Everyone comes to meditation from different paths.
My path originated from the breath, a form of single-minded focus on each inhalation and exhalation over and over again. Psychological studies point to its benefits: improved concentration, better focus and an overall sense of well-being.
I, however, could hardly sit still for five minutes without feeling as though I was going completely insane. I attended workshops and retreats to learn how to focus on breathing, yet I still seemed incapable of quieting my mind.
What I learned after many years of practice is this:
Meditation can be difficult, boring and satisfying all at the same time.
Focusing on your breath for minutes or hours at a time can be really dull.
Remember what it was like in third grade, staring up at the chalkboard while your math teacher drew fractions and you tried desperately not to fall asleep? Meditation can feel like that sometimes. Our minds wander, we get hungry, we think about everything else instead of focusing on what we intended.
This is when I try and remember that meditation is a practice. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to do anything else. Doing nothing doesn’t mean we’re unproductive. Doing nothing means we’ve consciously chosen to be present to this moment, and the meaning that this moment offers us. Being present might mean breathing through fears and anxieties; exhaling boredom or despair before inhaling calmness and serenity.
Remembering that we don’t need to wrestle with anxieties and failures before letting them go is difficult. I’d much rather just let them pass.
Meditation can be relaxing, but also deeply unsettling.
Meditation would be like a soothing balm for my weary and troubled mind—at least, that’s what I thought.
Focusing on my breath actually illuminated how much I thought about everything: what I should have been doing instead of meditating, what I wanted to eat for breakfast, whether my boss really thought I was an idiot. My mind spun around in an endless maze of thoughts that didn’t always make sense, draining my energy and rattling my nerves.
Only later did I learn that beginning meditators often experience this rising of mental scum to the surface of awareness. I had only ever seen pictures of monks meditating serenely in the backdrop of a setting sun. They seemed so calm and so wise in the face of such despair and difficulty. And I was definitely not.
Meditation can help us deal with problems, but we won’t always like the answers.
I thought meditation would help me adapt to a job that left me drained and uninspired. But sitting in a meditative state before work just made me feel more distressed, not less.
A quick three-minute breath exercise whenever I felt stressed or anxious didn’t change the fact that I was still in the wrong job. I had taken a job that wasn’t right for me and was continuing down the wrong path, hoping that I could change to better suit the position.
Meditation does change you—just not in the ways that you think.
We live in a society that emphasizes quick, dramatic results. We want to be more fit now; we want that job promotion yesterday. We have big, audacious goals that we hope will one day come with even bigger, better results.
Meditating on your breath, however, isn’t very exciting or glamorous. Focusing on the breath moment after moment, day after day, year after year did change me. But these were small, nearly imperceptible shifts. There were no sudden revelations into the nature of human existence. I simply noticed what was always there—loved ones who cared for me, work that engaged me and a community that sought friendship and solidarity.
The art of meditation takes a lot of practice, persistence and a hell of a lot of patience. If someone had told me about all these things before I started, then I might not have tried meditation.
I would have been too afraid or too intimidated. But we don’t have to be afraid. Meditation is like an invitation from an old friend. It’s an opportunity to sit and stay awhile, to listen and explore parts of ourselves that we may not have realized were still there.
Meditation asks us to be just a little more open and just a little more interested in our everyday lives. If I hadn’t started meditating, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the most extraordinary thing about being alive—that life is both ordinary and miraculous, secular and divine.
Just like the breath.
Author: Marisse Roco
Editor: Nicole Cameron / Assistant Editor: Ellie Cleary
Image: nevil zaveri/Flickr