Why we don’t meditate, even though it just might fix Everything
Close your eyes and picture someone meditating. (Ok, I know you didn’t close your eyes because you’re still reading this. Busted.) Seriously, humor me for a second and get a clear visual in your mind of a person meditating. I’ll even do the same whilst continuing to type blindly.
Now open ’em. I’ll bet half a month’s rent, or a pair of Lululemon pants, that we both pictured roughly the same thing: a guy sitting cross-legged outside in nature, eyes closed, mouth in varying stages of chanting the sound “Ohm”. His hair is probably not short, and he’s been sporting a man-bun long before it was cool. He’s thin from eating things like tofu, and other vegan fare you can barely pronounce. He likes Buddha and Bernie, hates corporations. Yay, stereotypes!
The thing is, I’m a recently certified yoga teacher who tries to meditate semi-regularly, and I STILL can’t shake that visual. We’ve all been primed for decades by media and culture on what meditation generally looks like, and most of us unconsciously decided somewhere along the way that it doesn’t look like something that someone like us does. More rational excuses include “Who has the patience and free time to sit still these days? Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
The ancient Zen masters have a great rebuttal to this: You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.
Touché, Zen masters. And also, fat chance.
Back to that visual stereotype, we have a pretty clear sense of what meditation looks like, but virtually no idea what it actually feels like if taken seriously. Because if we did, we’d all do it a heck of a lot more often than ‘never’.
If you read the news more often than never these days, you’ve probably noticed a surge in headlines about the surprising benefits of meditation, alongside less beneficial news about the Trumps and Kardashians of the world. Respectable research institutions like Harvard are starting to take stillness seriously, finding evidence of staggering improvements to your physical body (like rebuilding brain matter) and to your sanity (reducing stress and anxiety).
Dozens of new apps have blossomed to guide you through it with transcendental music and soothing British accents. And for gadget geeks who want the supercharged version, there are EEG-powered wearables that claim to gently steer your noggin toward enlightenment.
So if focusing our brains for mere minutes a day seems like such a no-brainer, why aren’t more of us doing it regularly? Three reasons — a perfect storm of nature, nurture and laziness. But in the spirit of not being a total downer, I shall offer three solutions at the end with varying degrees of silliness.
Reason One: Meditation is not nearly as easy as it looks. As it turns out, doing Nothing while thinking Nothing actually takes immense effort and concentration, especially when you’re starting out.
For a species called human beings, we really suck at just ‘being.’ We are so addicted to constantly ‘doing’ something both mentally and physically, that for many people, running a marathon or writing a book feels more natural than meditating. Even if we can find a few minutes of solitude, we find our bodies and minds are horribly out of shape for seeking enlightenment.
For most of us, the default mental state is ‘On’, with multiple thought tabs open simultaneously and no energy-saver mode. Our chatty brains seem wired to focus on anything but the present moment, seamlessly toggling between dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. These sadist minds have complete rule over us, and we’ve been foolishly glorifying this cranial dominance ever since Descartes proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am” during an era prematurely called The Enlightenment.
Our bodies aren’t exactly meditation superathletes, either. Their go-to status update on Facebook would be Feeling Distracted…usually by hunger, thirst, tiredness, full bladders or itchy hard-to-reach-spots. If all of the above are miraculously dormant, a stillness-induced boredom will instantly signal to our brain that we need it to entertain us, in the absence of external stimuli like TV or whiskey or friends.
I don’t know about you, but my mind is a total asshole intent on sabotaging most attempts to meditate, and it will scrape the bottom of the thought barrel to distract me if it has to, bringing up trivial things I’ve long forgotten like words I couldn’t spell in third grade. Or more cruelly, it will trick me into thinking I’m meditating by triumphantly whispering, “Woo! I’m not thinking anything! I totally got this.” Which is a dirty trick to draw attention back to your thoughts, since thinking about not thinking is still by definition, thinking.
Meditation is an elusive little bugger. The more you consciously crave its spiritual high and the more energy you funnel into achieving it, the farther away it seems to get. There are disciplined monks devoting their whole lives to mastering it. And if there’s truth to the saying, “it’s easy to be a monk in a monastery,” then we’re all a bit screwed, as our modern environments are about as un-monastic as it could get.
