After almost 20 years of meditating everyday, I have decided to quit for the time being.
My decision may seem odd given the current trend of mindfulness and meditation that is all the rage. Corporate workplaces now offer mindfulness training and articles in social and popular media promote the immense benefits of meditation.
A regular, daily meditation practice will reduce anxiety, increase focus and motivation, and make us happier and healthier. It could even set us up for success. Quite a few influential business leaders, politicians, celebrities and top executives claim to meditate on a daily basis.
Until recently, I had no intention of giving up my daily meditation practice.
I felt way ahead of the trend because I had started meditating in 1997. Back then, most people still viewed meditation as an esoteric spiritual practice for yogis, gurus and New Agers. I was certain that meditating daily enabled me to handle my neurosis and anxiety. On occasion, I experienced a deep sense of inner peace and glimpsed an infinite consciousness beyond our present reality. And I really enjoyed my morning ritual of meditating on the couch while whole bean coffee steeped in my French press.
My meditation remained stuck in what yogis call the monkey mind—an endless mental chatter of undone to-dos, missed opportunities, personal failings and social anxieties.
Sitting still during meditation often amplifies this chatter because our minds are not focused on anything. The trick is to let go of the thoughts and allow our minds to become quiet and still. But this is no easy task.
Throughout the ages, gurus, sages and spiritual leaders have developed various meditation techniques to make the mind quiet and still. These techniques, such as visualization, specialized breathing, and chanting mantras, to name a few, redirect the mind’s focus back to a single point of awareness.
To counteract my monkey mind, I tried all these techniques. In the beginning, some would work but inevitably, that damned monkey always returned, hijacking my meditation with negativity and failure. Then I came across Sutra 11.53 of Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras while reading Gregory Maehle’s book, Ashtanga Yoga:
“And then the mind is fit for meditation.”
According to Maehle, this sutra makes it clear that yogis and spiritual seekers must prepare their minds for meditation through years of dedicated study of spiritual scriptures and a daily asana, or physical yoga practice. Only those with the ability to achieve and maintain a relatively quiet mind become ready to meditate. And even these lucky folks must find a guru, lama or spiritual teacher to teach them how to meditate correctly.
So, what happens when the mind is not fit for meditation?
This idea that only a select few with quiet minds and a guru should meditate goes against the current mindfulness trend. Most popular articles about meditation suggest that there is no right or wrong way to meditate and that anyone can do it, regardless of their mental state and emotional stability. All we need to do is get comfortable, sit still, maybe close our eyes, focus on our breathing and follow a guided meditation for a few minutes each day. Anyone who tries meditation will automatically reap the benefits of more focus, less anxiety.
This is not so, according to Patanjali and the ancient sages who developed meditation and yoga as spiritual practices to attain enlightenment and liberation. In their view, meditating without a properly prepared mind and without the guidance of a guru is highly dangerous. The effects of an incorrect meditation practice cannot be reversed, potentially dooming those who practice incorrectly to rebirth as a lower life form, such as a fish.
A fish?! I actually laughed out loud when I read that, imagining myself as a fish swimming in vast waters with no thoughts or language. Apparently, that is what the Tibetan lamas believe.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the primary spiritual text of yoga philosophy, comes from the same Hindu and Buddhist religions as the Tibetan lamas and Indian yogis. To understand the Yoga Sutras, we must first understand Hindu and Buddhist concepts of the transmigration of souls—or rebirth, karma and nirvana.
An oversimplified version of these concepts goes like this:
All souls or beings experience a continual cycle of death and rebirth due to the karma we create through our thoughts and actions in each lifetime. Known as the karmic wheel or samsara, this cycle keeps us in bondage until we eliminate the karma and attain nirvana, or liberation from this cycle.
Eventually, all souls or beings attain nirvana after some 30 trillion lifetimes but beings in human form have a unique opportunity to end this cycle earlier through a dedicated and disciplined yoga practice. The Yoga Sutras provide instruction on the proper yoga and meditation practice to follow for a shortcut to nirvana.
Most people, like myself, do not necessarily seek nirvana; rather we seek to improve our sense of well-being and reduce anxiety and stress. And beliefs about rebirth and samsara fall into the religious realm much like beliefs about the resurrection and salvation. Therefore, we need not consider Patanjali’s view on the dangers of meditation for the uninitiated masses.
But Patanjali’s description of meditating with an agitated mind really struck me as I recognized myself in his description. An agitated mind clings furiously to thoughts, unable to let go and become quiet.
Meditation might not be for everyone.
Now I understand why my meditation practice was not working and why I remain the same frustrated, neurotic mess that I was back in 1997.
Much of this time, I have been meditating with an agitated mind thanks to my anxiety and neurosis. This mental agitation only subsides temporarily after a good workout or after inducing a pleasant stupor with booze and weed.
My agitated mind reduced my meditation to wallowing in a barrage of useless thoughts that took on the guise of insight and self-awareness. I was not even close to cultivating the still, calm and quiet mind required to begin meditation.
In some ways, Patanjali’s cautions against an improper meditation practice makes sense. Many of us carry too much negativity in our minds and bodies that meditation alone cannot release. Forgotten memories, emotional trauma, grief, obsessions, compulsions, anger, resentment and all that bad stuff runs deep in our subconscious.
Our bodies also store this negativity in the form of headaches, muscle tension, fatigue and digestive issues. This negativity provides ample fuel for the monkey mind if we do not release it through regular exercise, self-study and social support from family and friends.
So I decided to take Patanjali’s advice and stop meditating until I can cultivate a quieter mind mostly free of agitation. This decision came to me a few weeks ago during my final meditation. As luck would have it, the coffee timer beeped just as I was thinking about Patanjali’s advice to forgo meditation until the mind is properly prepared. It seemed like a strong sign from the Universe to find new ways of dealing with my anxiety and neurosis.
I still do not agree with Patanjali’s view that only experienced yogis who receive training from a guru should meditate. Nor do I agree that there is a correct or incorrect way to meditate. Any form of meditation that increases well-being and reduces anxiety is more beneficial than dangerous. Any concerns about being reborn as a fish or other lower life form belong to those believers seeking liberation from the karmic wheel. In our driven, stressful and highly materialistic culture, mindfulness and mediation can give us an opportunity to slow down and fully experience the present moment.
Any real danger lies in hoping that meditation alone can alleviate anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. While meditation can help, it cannot replace medical treatment and professional help for these mental health issues. Unfortunately, the current stigma of mental illness and lack of financial resources for treatment often drives sufferers to resort to self-help. Meditation fits almost too perfectly into self-help regimens due to its low or no cost and ease of practice—and those rare moments of mental stillness and infinite consciousness that happen during meditation may create an illusion of recovery from depression and anxiety.
The trend towards mindfulness increases the danger of misusing meditation to self-treat serious mental illnesses as more and more people learn about meditation and its highly beneficial effects.
Nor can we expect meditation to diminish our personal flaws and transform us into completely enlightened beings, immune to all emotional pain and negativity.
I have spent too much time struggling with the monkey mind and ruminating instead of finding other, more useful ways to overcome my problems. Meditation can help but overcoming problems usually requires reaching out to others for support and making a diligent effort to re-frame our thoughts into more positive ones.
At best, meditation enhances our sense of well-being and perhaps, if we are lucky enough, gives us a glimpse of the divine consciousness that lies beyond our grasp.
Author: Vanessa Shinmoto
Images: Flickr/Dierk Schaefer
Editor: Erin Lawson