Meditation is Gym for the Mind
“I am new to meditation and I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes. On the contrary, I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong. But as I read you, I am thinking perhaps not.
I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen?
I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”
Your comment covered many areas worth writing about, so my reply is rather long. Sorry about that. But thank you for asking such an interesting, if complex question
Before I begin, I was glad to read that you’re NOT going down the path of taking medication. Though pills and chemicals can seem like instant fixes, the long term destruction they cause is just not worth it. When I was a counselor, the most irretrievably damaged people I came across were those who had become addicted to the various pills that their doctors had prescribed for them – from blood pressure medications to statins, to anti-depressants. Drugs taken regularly usually end up being as debilitating as the condition they were prescribed to cure.
Also, I don’t think your problem lies in the act of meditation itself.
I might be wrong, but I sense a part of your problem with meditation is derived from the plethora of misinformation about meditation that’s floating around, most of it commercially oriented. Much of this information, spruiking courses and books, focuses on the ‘meditation experience’ rather than the long term benefits of meditation, painting an excessively rosy picture of how you should feel as you meditate. These expectations of a calm, peaceful experience then confuse the meditator when they don’t happen, creating doubt and confusion.
For this reason I strongly recommend you read my second book on meditation, ‘Love & Meditation’, available as a PDF download from HERE. In that book, I emphasize the long term benefits of meditation, and explain the process, so you know what it happening as it happens.
So anyway, lets look into what concerns you.
“I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes.”
This is a common expectation among novice meditators, largely created by all the new-age blather that surrounds the subject of ‘meditation’. Ignorant people talk about enlightenment as if it’s some supernatural state, bringing bizarre super powers like a Marvell comic character. Also there are all the misinterpretations of Buddhist lore, in which enlightenment is portrayed in a very religious way, as it’s some kind of transition into a god and only those ‘chosen’ in some way can become enlightened.
All very misleading.
Actually enlightenment is very simple, and like any skill or art, it can only become a reality if one practices the skills that lead to it with complete dedication and persistence over a long period of time.
So what is this enlightenment?
Like any skill or ability, enlightenment (or Nibbana) is a set of mental and physical habits..
Put simply, it is a mind that has, through years of meditation, deconstructed all the conditioned reactions and habits that most of us are unconsciously enslaved by – social, cultural and genetic – and become pure again, with a mind that perceives everything as it actually is, rather than as it has been colored by their conditioned reactions.
With this purity of view, desire and fear disappear because they are no longer internally triggered by internal reactions to things. There is none of the hormonal push and pull of desire and fear distorting their view, so their perceptions are always clear of the psychological coloring of emotional reactions.
As such, though their body is certainly subject to the limitations of physicality, the enlightened person is finally free. Free of rage, sadness, elation, greed, jealousy and so on. They are in perfect balance.
Of course, in popular media, we’re bombarded with the ridiculous cliché of the enlightened person being in some kind of elevated, mysterious and very esoteric state – bald men in robes speaking in riddles with super powers.
Not so. Enlightened people are completely unconcerned with whether they are enlightened or not, and have no interest in drawing attention to themselves.
In my decades of training in temples in South East Asia, I have known two monks who were known as enlightened men – one Thai monk, Acharn Thawee, and the other a Sinhalese monk, the Venerable Pemasiri.
To meet these men, you would not have known they were enlightened. They did not talk about it or try to act enlightened. Both were very kind, and felt the cold and heat just like the rest of us. The only difference between them and me was they were totally unconcerned about anything except what needed to be done in each moment. As such, each action they made, and everything they said, was utterly appropriate and uncolored by ego or emotions. They lived to give and create unconditional kindness, not because it made them feel good, but simply because when all conditioned desire and fear is removed from a mind, all that is left is kindness.
To his death my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, both stern and kind, strove to teach the clearest view of meditation that he could. One could say he had so much to live for – but when he died, he shrugged off his life with these words:
“Who is dying? No one is dying. People say, ‘Oh, it’s Acharn Thawee. He is a good man!’ But I know there is no Acharn Thawee.”