Reason Two: Meditation has a serious image problem, particularly in the West. We live in a very outward society. We glorify loud, gregarious extroverts and stigmatize quiet introverts. We reward outspokenness and mistake busyness for importance. Sitting still with your eyes closed hardly looks productive. Yet turning inward is often the most productive thing we can do for ourselves, and by extension, for others in our lives. Instead we reach further outward, oversharing trivial aspects of our lives on Facebook and obsessing over our external image rather than working on our inner selves.
We can’t help but be drawn to loud, fiery people who are the life of the party because they seem to bring out the party in our life. This desirable personality trait appears at odds with the type of person who likes to sit calmly in a meditative state. We don’t have a mainstream role model who has proven that you can be both lively and still. There’s Beyonce on one end, and the Dalai Lama on the other. (Though Russell Brand might be a good contender if he weren’t so polarizing.)
Reason Three: Even if we succeed in making meditation cool and mainstream, which is entirely feasible, the biggest hurdle is actually personal desire. It’s not that we’re afraid it won’t work, that we’ll have wasted hours sitting still doing ostensibly nothing. Quite the contrary — on some level, we’re afraid meditation does work, and it quite frankly seems like a boring and lonely path to inward happiness, unlike the inherently more social pleasure-seeking methods we commonly employ (booze, drugs, food, people).
I keep hearing meditation described as “exercise for your mind”, which is a massive, epic fail. Most of us instinctively hate any form of exercise, and find plenty of reasons not to do it most of the time. If we weigh meditation against other activities we could be doing with our extremely limited free time, it doesn’t stand a chance against more exciting options that take zero mental effort. Its entertainment value seems on par with watching paint dry or perhaps eating kale — a boring, joyless experience that is undeniably good for us, so we might try to nibble on it occasionally, but the minute we remember there’s pizza and beer, we’re on a binge spiral with a Game of Thrones marathon for dessert.
These activities shut off our chattering minds, too, which is partly why we love them. But like a sugar rush, they leave no lasting benefits.
Plus, meditation could make us realize that happiness, joy, and peace are actually an inner choice within our control, just like anger, fear and sadness, which would make it hard to blame others when we feel the latter. That we can no longer blame our parents nor our crazy ex nor Obama for our problems. Bummer.
So how do we conquer these obstacles? Here’s a more uplifting threesome:
1. We need a sexier vocabulary
Meditation, as both a word and a practice, is thousands of years old and naturally loaded with hard-to-shake stereotypes. But perhaps you’ve heard of its trendy new cousin, “mindfulness.” It seems like a decent attempt to modernize meditation for a populace that has otherwise written it off as considerably less worthwhile than Netflix-binging and Facebook-stalking.
But let’s mindfully address the term “mindfulness” for a second. I’ve been in the words business for over a decade, helping craft advertising messages for brands. So when I recently noticed that meditation had teamed up with mindfulness to form the ultimate buzzword mouthful “mindfulness meditation”, my B.S.-meter instantly went off. Mindfulness sounds even more vague and abstract than its alliterative amigo, and even less fun to practice. It’s generally defined as “being really interested and aware of what’s going on in our bodies and minds from moment to moment” — a tactic that’s being used to help people quit smoking, lose weight and deal with stress.
Sadly this mindfulness mumbo-jumbo isn’t going to help meditation’s image any more than that guy in lotus pose chanting ‘ohm’. It still sounds like hippie-dippy, airy-fairy fluff that can’t possibly solve my real world problems. Maybe what we need is a brand new vocabulary for talking about this stuff, if we’re ever going to take it seriously.
At the very least, let’s form a catchy acronym that condenses the mouthful into something that doesn’t take up half of a Tweet’s character limit. I would propose M&M, which sounds vaguely naughty like S&M, yet also delicious like M&Ms candy. Perhaps the good people at Mars could make a funny TV commercial where Yellow and Red are mindfully meditating, to firmly cement the term into culture. Better yet, M&M could be personified as a hip, enlightened rapper who inevitably battles Eminem at a charity fundraiser. (Roll your eyes, I don’t care. Imagine being stuck with my brain 24/7.)
2. We need more yoga — or any activity that quiets the voice(s) in your head
Since we’re still in a phase as mankind, particularly in the West, where it feels more natural and interesting to move than to not move, there’s a little ancient practice called yoga that seems to be the ideal gateway drug to M&M.
