“I could never meditate. I can’t sit still for more than five minutes. I’m too impatient, too restless, too driven, too abstract, too ambitious, too overloaded, too much of a worrier, too much of a multi-tasker, too much of a rapid-fire thinker and talker, too easily bored, too attracted to action, too much of a sensation junkie.”
In my recent writings about secular meditation, I’ve been making a point of staying away from proselytizing. I’ve been focusing on my own experience with this practice, and talking a little about the research about it, and not trying to persuade everyone else to do it. I’m going to continue with that policy. For one thing, I don’t know enough about the research on this mindfulness/ meditation technique: I don’t know if it’s a universally useful form of mental-health hygiene, like brushing your teeth; or more of a “This is useful for people wih X, Y, and Z personalities and conditions, not so much for people with A, B, and C” thing; or more of a “This is useful for X percentage of the population we’ve studied who’ve tried it and stuck with it, but we have no idea why it works for some people and not others” thing. I don’t know. So I’m not going to pitch this practice to everyone. That’s not what I want to do today, and probably not ever.
What I want to do today is counter a mistaken assumption some people make about this practice… so y’all can make up your own minds about whether it might be something that would be good for you, without the mistaken assumption gumming up the works.
This is probably one of those “white van on the corner” things, where once you’re thinking about something you start noticing it everywhere. But I’ve recently started seeing a bunch of writings from people insisting that they could never meditate, because, reasons. I saw it in a fashion/ lifestyle magazine (“More,” I think — it wasn’t very good, I tossed it right after reading it), a piece that was supposedly about “why I gave up on meditation” with no actual explanation of why she gave up on meditation other than “I tried it for an hour and it was boring and made me twitchy so I gave up.” More substantially, I saw it in Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (a fine book, btw, and one which I’m enjoying a great deal), where he said this on trying to have patience, practice, and presence in the kitchen:
Unfortunately, not one of the “p”s came easily to me. I tend toward impatience, particularly in my dealings with the material world, and only seldom do I find myself attending to one thing at a time. Or, for that matter, to the present, a tense I have a great deal of trouble inhabiting. My native tense is the future conditional, a low simmer of unspecified worry being the usual condition. I couldn’t meditate if my life depended on it.
And I’ve seen this same trope elsewhere, although offhand I can’t remember where.
So here’s the thing:
I’m one of those people, too. I’m impatient, restless, driven, abstract, ambitious, overloaded, a worrier, a multi-tasker, a rapid-fire thinker and talker, easily bored, attracted to action, a sensation junkie who can’t sit still for more than five minutes.
And that is exactly why meditation feels so good, and is so good for me.
If I was already naturally peaceful, naturally accepting, naturally good at staying present in my life and being in the moment, I probably wouldn’t need to meditate. Meditation feels good, and is good for me, precisely because I’m impatient, restless, driven, abstract, ambitious, overloaded, a worrier, a multi-tasker, a rapid-fire thinker and talker, easily bored, attracted to action, a sensation junkie who can’t sit still for more than five minutes. Meditation feels good, and is good for me, precisely because it gives me what I lack: the ability to be still, to focus on one thing at a time, to have a modicum of serenity about things I can’t change, to actually experience my life and my surroundings and the people I’m with without constantly planning and analyzing and worrying and thinking about how to fix things and rehearsing an endless stream of “what if” scenarios.
Now, it is certainly the case that, for all these reasons, meditation doesn’t come easily or naturally to me. It took me a while to feel comfortable with it… and I’m still not always comfortable with it, there are still sessions where it makes me anxious and twitchy and bored. It took me a while to get the hang of it… and I suspect that I still don’t really have the hang of it, not nearly as much as I will in a few months/ years/ decades.
It’s reminding me a bit of weight training. When I first started hitting the weights, it felt weird, awkward, self-conscious, uncomfortable. I felt better after I did it… but the doing of it was hard. But it was exactly the stuff that was hard about it — the fact that my body wasn’t used to working in this way, or being worked in this way — that was why I needed to do it. I needed to get myself from a state where exercise was hard, to a state where it was relatively easy, and seemed natural, and actually felt pleasurable and good. And the only way to get there was to go through a stretch where it felt uncomfortable.
It feels like that with meditation. My mind isn’t used to working in this way, or being worked in this way. It sometimes feels weird, awkward, self-conscious, uncomfortable. I feel better after doing it, but the doing of it is sometimes hard. Less now than it was at first… but still sometimes. I need to get myself from a state where mindfulness is hard, to a state where’s it’s relatively easy, and seems natural, and actually feels pleasurable and good.
I’m one of those people. And I’m so glad I didn’t give up after the first week and say, “This isn’t for me.” This is definitely for me. And the very fact that I’m not there yet, the very fact that this doesn’t quite feel like me yet… that’s the reason it’s for me.
Other pieces in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time
Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness
Secular Meditation: How Down Time is Changing
Secular Meditation: “This is my job”
Secular Meditation: I Am Who I Am