time and having excruciating pain in your back or neck is something that almost every new meditator experiences. I imagine it’s also one of the reasons that a lot of people find it hard to develop an ongoing and regular practice. If we have this expectation that meditation is this blissful experience and the reality is that it’s excruciatingly painful every time we sit to meditate, its unsurprising when the motivation to sit alludes us.
Often, there are multiple layers to the way in which we experience physical discomfort. There is the pure sensation of discomfort itself. There is the layer of positive or negative association that we unconsciously assign any given sensation. And finally, there is the additional layer of suffering we create for ourselves by creating narratives about the pain. What if it never goes away? Does this pain in my back mean I’m a bad meditator? What if it’s a deadly tumor? All of these questions are totally normal, but also entirely unhelpful and unnecessary.
It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him. — The Shorter Exhortation to Māluṅkya Cūḷa Māluṅkyovāda Sutta
We can apply the same logic to the pain that we experience in our meditation practice. If we spend all our time worrying about what the pain may be and how we can make it go away we are by definition, lost in thought.
So what is the alternative? Just like any other sensation or appearance in consciousness, we can use physical pain as an object of meditation. We can attempt to observe it so closely that it becomes a mere sensation. A sensation that has no implicit positive or negative association. Once we get to this point, we can use the pain as an an opportunity to examine how we are relating to it. We can simply feel the pain as a formation of energy and learn to not try to fight it. We can use the pain that we feel in meditation as a metaphor for the pain that we experience in every day life. Life is full of suffering and pain, it is unavoidable. If we learn to live with and work with physical pain in meditation, it can be an incredibly powerful teacher to inform how we can work with different kinds of pain in our every day life.
The experience of mental discomfort is often a little more subtle than the physical, or at least it can be harder to identify. Mental discomfort can be present in all shapes and sizes. It can be as simple as some mild self judgment about they way you’re sitting, or the difficulty you’re having concentrating. It can also be as complex as wrestling with deep psychological pains that you may have repressed for years. Most people experience that first layer of mental discomfort, but it can often takes years of deep practice (and maybe even a silent retreat) to experience the shadow of deep psychological pain.
We can work with mental discomfort in the same way that we work with physical discomfort. At the level of consciousness, there is nothing inherently different about physical vs. mental suffering. They are both appearances in consciousness and in some ways could be said to be manifestations of one another (that’s probably a whole blog post by itself). If one can observe their thoughts and learn not to identity with them it becomes much easier to work with discomfort.
Another important point here, is that a large part of how you relate to your thoughts in meditation has to do with your expectations. If you expect that your meditation session will be an angelic, blissful experience it will only be natural for the judgmental thoughts to begin creeping in when your mind is racing at a thousand miles per hour. It’s important to keep in mind that the “goal” of meditation is not to stop thoughts from arising. Instead, it’s to stop identifying with the thoughts. To realise that you are much more than your thoughts, and that often, you have almost no control over them. There is a certain peace and comfort that comes with this. In this way, it could be said that one of the paths of meditation is to become comfortable with discomfort. To learn that we are much more than our thoughts and to become at peace with ourselves.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
As we’ve explored, there are a multitude of reasons that people find developing a meditation practice difficult. It can be difficult to find the time and make it a priority, especially when the benefits are not immediately obvious. It can be difficult to build a regular practice, but to still have it be new and interesting enough that you remain focused and disciplined. There can also be difficulties around physical pain and mental pain for some people that can make meditation a less than enjoyable experience.
I don’t claim to be an expert on this stuff. Just someone who has fumbled their way to a relatively regular practice over the past few years. However, the one thing that I’ve learnt is that just like anything else worth doing in life, developing a meditation practice is a journey. We should keep this in mind whenever we feel as though we are doing it wrong, or when we skip a couple of days here and there. The most important thing is that we are developing a long term lifestyle change, not a quick fix to the problems we are having today. We are inoculating our future selves against our own impulsiveness. This takes time. Rather than focusing on the number of days we meditate in a row (though, this can be a motivator for some people) we should keep in mind how we have integrated the practice into our lives in the long term.