by Jenn Krebs, N.D.
Meditation is a concept I love to talk about. I teach it in both an academic and a clinical setting, and it is so interesting to me to hear the experiences people have had with it, the preconceived notions they may have about it, and how they see it fitting into the lives they live today.
It is my humble opinion that meditation does not get a fair chance in our lives today, not because we lack interest, motivation, or commitment, but because it is up against our busy lives that overflow with both responsibility and distraction. When I talk about setting aside a period of time on a daily basis for meditation, many folks roll their eyes and simply can’t imagine doing this. And yet we do set aside time for many things during our day; we find time for exercise, watching our favorite TV show, family meals, checking our email, responding to the many texts of the day, brushing our teeth, walking the dog, watching the news, and playing computer games. Some of these things are essential, others not so much.
The desire to meditate allows us to begin to differentiate between what we are truly responsible for and what are our distractions. Distractions can range from harmless to pathological, but in all cases they are an escape. We understand that drug, alcohol and food addictions are ways we avoid ourselves, our feelings and our lives, but can we also see how all the technology and media we are exposed to distract and keep us from ourselves. I can remember life before smartphones. I could grab certain moments in life to meditate or reflect – sitting on the subway, sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, standing in line at the grocery store, sitting in traffic, waiting for a plane in the airport. Now what do most of us do to fill those moments of time? We’re on our smartphones or tablets, checking email and texting, playing video games or surfing the internet. While finding time to meditate may seem outrageous to some people, it may not be as hard as we think. Can we give up a few moments of distraction for a few moments of meditation?
Another reason why I think meditation feels so disconnected from our lives is because we set unrealistic expectations about what “we should experience” or “how great we should feel.” I can’t tell you the number of patients and students I have that tell me that they are just not capable of meditation. “I just don’t do it right. I can’t relax. My mind just keeps racing. I’m doing it wrong!” When we expect that we should be calm, relaxed and completely at peace with ourselves, we are expecting a certain outcome – a very unrealistic outcome. The most “successful” meditators I know are people who let go of expectation, have no agenda, and practice being kind to themselves. When meditation is presented as a journey as opposed to a desired end state, we don’t feel like we are “doing it wrong.”
In my own life, I came to meditation in a round-about way. I was in my thirties before I even realized that I had been meditating since college. When you study dance, especially in an academic setting, you learn all sorts of techniques to get to know your body better and to move your body with less effort and more freedom. Because I struggled with chronic pain and hypertonic muscles, the techniques I learned not only helped my dancing improve but brought me great relief from my muscle tension and pain. Another “benefit” was a greater sense of wellbeing. When I had just started my private practice, I was introduced to the concept of mindfulness meditation during a professional training seminar. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the image I had of meditation (of people cross-legged and chanting) while a perfectly valid image of meditation, was not the only one! And that the body scans, imagery and breath-awareness that I had been doing for years and that had become as familiar and as important to me as breathing were my own form of daily meditation.
Considering what I know now about teaching and learning meditation, I am so grateful that I started my own meditative practice without the expectations and goals that are so prominently attached to it today. If you read an article about or google meditation today, one of the first things that pops up is a long list of “benefits.” And while I understand that we are results driven and that we rely heavily on scientific data to inform our decisions, I struggle with trying to fit meditation into this model. When we emphasis the “benefits” or “goals” of meditation, we emphasize certain physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual states that some people “may or may not” experience. From lowering blood pressure to enlightenment, from improving your mood to making you a better person, from decreasing stress to getting to know your true self, the benefits can sound terrific to some or haughty and unrealistic to others.
I believe this is where mediation loses a lot of people in today’s world. When a well-intentioned and motivated person embarks on quieting the mind and focusing inward, they begin to feel themselves; they may not initially find the calm, “Zen,” and stress-free place that they were told they would find. What they may find instead is anxiety, frustration, loneliness, and pain, to name just a few. Over the past five or six decades, as meditation became more popular, it was touted more for stress-reduction and self-improvement, rather than what it had historically been seen as – a path to spiritual growth. As a result, we shifted the emphasis on meditating from “the journey” to “the benefits gained.” The experience and the struggle that is inherent in beginning a meditative practice was overshadowed by the results that could be had.
If we can present meditation as a powerful, important and valid journey that some days will feel peaceful and calming, other days will feel like a tremendous struggle, and other days will land somewhere in between, we may make meditation seem more relatable and less daunting.
To help understand how meditation varies from day to day and from person to person, let me share some words that have been shared with me over the years.
- “The thoughts kept racing and racing and racing.”
- “I could find a few moments of quiet and then thoughts of what I needed to do that day would flood in.”
- “I felt my body for what seemed like the first time.”
- “I felt my shoulder pain, and my jaw was clenched tight.”
- “I felt like I was floating.”
- “I was so self-conscious because my stomach was making noises”
- “I felt sad that I was alone”
- “My mind rested for the first time all day”
- “I felt more anxious than when I started.”
- “I feel more rested and happier.”
- “I am refreshed and peaceful.”
- “I felt angry that I was taking this time away from my family.”
- “I could feel my heart beat. It made me happy and scared at the same time.”
- “I feel vulnerable and fearful.”
- “I am lighter. I am softer.”
- “I cried … and cried some more.”
I don’t list these comments to discourage anyone from beginning or continuing a meditation practice. To the contrary, I think meditating may be the single most valuable thing we do in our lifetime. My point in sharing real responses is to help set realistically expectations for ourselves. The process of quieting the mind is difficult and takes practice. And the forms of meditation that focus our attention inward can bring up many feelings of discomfort – discomfort that can come from a physical, emotional, or spiritual place.
Beginning to let go of the many distractions in our world is so daunting. And the reality of sitting with ourselves and feeling ourselves can be even more daunting. But with time and practice and patience and kindness, we can learn to tolerate what comes up, and we can learn to sit with what surfaces. The benefits are many and are very real … but the best “benefit” of all may be simply surrendering to our journey.