Yoga, aptly nicknamed “moving meditation”, is another one of those culturally misunderstood words, just like mindfulness and meditation. It is ‘so hot right now’, thanks in large part to hot, bendy people on Instagram and the aforementioned pricey Lululemon apparel.
As someone who has cautiously begun describing herself as a “yogi” and is considering teaching, I realize I am far from the norm. Not a single family member, and only a handful of my friends, do yoga regularly. I actively avoided it for years due to perceived smugness and general intimidation, so I know the yoga community doesn’t exactly seem approachable to a newbie — and teachers instructing poses in Sanskrit doesn’t help the matter.
Perhaps there should be a cheeky alternative to yoga called noga, for people who think they hate yoga, like a Seinfeldian ‘Festivus for the rest of us’. Noga teachers would wear tees with ironic sayings like “Namast’ay in Bed” and would instruct classes in plain English instead of saying scary things like “Let’s all meet in Adho Mukha Svanasana.” With chanting and chakras referenced only in rare emergencies, you would still get the benefits of synching your breath to your movement for an hour, of strengthening and lengthening your body, and quieting your chatty mind. (If you want to help me open a Noga studio, patent pending, let’s talk!)
Smartass digressions aside, yoga was engineered thousands of years ago not so you could impress people with a beach body and perilous mountaintop handstands, but as a way to prepare the body and mind for meditation. Physically that means having the capacity to sit still for a long time, and mentally it requires the ability to still the turning of thought.
People often start coming to yoga class in search of a workout, but it’s the surprising work-in that keeps them coming back, often for life. There’s a strengthening that happens on the inside, not just to your internal organs, mucles and bones, but to your mental clarity, your spiritual awareness, your emotional well-being. Those benefits sneak up on you, and that ‘yoga buzz’ after a great class can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.
I’d like to think the essence of yoga can sort of extend to anything you do that quiets your mind while you do it. Maybe for you that’s cooking or dancing or photography. For those moments, you feel fully present, not letting your mind wander off to negative thoughts. You love doing these things because they bring out the best version of yourself, and as a nice little side effect, they often bring joy to others.
Because ultimately, all of these practices like M&M, like yoga, like hobbies you love, are about working on ourselves, for ourselves, figuring out how to minimize pain and suffering — and maximize joy and love — in this crazy, unpredictable life.
So the next time you’re doing something you enjoy so much that it almost feels like a spiritual experience, like playing an instrument or swimming in the ocean, practice being actively aware of how you feel during that experience. Notice how you get lost in it, lose track of time, use more of your senses, and how thinking would ruin the moment. Apply that same feeling to sitting still and breathing.
3. We need to realize the biggest benefit isn’t to our daily sanity, but to mankind as a whole
Using our minds may have helped us get to this amazing modern society, to smartphones and stem cells and spaceships. But using our minds is not the end goal, nor what defines us as human beings. Freeing ourselves from the limitations of the mind is the end goal, as it has been for thousands of years since man became intelligent enough to realize there is more to us than our minds, and saw the need for methods to help us get to the next stage of our evolution — to become fully present, awake, enlightened beings who radiate love, joy and peace rather than competition, hatred and destruction.
Our survival as a species and a planet may depend on enough people realizing this before it’s too late (stay with me if you’ve gotten this far). If there’s a reason that weapons of mass connection like the internet exist, it’s not just to share funny cat videos or watch porn, but to spread powerful ideas quickly.
Ideas like these, put forth by two of my favorite humans, both famous for their minds but driven by their spirit and love of mankind:
“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest –a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness…This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty…” — Albert Einstein, 1950
“The prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East…This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.” — Alan Watts, 1966
Both of these statements were made decades ago, and it doesn’t feel like we’ve made a ton of collective progress toward joy, compassion and one-ness with other living things. So if methods like M&M can help us get even a smidge closer, let’s simply decide that they are worth doing. Let’s elevate it from a self-indulgent new-agey activity to a human necessity, like sleeping and eating. Sure, it may not be the sexiest, most exciting part of your day. But it’ll make everything else a bit brighter. And what’s sexier than being happy and alive?
Note: I’ve been studying this ancient philosophy stuff for about five minutes, so if you want to really learn from the masters, check out timeless texts like: