I went on a weekend meditation retreat a little while ago and, without doubt, the most frequent comment I received from colleagues on Monday was: “Oh, it must have been so relaxing!”
Well, yes. And no.
Yes, because I was away from the traffic and noise of London, away from work, away from the constant pinging of technology and away from anybody I knew, just for a couple of nights. The retreat took place in the countryside so, of course, being able to walk in nature and enjoy the stillness, the peace and the fresh air was relaxing.
But the majority of it was not necessarily what I would call ‘relaxing’–or, at least, attaining a state of relaxation wasn’t the focus, but a nice, occasional by-product of the experience.
There seems to be a common misconception that meditation is about trying to achieve a particular state. But the idea of meditation is to accept fully the state you are in right now. To feel those sensations deeply without responding with action. To lay yourself bare, to take a good, close look at all of those messy thoughts and emotions that tangle inside you daily, clambering for attention.
Meditation, especially at first, is rarely relaxing. Sometimes it is boring. Often it’s pretty scary. And it is always brave.
It takes courage to face the things that terrify you–the mistakes you have made, the things you are ashamed of, the insecurities that have plagued you since childhood, the unhealed relationships, the people you miss, all of the dreams you have not yet achieved. It isn’t easy to look into every crevice of your soul without retreating and seeking out instant comfort or temporary pleasure, just to forget about what you have seen.
So meditation is not a blissful experience, nor a magical journey. It can be tough. It is a discipline, a practice. In a sense, it is work.
I have found that the effects of meditation tend to be long-lasting, rather than instantaneous. Sometimes I might feel immediately better after or during a session and, yes, feel less tension and stress–but sometimes I get up from a sit feeling bored and irritated, thinking that it didn’t really ‘do anything’.
But what I notice is that, with regular meditation, I am less stressed in general. I feel calmer, more alive, more productive, kinder towards others and myself. It’s a slow-burning kind of feeling that is not miraculous–more contentment than ecstasy. It’s more about noticing that there is less unease and anxiety in me. Less unnamed niggling worries. Less existential feelings that make me sigh shakily and face the day with trepidation.
In some senses, the deeper you go with meditation, the more difficult and frightening it gets. Pema Chodron talks about the concept of groundlessness or ‘shaky ground’–being brave enough to know that, when everything else is stripped away, that that is where true spiritual growth and awakening really takes place. But it is not easy, sometimes, to look into the empty space and to feel as though you are falling.
This is the challenge. This is the realisation–that, no matter how secure we feel in our lives, we are always on shaky ground. I admit, it sounds like a depressing thought. But the point is to realise this deeply and, in realising it, to appreciate and truly live every moment, accepting what is, before we do anything else.
Clinging on to people and things makes us suffer. I am struggling with this myself, big-time. But I know it to be true. And that is always the first step–acknowledgement of the truth and of the sensations a particular event, person or thought triggers in us.
In meditation, my favourite image is of my mind or myself as the sky, a vast, open space, and my thoughts as clouds that just drift on by. I acknowledge them but I let them go, and I don’t believe or buy into every one that comes through my sky. I am the observer. The space. The stillness. The receptacle that is unchanged by the storms.
Realising that you are not your thoughts can be a powerful experience. It certainly was for me, when I first read Eckhart Tolle’s work. And I have found that, in practice, these ideas are not just ideas–they are truths, things that each person needs to experience personally to completely understand.
If you have never tried meditation, I urge you to do it. Just for a few minutes at a time. Just sit, breathe consciously and imagine that sky. Observe your thoughts and feelings as things that come and go, as physical sensations, and try not to judge them or criticise yourself for thinking a particular thought–just watch them and let them drift on by. If you are able to do that, for even a few minutes at a time, you will create a whole new way of coping with those thoughts that may have previously defined you and felt as though they were swallowing you whole.
If you have been meditating for a while, I would love to hear about your experiences of it and the effect that it has had on your life.
Most of all, whether you are a beginner or a seasoned meditator, don’t be discouraged. (Really, we’re all beginners.)
Meditation may not be as relaxing as many people think it is. It may be much harder than most even anticipate. And the immediate gains can vary from session to session. But, if you are present and committed, and you are acutely aware of your own emotions and thoughts, you will notice an enormous difference in your life, over time.
Less stress, less being tossed around on a sea of emotions that pull you this way and that.
More stillness. More calmness. More contentment.