I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really get it.
Sitting quietly, reflecting, focusing on being calm…is that meditation? Because it feels more like relaxation, and I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about.
And there’s definitely a fuss. You can’t watch a movie, go to the gym, or leave the grocery store without hearing something about meditation.
Plus, we’ve all got that one friend who’s waaaaaay too into it. You know the one.
There’s nothing they can’t solve by meditating, and any problems you have are because you don’t meditate.
Sorry about that broken leg, mate. If only you’d practiced your deep breathing this morning, you could have avoided falling into that pothole.
Right. Or perhaps a butterfly flapped its wings 80 million years ago, affecting the Earth’s gravitational pull and the Mayan calendar, because Nostradamus. 😐
In our culture of quick fixes and shortcuts, meditation seems like yet another cure-all that’s too good to be true.
Let’s find out.
What is meditation?
This is a surprisingly loaded question.
Meditation is an ancient practice used to calm and focus the mind. It’s been adopted by most of the world’s great religions, and been adapted to various cultures over time.
Traditional meditation is a far cry from what’s practiced at the Googleplex.
In fact, Yoga International states that:
Meditation is a word that has come to be used loosely and inaccurately in the modern world. That is why there is so much confusion about how to practice it. Some people use the word meditate when they mean thinking or contemplating; others use it to refer to daydreaming or fantasizing.
Not surprisingly, we’ve adapted meditation to the realities of our non-stop, never-enough-time, modern world.
It’s permeated our culture in the form of ‘mindfulness.’
What is this mindfulness you speak of?
Mindfulness is a meditative practice with Buddhist roots. Mindful meditation trains your brain to focus better. It’s about being in the now.
Mindfulness involves sitting quietly, breathing, and not judging anyone.
Our instant gratification culture has latched onto it as a convenient cure-all for stress, depression, chronic pain, anxiety, even aging. Wow.
Step right up, folks! Behold the amazing mindfulness techniques that cure every ill, from Alzheimer’s to emphysema. You’ll be astounded by the results!
Unfortunately, magic elixirs don’t exist, and neither do cure-alls.
But, but, but…science! Science backs it up, so it must be true.
Science doesn’t actually back up the benefits of meditation all that well.
Much of the scientific research has been poorly designed, if not flawed outright. There’s only moderate evidence that mindfulness eases pain, anxiety, and depression. And there’s simply not enough data to assess other commonly held beliefs.
But no one wants to hear that. We’d rather believe the hype, the cherry-picked data that validates our feelings.
We want to believe in meditation as a miracle cure, so we do.
Wait, isn’t meditation about religion?
It doesn’t have to be.
That’s the beauty of mindful meditation. It can be done by anyone, at any time, almost anywhere. We’ve stripped it of its Buddhist roots, and turned it into therapy.
Traditional meditation, however, is taught within a religious or philosophical structure. It’s considered a cornerstone of spiritual development, part of a moral framework.
Moral conduct is the foundation of meditation practice, because one cannot have peace of mind if one’s behavior is unethical.” ~Wakoh Hickey, religious scholar
In Buddhist tradition, mindful meditation is a part of the path to enlightenment. It’s a step in the journey. It’s not the goal.
In modern culture, mindfulness really is the goal. We’re not seeking nirvana, we’re just trying to keep calm and carry on.
Fortunately, spirituality tends to go hand in hand with meditation. Without it, we’re simply individuals sitting on a mat, breathing deeply, thinking about ourselves.
Without a bigger picture in mind, it’s easy to lose sight of meditation risks.
The downside of meditation.
Meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing. Its primary purpose was much more radical – to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self.
That quote is from The Buddha Pill, by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm. They make the point that we’re distorting the purpose of meditation.
Instead of challenging who we believe we are, we’re using it to reinforce our needs and desires. “Meditation without comprehension can be dangerous to our soul.”
Meditation wasn’t created to make us relaxed and happy. It isn’t medicine, and there can be consequences for our ignorance.
Meditation and the rise of disturbing emotions.
In The Buddha Pill, the authors point out that most of us cope with stress by throwing ourselves into activity, keeping our minds occupied so we don’t have to think about the issue.
Meanwhile, our brains do a great job of protecting us from traumatic memories by burying them in our subconscious.
So what do we think happens when we’re forced to sit, without distractions, and focus on our inner selves? Especially for hours on end?
Yup, those stressors and traumatic memories move to the forefront of the mind, bringing with them our feelings of panic, fear, and anxiety. These feelings have led people to complete breakdowns, requiring years of therapy to recover from.
Those with PTSD are particularly vulnerable. Some have even experienced psychosis, which is a loss of contact with external reality.
Why doesn’t meditation come with a caution label?
Meditation is promoted as a harmless practice that anyone can do, with an increasingly preposterous list of benefits.
And sure, if people don’t like it, they don’t have to do it.
But why wouldn’t they, when the negatives have been buried beneath an avalanche of positive press?
Schools have begun to replace detention with meditation, and many corporations now have scheduled meditations for their employees.
Is anyone asking about past traumatic events, events that could trigger a severe, psychological reaction?
And if someone does have a reaction during a group meditation, is anyone trained to handle it, or to even recognize what’s happening?
Maybe that sounds silly. After all, people meditate every day to cope with stress, relax, or calm their minds, and never have any problems.
That doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist, or that certain types of people shouldn’t be meditating.
And then there’s those of us who just don’t like it, and that’s okay too.
There are plenty of alternatives to meditation.
I’ve never been good at sitting still without a book in my hands.
Luckily, reading is one of many meditation alternatives. Not so much informational or textbook reading, more like fiction reading. Think escapism.
When people read, they tend to sit quietly for prolonged periods and focus intensely on something else. They ignore outside distractions and forget about their own problems.
Sounds like meditating to me.
Repetitive tasks work just as well for focusing the mind elsewhere, and exercise is a great stress reducer. So is laughing.
Meditation has been around for a long time. It’s not going anywhere. But let’s not kid ourselves about what it can and can’t do.
After all, even the Dalai Lama noted that “sleep is the best meditation.”