Meditation has become increasingly popular in today’s world. So much so that people no longer look at you strange when you say you practice. Instead, they’re far more likely to say something such as “Oh! Nice…good for you.” And a frequent follow-up to this statement is “I’ve tried it before. It was good. But it’s not really for me.”
Of course, each person is on their own journey, and the role meditation plays in that is going to depend on many different factors. Though my experience has taught me that not only can meditation be useful for everyone, but it is something everyone should do. But I think the reason why so many people turn away from it in their daily lives despite accepting it as a “thing people do” is because we’ve been misinformed about what meditation is and what it can do for us.
A big part of the reason for this is our culture here in the West, but more specifically in the United States. We’re a culture that desires and expects instant gratification. Our stores and airwaves are filled with products and advertisements for products that all claim to solve this problem or that. If we just buy this one product or subscribe to this one service, our stressful, worried lives will melt into blissful calm. Happiness and health is something that can and must be acquired externally instead of discovered internally.
It’s true there are many things out that that make life more pleasant, fun, comfortable, etc. But these are additions, compliments, to something else, and they will only contribute to happiness and health if you have a solid foundation of mental and physical well-being.
Over the past decade or so, it seems meditation is making itself more and more into the mainstream as new information comes out about its ability to reduce stress, improve productive, balance your mood, and more. And a lot of this information is coming from science. It turns out that meditation can actually change the way our brains work. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that it’s become a popular thing in modern workplaces and health clubs. Our lives are so fast-paced and so stressful that we will latch onto anything that promises a bit of a relief, or that offers us a chance to be a better version of ourselves, one that is able to work more and more efficiently, earning us more money and more freedom.
It’s true that a sustained meditation practice can bring about these benefits. Long-time students of meditation often live their lives in a state of blissful calm that most of us envy, and they are often far more comfortable and secure in their lives than the rest of us. (Notice I didn’t say rich or successful, for comfort and security can be found at any income level above destitute poverty). But the act of meditating is not what produces this effect. Yes, repeated deep breathing is quite soothing, but this on its own does not relieve the stress of our lives.
I know this because I first committed to a consistent meditation practice at a moment when anxiety was beginning to dominate every aspect of my life. My days were spent with a tight, heavy chest, discomfort in my stomach, and an inability to concentrate on any one thing for more than a short period of time. It was holding me back from pursuing the long-term projects in my life I knew I needed to dedicate time to if I wanted to move forward, and it was making it quite challenging for me to have any sort of relationship, either familial, platonic, or romantic.
When I started meditating during this time, I noticed that I would walk away from the mat feeling slightly more relaxed and relieved, but my underlying anxiety remained. The symptoms I just described had been dulled, but they were still very much there. I was frustrated, for I figured if I meditated, then I should feel better. Wasn’t that the point of meditation?
In the past, when I reaced these moments, I typically surrendered to my doubts and gave up on a consistent practice. But this time, I knew I didn’t want to go back to this anxious state, so I pushed myself to stick with it. I made it a point to “get to the mat” every day, even if I could only do 15 minutes. Over time, I did start to notice that my overall demeanor was more calm. I was no longer frozen by my anxiety, but I did notice that the symptoms were still there in the background. But this didn’t frustrate me like it would have in the past. Instead, I simply accepted it.
The reason I was able to do this I think is because I now see that my anxiety is much more deep-rooted than I had thought. It’s derived from a multitude of experiences, some of which I would describe as traumatic, and has been lingering in my life for far longer than I realized. It’s silly to think that a little bit of meditation would “solve” these problems in just a short time.
What I found most interesting though was that even though I realized that meditation would not actually relieve my anxiety I had no interest in stopping my practice. In fact, if anything, I was even more resolved to keep at it, for I could see that meditation was making it much easier for me to deal with my anxiety. I became more detached from it, meaning I could recognize when it was rearing its head but continue to operate in my daily life without paying it much attention. Through meditation, I was able to see that I had very little control over these feelings but had a ton of control over how I reacted to them.