To have known this extraordinary man is perhaps the most wonderful experience I have ever had, in part because it showed me how mundane and practical enlightenment actually is. And how attainable it is, if we choose to work towards it.
Now, the next part of your comment
“… I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong.”
No, you are not doing anything wrong.
Everybody, when they first begin meditation, experiences discomfort in different degrees, depending on many things – how flexible their body is, what their life experience has been, and what kind of teacher has been guiding them.
Remember – your mind and body are simply bundles of habits – everything about you, from your posture and physical demeanor to your desires and fears, are sets of habits that you have learnt. And each of these habit-patterns create different noticeable effects.
The anxiety habit creates various muscle tensions that we recognize as anxiety - as does hunger, desire, elation, fear and so on.And on recognizing each habit, we then have another secondary reaction to it – mental habits driving hormonal shifts in our body that drive us to act in one way or the other.
Most of what we feel is essential invisible to us. In the hustle and bustle of life, we do not notice most of our reactions because we are too preoccupied our busy lives to feel what is happening to us. Our focus is on outer concerns – work, entertainment, children, sex, food, money and so on. We only notice what we feel if it is very powerful – when it pokes into the flow of our everyday life and we find ourself angry, or depressed or sad or whatever.
Not only that, but many of us don’t like to feel what is happening inside us, particularly if we’ve built up a lot of unresolved tension and anxiety. This is why so many people use drugs or anti depressants. Others use busyness, or ceaseless activity or sport as a way of not feeling how they actually are.It’s also why some people cannot stand silence, or are constantly fidgeting or working or seeking fun. Essentially they are running from what they feel – running from themselves.
I had a man come to learn meditation once, who in his life was a very successful advertising executive. He told me his entire life had been spent scrambling up the greasy pole of success until at the age of forty and now he was feeling a little dispirited and tired, so he decided to learn how to meditate.
He seemed quite relaxed as we spoke. But as I led him through the first session, about fifteen minutes in, he asked me if we could stop. I opened my eyes to see he had gone an odd color of pale green.
”What’s wrong?” I said.
“I feel horrible,” he muttered, then stood and rushed into the toilet where he vomited profusely.
Over the following weeks, he had terrible difficulty with meditation – nausea, aches, pains, twitching and a lot of emotion, particularly anger and grief. But he kept on going, and gradually all these things passed away, as I had told him they would. Eventually meditation became a more pleasant experience and he was able to sustain a practice which, over the longer term, changed his life.
Acharn Thawee called this phenomenon ‘shedding the layers of the onion’. In this, he likened our self to being like an onion, made of many layers of karma (conditioning).
He said, “Just as we call the layers of the onion ‘an onion’, so too we give a name to the many layers of karma that make up ‘our self’. And we think all those layers of conditioning are ‘I’, quite forgetting that all the habits that define us, have been learnt – accumulated in layers, from our descendants, and from our own life experience.
So then we decide to meditate.For the first time in our life we sit down and stop. So the mind, with nothing to do, naturally turns its attention to itself – because what else is there to do?
And being naturally a self organizing, self balancing thing, like all other forces of nature, the mind uses the stillness and relatively empty space that’s created during meditation to begin throwing off all the layers of reactive habits that cause it discomfort.
And what does it find?
It discovers the first surface layer of mind/body – the most coarse. Painful memories we have tried to avoid, aches and tensions we have not had time to pay attention to, and anxiety we have forgotten was there. Like an onion, these outer layers are the most coarse and most painful.
It is these top layers the mind throws off first – the most coarse. And as the mind throws these things off, we briefly re-experience them. Physical tension, anxiety, pain, aches, and emotions are felt once more as they disappear.
Trouble is, if we have been unfortunate enough to be stuck with a meditation teacher who has created false expectations, that we should be experiencing calm and peace in meditation, we can mistakenly interpret this first stage of ‘shedding the layers’ as something wrong. We can mistakenly assume we’re not meditating properly, simply because our meditation experience is not matching the teacher’s expectations of calm and peace. We think we’re failing – that we can;t meditate.
But we’re not failing. We’re actually succeeding.
All the discomfort, thought storms and emotions we’re experiencing are simply the first coarse layers of historic mental and physical tension evaporating – and once gone, we are free of just a little more ‘dark mass’ in our life.
