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Jul 19 2013

Secular Meditation: “That’s not for me”

“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.

cooked michael pollan coverThis 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.

dumb-bellIt’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

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  1. 1
    Jan Moren

    Just for completeness sake, here’s another reason: I could never meditate – because I’m middle-aged and my body kind of hurts. As in, back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, wrist pain and so on. In fact, I normally stand up and work nowadays, simply because sitting for more than an hour at a time is an invitation to a stiff, sore body for a couple of days afterwards.

    Weight-lifting on the other hand, is something I probably really should seriously consider, for exactly this reason.

  2. 2
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    Jan Moren … there is “walking meditation” (kinhin) where you walk at a slow to moderate consistent pace, focusing on the breathing and the feeling of walking. Everything you do while sitting, but in movement.

    It’s often used alternately with za-zen (seated meditation) to give the butt and legs a break.

  3. 3
    Johnny Vector

    I tried TM for a while (had an uncle who worked for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, so I got to take the lesson for free), but in the end I found I get better results with a pair of good headphones and Coltrane. I hadn’t heard of walking meditation before now, although I’ve definitely done it. For instance, the long climb out of Havasu canyon goes much quicker when you just focus on the next step and the next breath. And when you’re done, you’re more relaxed than when you started! Although you may be way in front of, or behind, the rest of your group.

  4. 4
    Greta Christina

    sitting for more than an hour at a time is an invitation to a stiff, sore body for a couple of days afterwards.

    Jan Moren @ #1: What Tsu Dho Nimh said at #2. There are forms of meditation other than sitting for an hour at a time. There’s the waling meditation Nimh mentioned My main form of meditation, I do lying down. The other main form, I do sitting for 20 minutes.

    If you don’t want to meditate because you don’t want to… entirely, 100% your business. But if this appeals and you just don’t think you could handle the physical aspect… there are options that might work for you.

  5. 5
    sugarloaf

    I do mindfulness meditation, and it doesn’t have to take an hour, or even 20 minutes. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can do it anywhere (on public transport, in the shower, walking down the street- although I find it a bit difficult to do while moving). You can even do a “mindful check-in”- take a minute to focus on the sensation of your breath, then take another minute or two to say “what’s going on for me right now?” (body sensations, emotions, types of thoughts). It’s not as useful and immediately shifting as a “session”, but it can provide a grounding when you’re feeling a bit scattered or stressed. When I’m feeling extremely scattered, I do a 30 second version- I focus on my body and say “what’s going on in there?” and then I come back to what I was doing.

  6. 6
    jeroenmetselaar

    Can I plug http://www.autismandmindfulness.org/index.html here? I followed a mindfulness course for people with Autism using this method and it is helped me a huge deal.

    People with autism can benefit enormously from mindfulness but the standard methods often do not work for us.

  7. 7
    markr1957

    Strenuous exercise helps clear my head and find a meditative state. Before I trashed my knee long runs worked best for me, but 20 minutes or more on my exercise bike work now. – I can get into an almost trance-like state.
    Oh – cleanup on aisle 5 – it appears that a Markuse has taken a dump on the carpet!

  8. 8
    Julie

    We talked about this in the Pharyngula chatroom during the “what’s tha harm?” panel on mental health, I don’t know how I could have missed your post… Great to have your take.
    Anyways, I lean to the position of meditation being for certain personalities only, and can anecdotally tell you it can be bad for people with for instance with self-harm behaviors or tendencies. Then again, others with the same issue claim to have benefited from mindfulness meditation so who knows, maybe I was just doing it wrong. Thing is, I’m not going to try again if it means risking immediate physical harm.

  9. 9
    phere

    Yeah, my brain becomes an obnoxious, seedy 3 ring circus the second I even hint that we might like some “quiet time”. Also, I’m the biggest dork in the world because I can never get the breathing thing down. I can’t remember whether to breathe in through my mouth and out my nose or vice versa…or through my ears. I forget to take deep breaths and when I do they are spastic and rushed. I’m quite hopeless lol. I did have to try different techniques during my pain management class but the nerve damage is so…I don’t know…so disconnected from my mind that I just couldn’t seem to affect the pain with my state of mind. When you have random bee stings, quivers, and charlie horses in the damaged area..it’s not like trying to deal with a backache.

