In the past few months, I have been approached more and more by people curious about meditation. Often, they call me to one side and quietly ask, “what’s it all about?”
Lately, buzzwords like mindfulness and promises of tranquility and increased calmness, stress relief or better mood have caught the attention of many people who may not ever have given a second thought to such things. In that sense, it’s a good thing that word is getting out.
However, it seems to me that (much in the same way we are fine-tuned to seek quick fixes and a direct hotline to nirvana) people have a tendency to assume that meditation is a bed of roses. There are many misconceptions about the ‘point’ of meditation and the ‘results’ it may deliver.
When I started meditating, my understanding was that it would help me in my ongoing quest to escape the pains of life, or give me much needed go-faster stripes in order to outrun the many demons on my trail. I, too, fell victim to the mind's habit of romanticising meditation as an 'out'. All I had to do was sit for twenty minutes, twice a day, and life would simply become 'easy'. This displayed my lack of understanding of both meditation and, more importantly, Life itself.
"The important point of spiritual practice is not to try and escape your life, but to face it - exactly and completely."
~ Dainin Katagiri
I was recently asked why meditation sometimes hurts. My answer: because life sometimes hurts.
You see, there’s so much more to life than the parts we find acceptable. There’s pain, both physical and mental; there’s boredom and restlessness; worry or fear. There are aspects of life we might prefer didn't happen, but they do. And that IS life. The flowers and the shit. The question is, how do we respond to that? Not, how to avoid it.
In the past, if anything 'undesirable' arose in my life, I’d seek comfort in distraction. Something to take my mind off it or to numb the pain. Let’s face it, we – as a culture and society - have perfected the art of distraction. We have a million and one options to choose from. However, what I eventually learned, and what many of the people approaching me lately have begun to realize, is that distraction simply doesn’t work as a long-term solution or a suitable form of management.
We need to address the misconceptions we have about life and ourselves directly, tackling them head on. We need to meet life on its terms, instead of insisting that it meets us on ours.
Many people are surprised when, instead of meditating away their fears or anxieties, they are thrust head first into them. When we cease to shake the snow globe what is inside is revealed and let's face it, how many of us truly want to look inside?
During my meditation practice, as emotions, resentments, feelings, and thoughts arose, I began to notice my habitual aversion to them. I would squirm with displeasure and want nothing more than for them to go away. But they didn't, so I was forced to take a different approach and to meet them face to face. In doing so, I began to understand the extent of my own ignorance. I’d get a first-hand glimpse that my response to life was the problem, not life itself.
You see, much as we try and change life to suit our wants or preferences, this is a battle that can never be won. We assume that our desires have value and expect the Universe to bend accordingly. When it doesn’t, we complain.
As I meditated, I learned to see the unhealthy role I played in this dynamic. I was rendered unable to bitch and moan, all the while pleading ignorance. My view was at the root of much of what I found to be problematic and meditation allowed me enough time and space to see that. You can imagine what a bitter pill to swallow this is after years of blaming and justifying.
I also learned that we do everything with expectancy. Even meditation. I was always told "just sit" - but in the back of my mind I was thinking of what 'just sitting' might bring me. It was only when I saw this that I was able to begin to vaguely entertain 'just sitting' - without all the bells and whistles of expectation. It’s sometimes hard to convey this to newcomers, because we’re all so accustomed to doing = getting. God forbid we should do anything simply for the sake of doing it. No chocolate bar as a reward for being a good boy or girl and sitting still for ten minutes. Just sit.
There is great value in not getting what we want. Unfortunately the value is often missed and the drive to comfort ourselves and, in turn, extinguish the possibility to learn something is the way we have always been taught to respond to such disappointment.
These are just some of the things that happened for me along the way and still I am met with new challenges each and every day - identifying the rusty nails in my mind that I get snagged on. The beliefs, the ideas, the limited views. All of which we take for granted until we sit down and take the time to see what's really going on.
Let’s dispel the notions we have about meditation. It is nothing more than meeting life itself. And that’s something we do every moment of every day, even though we fail to recognise it. Meditation practice enables us to recognise or remember that that’s what we’re doing. Then we may come to understand that meditation is life and life is meditation.
Michael McCaffrey - April 2015