Why meditation is not about pursuing positive effects (alone)
Partly as a result of the research, we have come to recognise the positive effects of meditation. We talk about inner peace, compassion and happiness. We talk about the lowered blood pressure, the changes in the brain, and the potential for chronic diseases. Even about DNA changes and cell renewal.
But what we rarely talk about is the deeper insights that come along with the meditation practice and just being human really. We talk about the positive effects but forget to mention the fact that unpleasant experiences are part of the practice too and are actually opportunities to deal with the waves of life differently. They are valuable - like rough diamonds into getting a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Meditation goes beyond looking for the temporary moodstates or the experience of rest or unrest. What's more, it teaches us to understand that our continuous search for happiness and rest paradoxically brings about the opposite.
Where did the insight go?
The insights that are inherently linked to the practice of meditation seem to be missing in a lot of media articles. Sometimes also in some meditation classes, apps and in universities who are doing research about meditation.
It is as if meditation is something ‘external’ that needs to be done to get ‘somewhere’. But it’s not a destination, it’s a presence to the now.
It’s not a pill we take to connect to a permanent happy, zen, joyful and relaxed self because nothing is permanent really and it is okay to feel other kind of emotions too.
Mindfulness learns us to deal skillfully with what is coming up. It’s a space we can create within ourselves, within in our own attention.
When I first started practicing, I too had a lot of different expectations and ideas about meditation. Most of my associations were based on a meditation I once did, a book I read, and a conversation with a teacher who introduced me meditation. But I never really knew about the insights until I stepped in the practice for a prolonged period of time. That's what most of us do - we make associations with the mind without stepping into a sustainable experience.
With experience I mean the physical sensations and senses rather than the interpretation of the mind. With sustainable I mean a daily practice of at least 8 weeks - but preferably longer: months, years and interwoven through retreats.
The insights that are connected with the practice are plentiful and can be found in many layers of our experience. But if had to choose only one - then I would choose this one...
The basic principle from which the entire practice departs is...
Unpleasant experiences are part of everyday life, and of being human.
Nothing is always satisfying and positive and what is positive will also have an end.
So is the cycle of life and every experience.
Everything is always changing and nothing is permanent.
This applies to both positive and negative experiences.
If all experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, are part of life - then it will surely also be part of meditation.
The way we respond to experiences will determine how much stress or suffering is built up inside of us.
Much of the suffering and unnecessary stress comes from struggling with, wanting to run away from, or trying to change unpleasant experiences. Or wanting to hold on to pleasant ones.
Let me give you an example. I remember vividly my second meditation I ever did.... I had to deliver an important project at university the next day and I just had a heated conversation with one of the team members of the project. I couldn't focus and I remembered feeling absolutely restless. But then I thought of the meditation session we once did in class with a professor and the amazing feeling I got out of it so I thought : "This is is! I need to do a meditation!
But as soon as I started meditating, I noticed thoughts about the conversation and all the things I still needed to do. So I started to talk to myself: 'Focus.' ... 'focus'... I did my best to stay focused, but all my mind was doing was reacting and thinking. Other thoughts came up: "Why can't I do this? I don't want to be feeling this way! What am I doing wrong? Maybe meditation is just not for me?" meanwhile my body was urging me to stop the practice all together and stand up.
On that day I stopped. I stopped with meditation all together. But somehow I kept thinking about I read in the book and why I couldn't replicate this feeling. So a couple of months later I decided to join a retreat. There I learned to deal with thoughts and the unrest that I was feeling.
I realised the unrest was already present inside me, since a long time. There was just different situations that were easily triggering it. I learned to stay present with what I was feeling, and to let go of the mind reactions. For the first time, I could experience what it meant to allow and embrace feelings without feeding an unnecessary thought-feeling spiral. It was absolutely freeing.
Inner peace comes from the way we relate to things
Believe or not, but this is one of the most common experiences of first time meditators and it’s absolutely normal in the beginning.
When you become silent, it is normal that you will initially notice the unrest that is already present within you... This is not a side effect of meditation, but just noticing the reality of that moment.
And as long as we don't become present with reality and fight against what is there with mind reactions and thoughts, it is doomed to backfire.
