In recent years, mindfulness and meditation practices have been growing exponentially. A plethora of research has proven that a regular meditation practice helps in driving creative progress and general well-being. There’s plenty of help for those wanting to meditate. More than 2500 meditation apps have launched since 2015.
And yet, in spite of the overabundance of apps and free meditation classes, I notice many people are unable or unwilling to commit to meditation on an ongoing basis. Apart from not having the time, I’ve heard these as the most common complaints from those who have given it a try: “I can’t keep my mind steady. I can’t sit still. I get too many thoughts”, they say. They blame themselves; “my mind just goes very fast”.
Apart from being a daily practitioner since 2008, my interest in meditation comes from the fact that I co-founded a pro-social meditation initiative in 2011, well before it became a hot trend. Back then, I worked with fellow professional New Yorkers to launch I Meditate New York, which continues to offer free classes today.
You see, when you meditate, you come face to face with a paradox. The goal of meditation, seemingly, is to get to a “no-thought” state. The apparent promise is that you will become like that peaceful, good looking model in the meditation retreat brochure, sitting upright, wearing a gentle blissful smile.
And yet, the moment you sit down in meditation, thoughts come flooding to the mind. An itch develops somewhere or the other on the body. The room feels too hot or too cold. There is an irritating click-clack sound coming from somewhere. It feels like a mess. You scratch your leg, and the itch comes right back on the arm. You shift to get comfortable, and the pain returns a little later. The irony of meditation is the more you “do” something to try to get to that no-thought place, the more it becomes elusive.
When new meditators experience this, they feel that they have failed. Maybe this is not for them. They give up.
What they don’t realize is that the thoughts and discomfort were always present in their mind-body system. Meditation gave their system a chance to detox and release the thoughts. The practice of meditation is the practice of allowing thoughts and releasing them vs. suppressing them by, say, binge watching TV. Meditation is the practice of noticing it all; the itch, the thoughts, the random sounds around you. It’s the practice of noticing your discomfort with all of that. And it is the practice of doing absolutely nothing about it.
I am reminded of advice my late mother used to give me. I have an older brother who was a prankster as a young boy. Since I was the only younger sibling he had, I was often the target of his teasing and pranks. I would try to fight back or outsmart him, lose and then complain to our mother. She would tell me, “Why do you get irritated? Just ignore him; he will get bored and go away”. Alas, I never took her advice, and our sibling bickering went on.
Turns out, her advice applies to our minds too. The paradox within the paradox (!) is that the moment we notice the thoughts or itch or pain, and don’t react, we diffuse the effect of that irritant. It goes away on it’s own.
When I was writing my book this year, I discovered an unexpected connection between meditation and writer’s block. At that time, I attended a private talk by author Daniel Pink who was addressing the so-called writer’s block or “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece” as defined by Merriam Webster. Pink believes that there is no such thing as a writer’s block, “it is only your unwillingness to sit down and write crappy stuff“.
Like writer’s block, meditation is not difficult. It is only our unwillingness to sit down and deal with the crappy-thinking nature of our mind. I learned when writing this book that the only way through writer’s block is to write. I learned in the early years of meditation that the only way to deal with the mental and physical crap that comes up during meditation is to meditate.
A regular meditation practice is the best, low-risk way of practicing thoughtful inaction as a choice. No apps and props are needed; you and your breath are enough. As someone who has been practicing for a while, I can attest that the struggle never fully goes away. I still catch myself saying ‘I had a really good (or bad) meditation today“, even though I know that the label of good or bad is purely my mind comparing the experience to a made up image of what meditation should be like. There is a reason why it’s called a practice. It has no end result, no goals to achieve, no real outcome to strive for, other than just being with it. “It” being whatever comes during the meditation. When we sit in meditation, we are in reality, practicing overcoming our action bias, our mental triggers.
Just as a regular physical workout routine sets us up for making healthier eating choices throughout the day and week, I believe a regular meditation practice develops a cognitive muscle which helps us make more thoughtful choices during the day.
Meditation is not a skill but a habit to be developed. It is an excellent way to practice thoughtful inaction in the smallest micro-moments, where the stakes are not so high; which can then serve as training for inaction as a choice in the bigger moments of life.
If meditation has been on your mind, give it a good old college try. Commit to meditating for 20 minutes everyday for 40 consecutive days. Avoid getting distracted by too many props such as incense, sound bath, spiritual altars etc. Trust that your mind, body and breath are all the tools you need for now. If you can breathe, you can meditate. Even if your mind wandered for the entire 20 minutes, that’s fine. Sit again the next day. Bring the mind back to the breath whenever you notice it has wandered. The fact that you noticed it has already broken the wandering!. Resist the temptation to discuss in detail or over analyze the meditation with others (except a teacher if you have one) or post about it on social media; let this be your private practice for the next 40 days.
I’d love to hear from you! If regular meditation has been a struggle, what seems to get in the way? If you have an ongoing practice, how did you get past the obstacles to develop your practice?
In observation of mental health awareness week, this essay was adapted from Chapter 3 “The Rise (and Irony) of The Self Awareness Era” of my upcoming book being published in December 2021 through New Degree Press. The book investigates the downside of action bias which leads to fatigue and burnout and explores leveraging thoughtful inaction to develop nonlinear paths to great results. To read and listen to book excerpts and join my author journey, subscribe to my newsletter.
Originally published on LinkedIn.com