Instant gratification is not the goal. Learn to go deeper and it will help you do the same with other things in your life
As a long time meditator and Buddhist practitioner, I have watched the spread of the mindfulness meme with amusement, occasional gratification, and some scepticism. The amusement comes from the sheer variety of ways people try to cram mindfulness into their regimens from eating to exercise. It’s quite bewilderingly silly. Gratification, because when pursued on a regular basis, even very basic meditation techniques can help with depression, stress, self-confidence, and general self awareness. These are all great outcomes for a practice that does not involve medications, takes little time, relatively speaking, and costs nothing.
The scepticism comes because mindful living is pitched as a panacea for so many things that often require serious effort to change. But I seldom see serious effort in meditation practice. In fairy tales there are often magical objects that can cure and heal all kinds of ills and life problems. But the constant meme in these ancient tales is that to acquire these objects one must go through a journey that tests the endurance and mental strength of the seeker. And equally constant is the realization when the goal is achieved, and the object acquired, that the journey itself was the healing process, not the magical trinket. Meditation is no different.
A long sit can be agony, for a reason
The first time I attempted to sit for 45 minutes, it was torture*. I’d worked up to twenty minutes at a time, so I was somewhat prepared for the fight that my thoughts and body would give me, but more than doubling my time on the cushion became actually painful. You sit down, get comfortable and start breathing. Initially, I counted breaths, as this helps you return to your focus after you inevitably get distracted thinking about something. Eventually I could drop the counting and just get into the rhythm of the in and out of air. This in itself felt like a minor breakthrough.
Like most beginners I tried to push thoughts out of my head. And a lot of the time those thoughts were about itches and aches and twitches- signals from my body that it did not like this at all. Thoughts don’t like being pushed around either. They push right back in like a stubborn cat determined to sit on a lap or a keyboard. Pushing back is not the answer.
Ironically, rather than experiencing mindfulness, the sense of being aware without reacting, I was experiencing mind-fullness: a cacaphony of sensations, thoughts, urges, etc. But somewhere around the thirty minute mark these things began to subside. Things seemed to quiet down.
This quieting down became the next goal of sitting. To be able to watch the noise unfold without being in it. I personally found that I needed at least twenty minutes of meditation to get to this point, but longer periods can take you to the next stage, what Zen practitioners call samedhi, a state of suspended calmness where everything seems to go out of time and you sit in stillness within yourself. This is quite a beautiful thing, and it seldom lasts long, but it can become something you move into with less effort. But it can also be a little too alluring.
When time pauses…
Indulging in samedhi, once you learn to get there, can be very tempting. But like all things, too much of a thing can lead to being owned by it.
In her book Reflections in a Mountain Lake, Ani Tenzin Palmo tells the story of a band of traders making a long journey to trade. They stop in a forest to make tea. One goes off to gather firewood but stops and decides this would be a good place to meditate for a few minutes. After several hours his companions get alarmed and start searching for him but they cannot find him and they assume he is lost or has been eaten by wild animals. A year later they are returning through the same forest and decide to look for his remains. They find him sitting in samedhi and awaken him. He looks up and says ‘Oh, is the tea ready?’.
This parable illustrates the dangers of indulging in anything, not matter how pleasurable. Because the trader did not progress beyond that stage he lost a year of his life to a state outside of time.
What about quick sessions here and there?
Many mindfulness practices tell us we can fit short sessions into daily routines to bring our focus back to a center. It certainly can’t hurt to drop into a ten minute session when you find yourself getting impatient or stressed out. But until I started making it through longer sessions and acquiring more practice, these short sessions were not that fruitful. Once you have experienced a more extended session and started to learn to calm the internal storm, you can bring this experience into those brief interludes with better effect.
Treating repetitive activities as opportunities for practice
We hear a lot about mindful living. When you wash dishes, just wash dishes. Don’t wash dishes while fretting about something else. Again, with some disciplined practice behind you, it is much easier to apply focus to mundane tasks. I’ve written about how strength training and walking offer excellent opportunities for meditative practice. A 45 minute workout with weights involves a lot of counting and constant body awareness of form, and should have a cadence and rhythm to it, qualities that resemble the same breathing exercises we do when sitting. In some ways, when you are working hard physically, it is actually difficult to get distracted by thoughts and worries. This is why working out can make you feel so good psychologically.
Try going deeper (in everything)
Doing a deeper dive into any practice is where things get interesting. You learn things that you can read about but not really understand on a visceral level. Meditation is just one example but it is a practice that relates to virtually any other thing you go deeper into. When I was in my twenties I was passionate about playing original music. I’d dabbled around but didn’t commit to anything. But as that passion grew, some new friends and I started playing together and practicing 6 nights a week for three to four hours each night, writing songs and learning to play together (I am a bass player). These sessions were easily the most focused I had ever been up to that point. It took all that focus to stay with it and hold up my end. The hard work paid off with sold-out club gigs pretty early in our history and eventually record deals with indie labels and a distribution deal with Capitol. Though serious fame eluded us we experienced the entire fantasy of playing good music to large rooms of real fans. It was that hard work that led to that.
Writing is no different. When I got my first book deal, I was terrified. What if I took the advance and couldn’t deliver? As I’ve written about, I took my experience from the band and applied the same deep dive to the process of writing a book. If you just dabble, writing a journal or spending a few minutes daily, you’ll never get down into the really interesting aspects of storytelling. Same with anything. Meditation can show you how to do this and it requires no special skills or equipment. If you can’t make yourself do longer sessions on your own, take a class or sit with a group. Peer pressure and comradery will get you through it. A teacher makes a big difference too. Then apply it to something else you’ve always wanted to do. Take a deeper dive.
These are all ancillary benefits
Ultimately, going deeper is going to pay off in ways you may not expect. For me, I found myself less judgemental and more open to learning from others, especially those I would have marginalized in the past. Increased patience has been a huge benefit that also leads to more compassion, the signal goal of Buddhism. The ability to calm yourself and see things from that place, gives you the ability to make decisions less emotionally or abruptly. You start to realize that most stress is not connected to anything real and you get better at dealing with its sources rather than simply giving in to it. Yes, you’ll probably get more productive, but this increased patience and compassion are the real rewards of doing the work.
* The ‘torture’ was never as bad as that first time. Eventually you can detach from the physical things and handle them. Again, with practice.