The unrest may be a signal of the body to tell you there is an unnoticed negative thought within yourself, perhaps a situation that does not correspond to your values, maybe it’s time to take a break, or maybe it's an emotion that still needs some attendance.... For me it was probably all these.
We notice our experiences to learn from it and to deal with them in a different manner. We don’t want to surpress them, we want to become present with them.
And what happens when we are really present with the body, without the reactions of the mind?
Mildness, peace, equanimity comes as a welcoming visitor because there is nothing else to fight against. You recognize and accept what is present, even if it’s an annoying feeling. And you let go of the reactive mind that is an expert of making things worse, that too.
In this respect it is equally important to realize that 'mindfulness' is not an external practice, but part of you. It is a wide open attention that you can cultivate within yourself. I'ts about how you take responsibility for how you deal with your attention.
The effects are also created within that space. We can create a welcoming space even if our experience feels unpleasant, or we can stick to resistance.
The quality of the space within your own attention will determine how you feel, think and react. Not the meditation itself. No one can do it for you. Only you can free yourself from the forces that make you unhappy, or focus on what is good for you.
Of course, different types of meditations can help you to learn the skills and train the brain in different directions...
Meditation is a mini-laboratorium for life
Again, integrating insights is not from a mental perspective.
It's not because you understand what the insights are about, that you can apply it in everyday situations, with emotions, stress or thoughts. The space you create within meditation is a space of practice and experimentation to make new connections in your brain and body.
Like every new skills that we want to learn in life: it takes some time to rewrite the new connections. It's like learning to play a new instrument. You can't learn to play a piano in just one hour... but after some days of practice you will get the hang of it.
Meditation can be seen as a mini-laboratory for the experiences that occur in daily life. If you find yourself having self-criticizing thoughts in meditation, there is a high chance that these same thoughts will be present in your daily life. In turn, if you learn a different way of relating to your experience in meditation, this will also help you to relate differently to life.
In mindfulness we learn to see mechanisms inside ourselves that prevent us from truly appreciating life. We learn the practice of becoming present with life and our inner experiences. So that we can make conscious choices instead of being a slave to the automatic reactions of our reptilian brain.
We learn to see the mechanisms inside ourselves that create unnecessary stress. We learn to distinguish the story of the mind, the associations, interpretations and analyses from experience. Thoughts from facts. Observing the thinking and feeling without going along with the content. We learn to let go of the endless thought-feeling spirals.
Not to deny what is present, but to consciously acknowledge the original feelings - and release the subsequent endless flow of thought and secondary feelings.
What we don’t do is to learn how to feel constantly zen, relaxed, calm. Because this is an illusion. Life and being human consists of pleasant, neutral and unpleasant experiences.
In Buddhism these insights are know as 'noble truths' - they are basic principles that are linked to the practice.
Inner peace is a by-product of the practice
If we reduce the meditation practice to a method that will bring about a set of ‘desired’ results, while doing everything we can to minimize ‘undesired’ results, then we lose touch with our humanness and the deeper insights that will bring about acceptance.
It's also an underestimation of the true potential of the practice.
Inner peace is a by-product of meditation because we learn to create a space within ourselves that deals in a skillfull manner with what is coming up. It's not an end goal in itself.
Unpleasant experiences are not 'side effects' of meditation, but simply part of life, and of being human. They are an opportunity to learn how to deal with the waves of life.
And there are a chance to understand ourselves more - to gain insights in the true causes of our happiness and suffering.
Choose the right path for you
There exist many different kinds of retreats and trainings.
Different kinds of meditation techniques.
Different types of meditation teachers with their own experience, vision and model of the world.
And different kinds of pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
Choose the path that feels right for you but don't forget that the path shouldn’t always feel rosy, shiny, comfortable and good :)… Our learning lies outside of our comfort and we can’t learn how to deal with what we don’t want to feel or see.
I am a big fan of mindfulness training and retreats that include: concentration meditation, insight meditation, and heart- and compassion meditations.
To be clear: without gurus ;)
Welcome to join us on retreat in Portugal or a training in Belgium.
Until then, much love,
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