Getting ‘Meditation’ Wrong

Do you have a meditative practice?

Do you ‘meditate’ because you have been told it will help you relax?

What if I told you not only is this wrong, it’s not what meditative practice is about!

As with anything that gains attention in popular culture, there will be just as many people trying to capitalise on a trend. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of ‘meditation.’ McMeditation is now everywhere. Just the other day I saw a very well known person, who integrates mediation as key part of their ‘life enhancement model.’ In watching how she described meditation, she noted that it is a practice to help a person relax.

Sadly, this is simply a sales pitch. It isn’t entirely true.

Most people are stressed out these days, so any tool that promises a way to relax is going to peak a persons interest. I get it. But meditation as a method to help you relax is a misrepresentation of the practices. Psychiatrist, and author Jeff Brantley, and one of the founders of Duke Integrative Medicine, has argued this point too: that mediation isn’t about relaxing.

Sure, sometimes relaxation is a by product of meditative practices, but a lot of times it wont be. I also feel, ‘selling’ meditation practices this way, sets a lot of people up for failure, or worse encourages a person to see themselves as a failure. Nowhere will this be more evident when after ‘mediating’ you can’t seem to find that moment of pure relaxation. Naturally, when you can’t, it opens up the door for less than genuine teachers — who say they hold the truth of meditation practice for those of us who seem to fail at it all the time.

Again: Sometimes relaxation is a by product of meditation practices, but a lot of times it wont be — and that’s perfectly fine!

What Is Meditation?

Now of course there are many types of mediation practices (and definitions). For example loving kindness meditation, where a person purposively focuses on benevolent and loving energy toward oneself and toward others. While for example mindfulness, another method of meditative practice, focuses on developing the capacity to be fully present, without judgement of one’s own experiences (both internal or external). But at its core, meditations share a common goal of cultivating and expanding a deeper awareness of oneself, and the world we inhabit.

At least as I see it, ‘meditation’ can be seen as an umbrella term that encompasses many types of embodied practices. While each practice can have a different focus, common in these practices is to purposefully choose to become fully attuned to the present moment with clarity, poise and equanimity. Meditation then, at least in my view, isn’t a specific practice in of itself, but rather encompasses various inner methods of engineering human potential.

Mindfulness as a Meditative Practice

I mentioned mindfulness earlier as one kind of meditation practice (arguably one of the most popular these days). Sadly though, this is another practice that has been hijacked, and has rather become somewhat akin to McMindfulness. Mindfulness is a good example to focus on when we talk about meditation practices as not being about relaxing. Mindfulness is hard work. It is about opening oneself to the fullness of experience, often thoughts, feelings and emotions that have caused us difficulties in our lives. The goal is to learn to be with these internal states, to explore them, to be curious of them, without judgement. Paradoxically, by accepting what arises in oneself without judgment, without biting the hook as Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron would say — by not attaching a narrative to one’s inner experiences — you lessen the hold thoughts, feelings and emotions may have over you. In other words, it offers some respite from that which causes much of our suffering: ourselves.

However, there’s nothing easy about doing this. It’s about changing, what for most of us is a lifetime of conditioning, buying into our stories, often stories that have held us back. It’s about undoing a lifetime of conditioning where we have always seen our thoughts as real. Some days you may see a glimmer of success in being mindful of all these inner events that often trip you up, but many days you won’t. Again, it’s going to be hard work.

Even a meditative practice such as loving kindness mentioned earlier, isn’t easy. In the very moment we expand our selves to offer loving kindness to the world, we likely have to contend with the awareness of our unkindness to our selves, or how we have been less than kind to other people in our lives — often the very people who mean the most to us. In that moment, mindfulness can aid us in embracing all of these thoughts, and the subsequent feelings and emotions that arise, without judgement. But it isn’t going to be relaxing. Doing this inner work may in of itself make you feel stressed out. It is then how we continued to engage with this feeling of being stressed out, over and over again, without judgement, that leads to feeling fully alive in the present moment.

The truth is, you could practice mindful meditation in a quiet, candle lit room, and get up from your meditation cushion feeling worse than before you sat down. This is why, the practice, and the Buddha was clear on this, must travel with you everywhere.

Why is this often not talked about though? How would you sell that?

No one wants to hear that the meditative practice of mindfulness with all its proclaimed benefits isn’t going to be a cure all to all of our woes, and that even the practice itself may make us feel worse than before we engaged in it (at least for sometime). This will be made even worse if you have been told that this practice will help you chill out, only to find out it doesn’t.

Again, something hardly talked about either, is that meditation practices, badly practiced, and badly misunderstood, can actually have more severe negative consequences for you than the ones you started off with (See: The Dark Night of the Soul as a consequences of mediation practices).

Mindful Practices I  Have Found That Work

As I noted earlier, there are many meditative practices, there are equally many ways to be mindful. Personally, I have found that being mindful in actually living in the world, from washing the dishes, to navigating the morning traffic, to dodging punches on the mat as a martial artist — are the most pragmatic ways to engage in the practice itself. It grounds the practice of mindfulness. It makes it real. Real in the sense that, we are doing so in what we do all the time, navigate the chaos of the world. Feedback is instant, which makes making a mindful course correction more tangible.

Of course I think there is a place for sitting on a cushion, attending a silent retreat — but life simply isn’t that way. While I admire the dedication of a Buddhist monk, giving up his life to the pursuit of Nirvana in a monastery somewhere in the jungles of Thailand – this isn’t how most of us live.

The title of Jack Cornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy the Laundry, speaks to this. By all means, go on a silent retreat, have a quite meditative practice every day, but know, bringing this practice into your every day world of chaos, back stabbing, self-interest and competition is where it’s going to matter most. And, it ain’t going to be relaxing.

This is why, I chose my meditative practice to arise in the moment of martial arts practice, that inherently has many of the qualities that life throws at us. Learning to have equanimity in a chaotic practice itself is liberating, but I wouldn’t call it relaxing. Moving that concrete practice then into the experience of life, makes it seem more reasonable, and even possible for the least still among us.

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