When I was in college my mom bought a book called The Three-Minute Meditator. I was intrigued, having always been attracted to the promise of meditation, that it would make me more calm and blissful.
I don’t think my mom ever used the book, or if she did, she tried it a couple of times and quit. And I can see why. Meditation sounds nice, but once you try it, it kind of sucks.
Don’t get me wrong; it can be wonderful. On a good day, you might be sitting outside in a pretty garden, breathing in luscious scents, the temperature is perfect, there are no mosquitoes, and you have no seasonal allergies. You might get lucky and feel really relaxed and think–hey, meditation is awesome, I feel great! But what meditation is actually doing is drawing your attention to reality–which is sometimes lovely and breezy and peaceful–but more often is messy and uncomfortable. Which is exactly why meditation sucks and why you should do it anyway
It is really hard to be bored, and meditation is often boring. Nothing is happening. You’re just sitting there. You want to do something else. You really want to check your phone. It has everything you could ever want or need. Likes! Messages! Memes! Reminders! Things to Do! Buttons to Press! But does 24/7 access to random images and information actually make us happier? What happens if we scratch that itch every single time? How do we feel? Engaged, entertained, well-informed… or a bit zombie-ish?
There’s a reason it’s good to be bored. When we allow ourselves to sit through the often extreme discomfort of boredom, when we discipline ourselves not to scratch the itch, we are training ourselves to sit with even more difficult feelings than boredom. We are training ourselves not to act on every impulse, which is useful in situations off the cushion. (Don’t lunge at the person who cut you in line, don’t post that mean comment.) And as we accept the feeling of boredom, suddenly we recognize that our own minds are a theatre of internal stimulation. Thoughts, images, words, song lyrics–all the random gook of the brain springs up and flashes by, a veritable Twitter feed. You see your mind for what it is, which is actually interesting and funny and vulnerable and human. And malleable. Thoughts don’t stick. Feelings pass.
2.It can make you twitchy.
Meditation can feel like waiting at the doctor’s office, or worse, the DMV. You want it to be over already. There are so many other things you could be doing right now. This is a waste of time. Well, guess what? When you’re actually stuck at the DMV waiting for your number to be called and that employee seems to be intentionally taking forever to find someone’s information on the computer and you know you got here before that other customer so why did their number get called before yours and now you’re super late for work and won’t have time get groceries later … well… time to get comfortable with discomfort. Because you can’t make the DMV a better place. And you will only survive if you settle into the truth that being at the DMV sucks, being stuck in traffic sucks, being late sucks. And yet all these things do eventually pass. You get home at the end of the day. Situations change. If you want to enjoy a ride to the beach or the luxury of buying groceries at a supermarket, you also have to accept the reality of the DMV. Bliss happens when we start to clear lots of space around the constant, fantastic flux that is our lives.
3.You may not like what you see.
I once did a weekend meditation retreat at a Shambhala Center and when we were sitting in sangha, community, I shared that meditation was hard for me because my heart was beating too fast. I couldn’t focus on my breath. A more experienced meditator responded by saying that when you feel your heart beating fast, that’s just where you are right now, in this moment, today. You sit with the feeling and notice it and don’t try to change it. You acknowledge that this is where you are and you hold that space.
My heart beating fast was probably a symptom of anxiety or, as mentioned above, just straight up boredom and twitchiness. Often with meditation our goal is relaxation, and we think it’s not working because we have all these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. But by sitting with these feelings, not jumping on them or chasing them, we are actually creating space around them. I have noticed time and again that this process eventually does lead to relaxation, because I don’t have to get upset at having uncomfortable feelings: I don’t have to make them worse. And that’s a relief. Our first response is to want to change or fix a difficult emotion, but actually just saying, hey, I see you, it’s okay, loosens its hold on us.
4.There’s no way to get around suffering.
Sitting in meditation every day is like watching the news. There is always going to be bad news. We can’t change that. Some days you get a story of twelve boys being rescued from a cave in Thailand, some days you get another mass shooting. So it is with your own internal state. You can’t get around suffering. Even if you’re in excellent physical and mental health, and thank goodness, things are going great for you, suffering is inevitable. You sit with the good news and the bad, and you begin to see how quickly things change, and the only constant is your watchfulness over your own life. Eventually that place of watchfulness, of awareness, of holding and noticing, becomes a safe place to return to on the harder days, a welcome source of relief. An expansive place that can hold so much more than we think is possible. We just have to practice being there–again and again.