  10. 10
    tengalaxies

    These blog entries inspired me to pick up a book on MBSR. I’m going to give it a try, even though I’m pretty much the opposite of the personality you describe yourself having — I’m naturally peaceful and accepting. My problem is more that I’m so peaceful that I don’t *do* anything, including all those things that one is supposed to do, like pay bills and take showers and schedule doctor’s appointments. I don’t do the things for so long that they start to hang over my head, stressing me out… but it’s still less stressful than it would be to actually do them, so I don’t.

    I’m hoping that mindfulness meditation will help me be able to process those feelings without shying away so much, so that I can stop avoiding everything and start accomplishing the things I want to do.

  11. 11
    Cynickal

    One that I discovered while working warehouse was sweeping the floors. The rhythm of the broom sound and methodical back and forth helped empty my brain.

  12. 12
    MissMarnie

    For me, I prefer what I guess could be described as “productive meditation.” I do crafts; knitting, crocheting, sewing, painting, drawing, whatever. Depending on the type of project I’m working on (some make me more stabby than serene) I can experience a state of mind that sounds pretty much like what people talk about when they talk about meditating, only, I don’t get that anxious reminder that there are other things I could be doing because I’m doing another thing.

    It should be said that I don’t think people are being unproductive when they meditate, it’s that, for me, it sounds like a chore to set aside time to just sit quietly when there is so much I want to be doing. When I can both be doing something I sincerely enjoy while also reaching that calm meditative state, that’s a win all around for me and never something I have to stop and schedule and remind myself to do. I think it’s a self medication type thing. I’m naturally a worrier and a multi-tasker, and an over-thinker, so I seek out activities for my free time that calm me and take my mind off everything stressful.

  13. 13
    Greta Christina

    I can never get the breathing thing down. I can’t remember whether to breathe in through my mouth and out my nose or vice versa…or through my ears.

    phere @ #9: In the version of this that I do, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, there isn’t a right way to breathe. You just breathe naturally. (That’s the way it’s been taught to me, anyway — but my impression is that it’s the standard.)

    Not saying this is definitely right for you or would work for you: it might not, you should talk with your health care provider about that. Just suggesting that you not reject the idea based on an inaccurate understanding of what it involves.

    Anyways, I lean to the position of meditation being for certain personalities only, and can anecdotally tell you it can be bad for people with for instance with self-harm behaviors or tendencies. Then again, others with the same issue claim to have benefited from mindfulness meditation so who knows, maybe I was just doing it wrong. Thing is, I’m not going to try again if it means risking immediate physical harm.

    Julie @ #8: You should absolutely take care of yourself, and not engage in a practice you have good reason to think would be dangerous for you. I am curious: When you tried this before, were you doing it in a medical setting, with the guidance/ advice/ support of medical professionals?

    For me, I prefer what I guess could be described as “productive meditation.” I do crafts; knitting, crocheting, sewing, painting, drawing, whatever.

    MissMarnie @ #12: Yeah, I do that, too: working on being mindful in everyday activities in everyday life. What I’m finding, for myself, is that doing the more formal practice that I set aside time for has been making it easier for me to be mindful in my everyday life and activities (especially staying focused in my work). It’s like I’m setting aside time to exercise that part of my brain. But whatever works for you, works for you.

  14. 14
    cactuswren

    Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, webmistress of “Yarn Harlot” (http://www.yarnharlot.ca/blog/) and author of multiple books on knitting, says that she gets the same thing from non-knitters: she’ll be knitting as she waits for her flight to be announced or her oil to be changed, and someone will admire her work but say, “Oh, I could never do that, I don’t have the patience!” She likes to reply, “I don’t knit because I am patient, I am patient because I knit. If I didn’t have my knitting, I’d be climbing the walls by now.”

  1. 15
    20 Random Things Friday » Ashley Miller

    […] I thought I’d try this whole mindful meditation stuff that Greta is doing but I feel totally incapable of teaching myself to do it and the internet seems mostly […]

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