Each time we meditate through a layer of this muck, we create a little more calm and peace in our life – where we want it to be. All we have to do is sit still and keep practicing the meditation method, which, if it is a good method, has been specifically designed to create and assist this cleansing phenomenon.
So here’s the thing- you’re not meditating to have pleasant meditations. You’re meditating to have a pleasant life. All you have to do is keep going. The layers will become more and more subtle as you keep practicing.
Try to remember, the beginning of meditation practice is the hardest part. It’s hard because:
1. Your mind and body are not used to being still.
2. You are experiencing the most coarse and immediately uncomfortable beginning of the cleansing process that meditation naturally elicits.
3. Being new to meditation, you are filled with doubts as to whether you are practising properly – which tends to create confusion, which in turn creates anxiety – thus adding to your discomfort.
To help you get through this stage I strongly recommend you obtain my Meditation Audio Course. It will help you understand the process of meditation, and help you through it.
“I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen? I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”
Lakshmi, just because I don’t talk about the benefits of meditation, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It’s just that I don’t want to create expectations in people’s minds – because I know how destructive expectations can be to meditation.
When you meditate, I want your mind to be utterly open to whatever is happening NOW whether it’s painful or pleasant – and let it go.
I do not want you imagining calm, or waiting for happiness, or wishing for peace, because this will get you nowhere – its the veritable dog chasing its tail.
Good meditation is where you are totally focused on the business of each moment as it’s happening – and the methods are designed to help you do that. So long as you do that, meditation and stillness will take care of themselves over time.
As the famous Zen master said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” By ‘beginners mind’ he means a mind that is absolutely without expectations about what is going to happen.
For this reason, I talk a lot about what meditation isn’t. And I try not to talk about what might happen, because I prefer people to discover that for themselves.
In meditation experience is the best way to learn. So the less you think about it, or expect from it the better.
So yes, Lakshmi, you must stick it out. You must go through the coarse layers of the onion. You must put up with the discomfort and use the methods to help you sit still and focus, even when your body is screaming.
Because sometimes willpower is the only way. As Marlon Brando once said, ‘Sometimes you just got to duke (fight) it out.’
I take this to mean that sometimes in a life there is no trick or subtle strategy that will help us. Sometimes we just have to ‘duke it out’ – press the foot to the floor and assert our will until we’re in the clear and can relax.
And this does indeed apply to meditation when we first begin – and I think it applies to the beginning of ANY skill if you want to be proficient at it. Starting anything and seeing it through always creates discomfort, simply because the mind and body take time to adjust.
Remember, you’re building a new set of habits with meditation. You’re building a skill. As such, meditation is similar to any form of exercise, being it running, tennis, going to the gym or learning to swim.The only difference is, meditation trains your mind, the most important aspect of your life. So in the same way as going to a gym makes the body stronger and more efficient, so too does meditation make the mind stronger and more efficient.
And the benefits? Well, as I said, it’s better you experience them yourself than for me to tell you.
But one thing I will say is this.
Thirty years ago, before I began practicing Vipassana meditation, I was in a very bad way. After years as a touring musician and dedicated hedonist, I had the attention span of a sparrow, my body was ruined, my creativity was disappearing and I was so chronically depressed I wished for death most days, and needed alcohol to feel normal.
I used Vipassana meditation to rebuild myself – or rather, to give my mind and body time to rebuild themselves. And in the thirty years since, I have written four good books, I am healthy and living a full life doing what I love to do. And though some things might create anger, frustration or I might get depressed about something that’s not going well, it doesn’t last long – there seems now to be a foundation of strength, optimism and calm deep within me now, which the poetry of my life dances upon – and it seems impossible now, for down times to overcome me.
So I don’t expect meditation to be pleasant. For me it is just a training ground – a place I train my mind to stay strong and resilient enough to be able to live my life.
And if pain, or emotion or anxiety arise as I meditate, I greet these things as interesting visitors, who I’m happy to see, because I know it’s better they are dealt with during meditation, than in the larger theater of my life.
I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you have any questions.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)