As a long-time meditator and Buddhist, I am increasingly concerned about the level of appropriation of meditation practices. I am especially frightened by people and professionals who claim to others that they are knowledgeable on the subject, to the point of calling themselves teachers, but who clearly promote a harmful and grossly misguided version of meditation. What concerns me the most about this situation is the harm that these unqualified individuals can do to those who aspire to learn. Not only can it result in the worsening of people’s internal difficulties, but it has the potential to turn them off to something that could otherwise be immensely beneficial. Consequently, this article is going to be corrective and informative in nature, and it’s my attempt to counter the harmful information that too many are promoting.
Our Addiction to Happiness is the Problem
One of the biggest mistakes that people make coming in to meditation is that they believe that it’s all about feeling amazing…but it’s not. Meditation is about developing certain mental capacities and this sets the stage for us to, possibly, experience greater satisfaction in our life. I can’t say it enough, meditation is not about sitting and being happy…but we have the potential for feeling positive and uplifted during or after a meditation session. Though, we might end up feeling scared, sad or even angry. In the end, it doesn’t matter how we feel as a result of the meditation session because it’s like exercise. Sometimes we don’t have a “good” workout or feel like exercising, but we know it’s good for us, right?! Meditation is the same way. Meditation is not about our addiction to happiness, it’s about learning how to fully utilize our human abilities and to enhance them.
When we have an addiction to happiness, we are constantly trying to experience higher and higher levels of it. This is akin to an addict, and addicts have a very hard time experiencing or tolerating what they don’t want or like. The stronger our addiction is to happiness, the greater our unhappiness will be and the more we’ll experience it. As is taught in many traditions from the East that utilize meditation, this addiction is highly problematic and the source of the problem. So when I see or hear of people promoting meditation and espousing that we should be addicted to happiness I feel disgusted. My first thought is, “You’re poisoning them by telling them that the source of the problem is the solution!” When I see and hear these messages, I cringe and wince with a deep disappointment and sadness, and I urge you to reject them or at the very least, question them thoroughly.
Contentment is the New Happiness
Happiness is typically thought of, at least within the dominant culture of the U.S., as a constant state of elation or joy. We imagine people always smiling, engaging in life with energy and intensity, and they never experience any problems that shake their ever present good-mood or positive view. We see this depicted in television and people often present themselves this way on Facebook. Unfortunately, all of it’s a big fat fiction, and we would all do well to disregard it all. However, we shouldn’t swing to the other end and become completely cynical or crotchety. The middle ground is what we need…and this is where we find contentment.
Contentment is amazing. It’s not only very possible to experience a state of contentment, but it’s better than elation and joy because it has immense staying power. This is because contentment doesn’t require anything or any energy. In fact, it can be quite rejuvenating. Joy and elation are peak experiences in response to changing internal or external conditions. Contentment, on the other hand, is based on nothing except for our consciousness and it requires no energy. Yep, all you need to be is alive and have the capacity to be aware. The reason that meditation can help you experience contentment is because it’s practices are deliberately aimed at doing things so that you can hang out in your most basic awareness. The natural by-product of our basic awareness is contentment and a sense of feeling spacious, warm with a cool mist, light as a feather and even subtly fluffy. But be aware that these sensations aren’t the goal and that meditation is not about contentment, but we may experience it as a side-benefit.
At this point you might be thinking, “but I can’t meditate all of the time, so what’s the point?” Exactly, and great question. There are many different meditation methods that are aimed at helping people improve the relationship that they have with their own mind, body and emotions. Through meditation and various contemplations, we come to understand how the human mind works, how we get caught in our mind’s BS and how we can continue to hang out in our basic awareness while we go about our day. This means that meditation takes some effort. The better we are at focusing our awareness, learning and growing, and hanging out in contentment, the better able we are to birng our practice into our entire life. So the ultimate point of meditation is to always meditate, regardless of what you’re doing.
It Takes a Little Work in the Beginning
All of this may have popped your bubble, but hopefully it doesn’t discourage you from going down the meditative road because it’s well worth it. In the beginning, meditation can be tough and it’s important to be curious about your practice and your experiences (on and off the cushion). As meditation becomes more familiar to you, it’ll be a place that you’ll want to go more frequently. Initially, it can be uncomfortable and very confusing, but everyone gets the hang of it if they keep with it and maintain an open mind. Just be careful not to assume that you know everything about meditation and yourself. The finer points and deeper insights (even into simple things) can take some time to get down. As a therapist and meditator, I’ve experienced many people who claim to know everything about meditation and their own mind…these are typically the people who are the most ignorant, poorly practiced, misguided and unaware. So don’t fall into the trap of arrogance, but don’t go to the other extreme. Lastly, remembered that it’s called practice and like exercise, you should always do at least a little every day to maintain your health.
Clarifying Mindfulness | It’s not Meditation
Mindfulness is only one aspect of consciousness and simply put, it’s our natural ability to be self-aware. To use it to the fullest potential we need to max out our ability to concentrate and deliberately pay attention to a specific thing. The most effective way to do this is to concentrate on something that is extremely simple, small, boring and constantly moving. This is why the breath is the wisest choice. Our breathing is extremely simple and it is ever flowing, which requires us to maintain our focus from moment-to-moment. So when people say that they practice Mindfulness, I always ask about their specific practices because too many people use it as an avoidant technique. In fact, people are taught to use it as a way to avoid…which I strongly discourage. Yet the question remains, how can we recognize mindfulness or the lack of it in our own experience?
Imagine that you’re sitting and meditating. You just started and your awareness is on your breathing and various thoughts are coming and going. You continue to practice but then all of a sudden you realize that for the past few minutes you were off in some though, fantasy or even falling asleep. Where did you go? Where you went was the realm of the automaton (aka, automatic human being). You were physically there…but you weren’t mentally there. Then there was a flash of mindfulness where you were “fully” aware of what was happening. In that instant, you recognized that your attention had drifted away. At the same time, you recalled your meditation method (e.g., posture, breathing) and re-engaged it. In this example we can see where mindfulness was and where it was not. The trouble is noticing when you’re away during the day. The hardest part is noticing when we’re acting on habit but our mind tricks us into thinking that everything is deliberate…that’s a tough one! And so you know, nearly all humans are not completely mindful throughout the day and this is because we, like other animals, run on habit and automatic in order to conserve energy. We often trick ourselves into thinking that we’re mindful but that’s usually because it’s psychologically scary to think that we don’t do a lot of things for very specific reasons and within our awareness.
So as you approach a possible meditation practice, equate it to an exercise regimen. Ease in to it, learn as much as you can, and try to make it a lifestyle change rather than a temporary thing you do. Keep in mind that sometimes it’ll be great and feel really good, but that there will be plenty of times where it might really suck. The biggest difference between exercise and meditation is that your underlying psychological stuff can creep up and potentially freak you out when you meditate. If you’ve experienced traumas in your life, tread lightly and get some good support before you venture into it. This just ensures that you have a bit of a safety net before you decide to jump in, and it can’t hurt to have it. Even if you haven’t experienced any traumas it can be extremely helpful to enlist the help of a seasoned and knowledgeable meditation practitioner. And finally, remember that meditation is not about forcing happiness. Rather, it’s a way to tap into your innate human potential and when you do this, you just might experience a greater amount of contentment and enjoyment that’s only based on living.