We were teaching a meditation program in North Wales, in the UK, in a quiet backwater near the hills. It was a peaceful day, everyone was happily seated, and we had just rung the gong to begin the morning session when a motorbike started revving right outside the window. It was a loud and annoying noise that continued – stopping and starting –while the owner did repair work. It reminded us how, in England, church bells can ring all day and during meditation retreats we would often be confronted with the question: how do you stop the bell? Answer: become the bell!
An old monk in England once told us he was teaching next to a building site and a loud pneumatic drill started up. He said, “We had to become the drill.” For meditation is not about forcing the mind to be absolutely still. Rather, it’s a letting go of resistance to whatever arises.
There are many reasons why meditation can appear difficult or even challenging, listening to the noises outside or the incessant chatter in our head being one of them. We easily get bored if we do nothing for too long, even if it’s only ten minutes, and even more so if we are unclear as to why we are doing it. But what is it about something as simple as sitting still and watching our breath that evokes panic, fear, and even hostility?
After years of hearing a plethora of reasons why people find it hard to meditate, we have whittled it down to just a few:
1. I’m too busy, and I’m too stressed. Which can certainly be true if, for instance, you have a lot to do, like having young children and a full-time job. However, we are only talking about maybe ten minutes a day. Most of us spend more time than that reading the newspaper or surfing the web. It only appears like we don’t have the time because we usually fill every moment with activity and never press the pause button. There is no medical cure for stress but, as meditation is one of the best remedies, it’s worth creating the space for it.
The important point is that you make friends with meditation. It’ll be of no help at all if you feel you have to meditate, for instance, and then feel guilty if you miss the allotted time or only do ten minutes when you had promised to do thirty. It’s much better to practice for a just a short time and to enjoy what you are doing, than to sit there, teeth gritted, because you’ve been told that only 30 or even 40 minutes will have any affect. Meditation is a companion to have throughout life, like an old friend you turn to when in need of support, inspiration, and clarity. It is to be enjoyed!
2. My mind won’t stop thinking: I can’t relax, I just can’t! My thoughts are driving me crazy! Sound familiar? Trying to stop your mind from thinking is like trying to stop the wind – it’s impossible. The mind is described like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion because, just as a monkey leaps from branch to branch, so the mind leaps from one thing to another, constantly distracted and busy. When you come to sit still and try to quiet your mind, you find all this manic activity going on and it seems insanely noisy. It’s actually nothing new, just that now you are becoming aware of it whereas before you were immersed in it, unaware that such chatter was so constant.
This experience of the mind being so busy is very normal. Years of busy mind, of creating and maintaining dramas, of stresses and confusion and self-centeredness, and the mind has no idea how to be still. Rather, it craves distraction and entertainment. It’s not as if you can suddenly turn the mind off, but the experience of stillness is accumulative: The more you sit, then slowly the mind becomes quieter. Every time you find your mind is drifting, daydreaming, remembering the past or planning ahead, just come back to now, come back to this moment. Nothing else.
3. There are too many distractions, it’s too noisy. Gone are the days when we could disappear into a cave and be left undisturbed until we emerged some time later fully enlightened. Instead, we all have to deal with the sounds and impositions of the world around us. But – and it’s a big but – we needn’t let it impose. Cars going by outside? Fine. Let them go by, just don’t go with them. The quiet you are looking for is inside, not outside.
4. I don’t see the point. This is where you have to take our word for it! Some people get how beneficial meditation is after just one session, but most of us take longer – you might notice a difference after a week of daily practice or maybe more. Which means you have to trust the process enough to hang in there and keep going, even before you get the benefits. After practicing and teaching for many years, we can happily assure you it is well worth it.
Remember, music needs to be played for hours to get the notes right, while in Japan it can take twelve years to learn how to arrange flowers. Being still happens in a moment, but it may take some time before that moment comes—hence the need for practice as well as patience.
5. I’m no good at this; I never get it right. Actually, it’s impossible to fail at meditation. There is no right or wrong, and there’s no special technique. Deb’s meditation teacher told her there are as many forms of meditation as there are people who practice it. So all you need do is find the way that works for you and keep at it. You can sit on the floor, sit in a chair, do moving meditation such as tai chi or walking, watch your breath, repeat a mantra, or develop loving kindness. There are many variations.
6. It’s all just weird New Age hype. It’s certainly easy to get lost in the array of New Age promises of eternal happiness, but meditation itself is as old as the hills. More than 2,500 years ago the Buddha was a dedicated meditator who tried and tested numerous different ways of enabling the mind to be quiet. And that’s just one example. Each religion has its own variation on the theme, and all stretch back over the centuries. So nothing new here, and nothing weird or whacky.
Ed and Deb Shapiro are the authors of BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, with forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman and Winner of the 2010 Nautilus Gold Book Award. Deb is the author of the bestselling book, YOUR BODY SPEAKS YOUR MIND, winner of the 2007 Visionary Book Award. They are featured bloggers on Oprah.com/spirit, HuffingtonPost.com/Living, and Care2.com. They have 3 meditation CD’s: Metta — Loving Kindness and Forgiveness; Samadhi – Breath Awareness and Insight; and Yoga Nidra – Inner Conscious Relaxation. See: www.EdandDebShapiro.com
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