In this sense, meditation kind of is a way to relieve stress, but it’s not the act of meditating that does this. Instead, it’s the perspective we gain through meditation that relieves stress. Spending time on the mat with ourselves gives us the chance to observe the chaotic nature of the thinking mind (the source of all our fears, anxieties, and worries) while also putting us in direct contact with our living, breathing beings that can only exist in the present moment. I like to call this our “true self.”
This term is somewhat problematic because, well, what’s really “true.” But I think it’s accurate in this case because I am using it to refer to the state of being we’ve all experienced where thinking isn’t necessary. It’s that experience of simply “being.” We’ve all experienced it, whether through love, adventure, meditation, etc. It’s that feeling that we’re in the right place at the right time. The notion that everything, especially us, is completely and totally okay. There is no danger, nothing to fear. Just life to be lived.
Most of us have likely experienced this at one moment or another in our lives, but the experience is usually fleeting. Time speeds up when we’re in this state, and it’s quite difficult to get there. As a result, most of us think of this state as something we must work to achieve or find. We perceive it as being dependent on some set of external conditions. But this is simply not true: this true self is present inside of us at all times. It’s just blocked from coming out by our thinking selves, which are comprised of our thoughts, which we all know to be worries, fears, desires, etc.
Overcoming the power of the thinking self allow our true self to emerge, and when this happens, we are immediately reminded that everything is okay and that we need not worry or fret. We can think about the past or the future, but we don’t need to do so from a position of fear or anxiety, which makes our thinking far more productive.
This is where meditation comes into play and can be so useful. By sitting down and quieting our minds by focusing on something in the present moment, we are giving our true selves the opportunity to emerge. And when it does, this contact reminds us of who we truly are, and keeps us from forgetting it as much as we do when we’re off the mat and living our daily lives.
However, when we’re actually meditating, especially in the beginning, this contact lasts for mere moments. It might be nothing more than an instant. This instant may be very peaceful and full of bliss, but the moment it’s over, our same fears, worries, desires, etc. come into play, and we often have a new desire to contend with, the desire to reach this blissful state, which further complicates our meditation because it brings grasping and attachment into the mix.
Because it comes and goes so quickly, it’s quite normal to finish a meditation session and feel almost exactly the same as when you began. The only new thing you may be feeling is a sense of pride or satisfaction for having sat down (which you should feel and use to help motivate you to keep doing it). But this is often quite discouraging and keeps people from committing to a consistent practice. Paradoxically, though, the only way meditation will ever produce noticeable results is if your practice regularly.
Think of it like a relationship. When you first meet someone, though you may have had a good time with them and sense a connection, that first meeting is unlikely to change your life. However, as time goes on and you spend more and more time with this person, their influence begins to grow. Eventually, it’s possible that you may wind up completely changing your life for this person, hopefully for the better.
Meditation is not all that different. When you first meditate, you may have brief contact with your true self. And while this may be exciting and interesting, your life afterwards is likely to remain largely the same. But after a while, as you come into contact with yourself more and more, this true nature begins to show up in many more aspects of your life until it eventually reshapes your entire life, hopefully into one of calm and bliss and not worry and anxiety.
Doing something that does not produce an immediate benefit can be maddening. But meditation should have never been offered up as capable of doing that. Not unlike a diet or exercise routine, meditation is something that must be committed to, and you must have faith that the results will come. Giving up after a few sessions is like quitting a diet after eating a few healthy meals and seeing no weight loss results.
This is why it’s so important to stop thinking meditation will relieve stress. What’s stressing you in life is likely something else, and it may be that the cause of it is buried deep in your past. This is why 15 minutes or an hour on the mat does not really relieve stress even if you feel a bit better afterwards. But 15 minutes on the mat every day can over time help you deal with the root cause of your stress, which is typically your reaction to things in your life you simply cannot control.
For this reason, meditation is much, much better than just a tool for relieving stress. It’s an approach to life that puts our true selves at the center, which allows us to deal with what stresses us in much better ways. It takes time to realize this benefit, but for those willing to put the time and work in, the transformation that will ensure will redefine your life and have you wondering why meditation isn’t taught to us as a basic life skill alongside reading, writing, and mathematics. Maybe someday it will! But until then, diligence is all we have.