The American poet Allen Ginsberg once wrote, “The suffering itself is not so bad; it’s the resentment against suffering that is the real pain.”
This week, a reader sent me an e-mail describing her frustrations with meditation. As a woman in a highly-competitive industry, she decided to try the practice as “a means to be more productive and keep myself sharp”.
Anyone who has tried meditating will likely recall the first few attempts being laden with frustrations. I remember the first time I tried formal meditation. I had recently read the resolve of Buddha who, prior to his enlightenment, declared, “Let my skin and sinews and bones dry up, together with all the flesh and blood of my body. I welcome it. But I will not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom.”
Buoyed by such unyielding determination, I began to meditate – to control the mind and clear it of all thoughts – and lasted a grand total of five minutes before I gave up, concluding that meditation obviously doesn’t work.
Fast forward some 15 years later and the frustrations still pay a visit, although thankfully they are less potent than they used to be. It’s easier to stay in their company, allowing them to have their say without getting caught up in the performance.
One of the main stumbling blocks of meditation is having expectations. In a culture that places a high premium on getting things done, making progress and achieving success, it’s counterintuitive to engage in the non-doing of meditation without feeling like you’re wasting time, or that you have to do something in order to reap the benefits.
In the case of wanting to be more productive and have more of an edge, our ego is driving the desire for us to want more, have more, to gain more – this is its primary purpose: it’s never satisfied with what we achieve; nothing is good enough, and so it leaves us in a constant state of wanting.
Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Earth, writes, “No ego can last for long without the need for more. Therefore, wanting keeps the ego alive much more than having. The ego wants to want more than it wants to have. And so the shallow satisfaction of having is always replaced by more wanting.”
The first thing we should note when meditating is that there is no competition in the practice: we don’t compete against ourselves, we don’t compete against our colleagues, our bosses or anyone else to whom we might compare ourselves. When we are fixated on wanting something from our meditation, we will never get it.
Instead, we should aim to rest in the awareness of the moment. In our meditation, we feel the sensation of the breath, a feeling in the body, or recite some words mentally, and we simply be with whatever comes into our conscious awareness. There’s no agenda and no judging – if we do judge a thought or a feeling, we just note it and let it go. We don’t even judge our reactions.
Frustration in meditation is greatly reduced when we practise without feeling the need to achieve. By just doing the practice regularly, the benefits will come over time. It might sound simplistic or a little too easy, but that’s exactly how progress in meditation is made.
In losing our expectations, we plant the seeds of non-judgmental remove in our minds. There’s no unnecessary rejection, desire or zoning out; we’re fully aware of whatever arises. It’s akin to people-watching in a coffee shop: we see what’s there, but we merely observe with interest.
Resting in awareness, we work with the mind to reduce excessive thinking; when we reduce excessive thinking, we become more focused; and when we become more focused, we are able to concentrate and be fully aware of what we’re doing. This is how meditation helps with productivity and performance. It doesn’t give us a magic solution, it simply centres the mind and lessens the distractions that lead our minds wandering off into the past or the future.
Having said that, it can be difficult to quieten the voice that says, “You’re wasting your time when you should be doing something important…” If this is the case for you, then being able to keep company with that voice without getting caught up in its story becomes part of your practice.
Meditation is done neither to achieve a particular goal nor to rid ourselves of some unpleasant thought or feeling. It won’t solve our problems or hand us a prize at the end of the session. Instead, it cultivates the ability within us to stop acting blindly as we’re prone to do.
Through meditation we tune into life, engage with what’s there and use the resources at hand that allow us to deal effectively with whatever situations arise. Rather than losing our minds in the turbulence of life, meditation is the anchor that helps us to make sense of everything we experience.