Why is meditation so hard?
It sounds like the simplest thing in the world: sit calmly in a quiet place for a while and observe your internal feelings and thoughts. And yet, it is one of the hardest things to actually do.
Sitting still is physically already hard, our instincts are developed to move, and restlessness has become so established in our nervous system that we hardly notice it. It is only when we try to be quiet that it comes up (did you ever notice that, when in a play or concert, the moment it gets quiet is the moment many people start to cough?) Silence and stillness scare us!
But the physical challenge is only the first of many. There is no instant gratification of being still, any benefit from meditation will take some time and practice to be felt. On the contrary, issues and inner struggles will come to the surface and feel stronger than they’ve ever felt before, which may seem like the opposite result of what your original intention was when deciding to meditate.
The Fantasy Life
Often meditating is a kind of fantasy people have about their ideal life, together with eating only health foods, exercising every day, having a great social life, finding a great partner and/or a fantastic career that brings us both financial comfort and personal fulfillment. This fantasy is always somewhere in the vague future where you have an abundance of time and resources and the “reality” of today is often just complicated and messy. Our best intentions are little sparks that are quickly extinguished by the immense pile of things we “need to do”. There are infinite reasons not to meditate and through the years I have heard them all “I have no time” “the kids need breakfast/attention/a lift to school” “I have no place at home” “I’m in a different moment of my life” and my favorite of them all “my head is too busy for it”. To me this sounds like you’re saying your house is too dirty to be cleaned!!
Sitting quietly for 30 minutes?? It is easy to understand why it comes very low on the list of priorities. School/deadlines/mortgages – these things are happening now! And the last thing we need is one more item on the “to do” list.
There is much scientific evidence nowadays stating the benefits that a regular meditation practice can bring: better sleep, enhanced creativity, better skills to deal with obstacles and afflictions, emotional balance and the list goes on (you can read Ehud’s book review of The Science of Meditation). Those are all great of course, but for the yogis they are bonuses along the way, not the main reason why meditation is at the centre of all yoga teachings.
Yogis believe we carry habits of thinking, feeling and acting that completely control us and our lives. In that sense, yoga is quite similar to mainstream psychology and psychoanalysis; the main difference is that yogis believe those patterns of behavior have not necessarily developed at childhood, but way before, and we have been carrying them around for a long, long time. Lifetimes actually. These habitual patterns determine how we approach life and how we deal with the things that come our way. The more unaware we are of these habits, the more powerfully they will influence us. These habits (the yoga word for it is samskara) are the reason we find ourselves again and again landing in similar situations and dealing with the same obstacles repeatedly. Most of us, we go through life trying to influence the world outside of us to get what we want and need. This is not an efficient strategy and it leaves us frustrated, unsatisfied, blaming our parents/partners/government and anyone and everything around us.
The Only Way Out Is In
Yogis say “instead of trying to influence the outside world to get what you want, look inside and learn to influence your own mind”. Vivekananda says that when we learn to influence ourselves, we influence the whole world. Patanjali says that this is what yoga is; this influencing of the mind. And finally, Dr. Motoyama says a life un-investigated is not worth living, he states that the investigation of our own patterns of behaviour is the most important work we can do in this life.
As said before, meditation is hard because it asks us to do the opposite of what our nervous system has been programmed to do; to not fix anything, not run away from anything and to not let distraction win. Just sit still and observe. The neighbour, the traffic, there are noises all around us and still we don’t move. Our thoughts turn and spiral and go everywhere apart from where we want them to go and still we don’t move. Our bodies complain and still we don’t move. It’s pretty much ignoring our most immediate and basic instincts. All while the question in the background “why am I doing this? What is this for?”
The thing is these questions cannot be answered with the intellect alone. Meditation is not a fantasy or a theory but a practice that provides the answers as you’re doing it. If you stick to the practice you start to experience the why and the what for. It’s like discovering a universe inside yourself with vast and differing landscapes, and the more time you spend there, the more familiar these landscapes become. Some places are sunny and open and we love spending time there. Others are shadowy and uncomfortable and immediately we want to fight or run and hide. The thing is, the places that are most uncomfortable are usually the places that need the most attention. Attention of the gentle yet strong kind along with total and relentless honesty. In meditation and following the path of influencing the mind, aggression will win no battles here and neither will complacency.
Eventually we want to experience in our inner universe all the things we so desperately long for in everyday life and look to others to provide; Love. Satisfaction. Peace.
Being environmentally friendly is not only a matter of looking after the world in which we live. We need to match our exterior attitude with an internal one that cares for ourselves as much as others and our surroundings. If there is much pollution in our minds, how do we then live a good life and be good to others? We need to clean up internally and maintain this by working every day – just a tiny little bit. There will be seeds we need to sow and weeds we need to pull out. Sometimes it can rain in there and that’s good too as tomorrow it might be greener.
When these words become more than words, when they become a practice and a lived experience, this is when meditation ceases to be a struggle and becomes a joy. All the time and energy we invest in will come back in clarity, renewed insight and inner peace.