The Pitfalls Of Meditation That No One Will (Openly) Tell You About.
Remember, the nature of the mind is to wander.
Or so I’ve heard time and time again in almost every single guided meditation session I’ve taken this month, as an explanation to why it’s so bloody hard to remain focused on one thing for longer than a couple of seconds.
If you’re new to meditation — like me — you’re probably still experiencing those bizarre moments when your monkey mind randomly decides that it’s a good idea to spend your supposedly calming meditation session, thinking about that little thing your ex said a few years ago to completely shatter your ego. Or fretting about that impossibly difficult work assignment that makes you gasp for breath every time you think about it.
If there’s something that Mindful in May has taught me, it’s that, indeed, the nature of our minds is to wander.
The general advice at those moments of unwanted distraction is to gently bring your mind back to the present moment and try to refocus it on your breadth, bodily sensiations, feelings of gratefulness or kindness, or whatever else it is you’re devoting your meditation session to.
Yeah… easier said than done.
I don’t know if it’s just my mind that is being extremely unruly, but whenever I’d try to bring it back to the present moment, it :
a) either wuldn’t badge at all (like a clever dog asked to retrieve a tennis ball, looking at you with disbelief that you’d expect her to engage in such a pointless pursuit in the first place), or
b) it would run away from me in exactly the opposite direction, toward the very thought or feeling I’m trying to let go of.
It’s like when somoene asks you not to think about the white bear. What are you most likely to fixate on? Yup, you guessed it — the very white bear. (For all the geeks out there, this psychological phenomenon actually has a name : ironic process theory)
So after many sessions of fighting and shaming myself for being a bad ‘meditator’, I finally started doing the reverse — letting and even encouraging my mind to wander wherever the heck it wanted.
‘Say whaaaat?’, I know, I know; I’m a rebel.
But before you throw stones at me, let me add that I did all that in a mindful way, really unpacking the source of what made it so impossible for my mind to simply chill out for just a second.
And, after devoting some undivided attention to my inner demons, their tantrums slowly turned into shouts, then into monologues, then into whispers and — finally — they became silence, allowing me to hear my own breath.
An important thing that no one tells you at the beginning of your meditation journey, is that ultimately this is your mind and it is your responsibility to find your own way to become more mindful.
Perhaps this is the right moment to finally ask — what is ‘mindfulness’ exactly?
(I guess we should’ve answered this question at the beginning of the month…)
According to the almighty Wikipedia, mindfulness is ‘the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.’
It’s a psychological process of paying attention to experiences occurring in the present moment.
No one has ever specified that these expeirences have to be physical, like our breath (though changing one’s breathing pattern is a great way to alter one’s mental/physiological state), the feeling of being supported by a chair, the sounds around us, or the tingling sensation of our tense shoulders finally relaxing.
In fact, I would argue that our mental lives are often far richer than what’s going on outside, but we rarely devote equal attention to our inner experiences.
The moments when we cannot breathe fully, when our heart pounds like crazy, our shoulders hurt, our skin turns sweaty or stone-cold, or when we feel low, aren’t always caused by an apparent ‘outward’ reason. It’s quite likely that there’s something going on inside our minds that makes us feel this way, but because it’s something we cannot easily identify and ‘fix’, we often shrug it off and carry on going about our daily lives as if nothing happened.
And that, my Dear Ones, slowly turns our minds into personal Pandora boxes, full of long-ignored emotional scars, draining thoughts, past traumas, unfulfilled dreams, failed expectations, unexpressed anger and unaddressed sorrow.
Experienced meditators, including the majority of Mindful in May guest speakers, rarely mention that there is bound to be a moment in your meditation journey when you will have to face all those dormant inner demons, so neatly hidden in your personal Pandora box.
This time last year these demons took the best of me and made me quit Mindful in May exactly halfway through the programme. I spent a couple of months believing that there was something seriously wrong with me — how can meditation benefit so many people, but leave me in a worse state than before?
It was only when I went to Thailand and had a chance to speak to an experienced meditation teacher, and challenge him about the universal benefits of meditation, when I learned that what I’d experienced was perfectly normal for the majority of those starting their meditation journey.
The problem is that those murky beginnings aren’t sexy enough to post about on social media or write articles about, so very few people actually speak about them.
In his Mindful in May guest interview, Michael Bunting, the author of The Mindful Leader, talks about how difficult it is to deal with all the clutter that we’ve been mindlessly storing in our heads for years, but he also highlights the benefits of sticking it out.
This year, I came back prepared, ready to have my mind wander toward all sorts of disturbing thoughts, heavy feelings, painful memories and fears I didn’t really want to re-experience. To quote Robert Frost, ‘sometimes the only way out is through’.
It wasn’t easy; in my first blog post on meditation I confessed that on the 5th day of Mindufl in May I found myself sitting on the carpet in my bedroom, weeping. It ceratinly wasn’t pleasant, but it was for sure worth it.
There’s no statistical data (sadly…) that could account for the imact that a daily meditation practice has made on my life, but I’ve got all the qualitative data I need to continue doing it on a daily basis, moving forward.
Only a couple of days ago a person I deeply care about did something quite nasty to me, which is likely to permanently alter my attitude toward them. Now, by nature, I’m a “hot head” who tends to act before thinking in difficult situations of this sort. I usually say something stupid right there and then fall out of balance for many days to come. However, “the new, more mindful me” managed to remain calm (or calmer, at least…), respond exactly the way I wanted, and much quicker identify ways of handling the situation (both outwardly and inwardly) as efficiently as possible.
Of course I was sad and angry; of course I’d still much rather avoid the situation in the first place, but I feel that the way I approach these difficult situations now is much less reactive, much more oriented on preserving my wellbeing, and — objectively speaking — much more dignified than before. Which makes ploughing through the initial meditation ups and downs definitely worth it.
So, to sum up our May ‘daily meditation challenge’, I’d like to quote the very icon of meditation and the ultimate guru of mindfulness:
‘Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.’ -Buddha