Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Shouldn't my meditations be blissful? This is at the heart of Bryan’s question when he emailed me asking… “I tried meditation, but my mind just wouldn’t calm down. In fact, sometimes, my mind seemed to get busier when I meditated. Could it be that I’m just not cut out for this?” This is a great question, Bryan. And it’s actually at the heart of why so many people quit meditation (and walk away from the amazing gifts it can bring to their lives). So many, just don’t understand what meditation is. Here’s what you need to know…
Meditation might best be thought of as training. Specifically, meditation trains different aspects of the brain and nervous system to help us more reliably create an experience of peace and centeredness and joy—with whatever life brings. But just like the training we do in the gym for the body, the training we do in meditation for the mind can at times be somewhat uncomfortable or challenging. In fact, it needs to be challenging if we are interested in actually progressing beyond our current mental and emotional set points.
Back to the gym analogy for a moment. Imagine you’re wanting to build your upper body strength. So, you wander over to the barbell rack. You grab a couple of two-pound barbells. And you do five bicep curls in total comfort and then stop. Have you accomplished anything? Of course, the answer is “not much.” And that’s because the weight on the barbells, and the number of repetitions you did, weren’t sufficient to challenge your muscles.
It's an interesting thing, really… When it comes to improving our physiques, we all know that to get meaningful results we need to move beyond our comfort zone and “feel the burn” in our muscles.
But so many of us don’t understand that the very same principle applies when it comes to improving our mental and emotional selves too. In the same way that lifting a paltry two pounds isn’t going to challenge our bodies sufficiently, meditating only when the mind is calm and centered isn’t going to challenge our mental and emotional selves sufficiently—at least if meaningful growth is what we’re after. The fact is, with meditation too, we’re poised for optimal success when we “feel the burn” (though here that burn is felt in our mental and emotional experience rather than our muscles). It could be the burn of distractedness or the burn of impatience or the burn of frustration, but whatever it is, we need to understand that the burn is not telling us that we are failing, but rather that we are hip deep in the very circumstance we need for our success. It's opportunity not failure. So, the next time you find yourself meditating, and the mind is doing everything it can to spoil your experience, remember the words that the great Zen Master, Suzuki Roshi used to remind his students about the sometimes uncomfortable nature of this work… “Hell” he said, “is not punishment, it’s training.”
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