Why so many people struggle with maintaining mindfulness and meditation practice.
Years ago, when I first started practicing meditation, it was strictly a coping mechanism. Meditation was nothing more than a reaction to a terrifying realization that my anxiety has spun so out of control that I desperately needed to find a way to calm down.
As a yoga and meditation practitioner and teacher, I’ve come across countless people who are interested in meditation, but can’t seem to commit. It’s hard to keep the practice up.
And the reason for that, I believe, is because we have turned meditation into a tool, like journaling, exercising, and hanging out with friends. It’s something that we are told in self-help books and therapy rooms that we should try, in and effort to deal with something.
It’s no wonder then that so many people struggle with keeping up the practice.
After many, many classes and workshops, silent meditation retreats, and dabbling in almost all the meditation apps on the market (and working for one of them), I’ve seen something strikingly scary about the meditation “movement” at large.
Self-help is no longer a conversation we are having in therapy rooms and behind closed doors.
Companies are turning to wellness programs to enrich their employees’ lives. Mental health trainings are popping up in schools. And I do believe these are all wonderful steps in the right direction.
However, I also believe that the wellness industry, which has exploded into a $4.2 trillion industry, sustains itself by promoting the idea of “what I can feel if….”.
If I drink kombucha and kale smoothies, I will feel this. If I do yoga and wear Lululemon leggings, I will feel that.
Meditation and mindfulness are no different.
What is the difference between Mindfulness and Meditation? Aren’t they the same thing?
Let me delineate quickly before I go too far. This is a practice that goes back thousands of years, and it really isn’t simple enough for a Medium article, but to put it in the most simple terms possible:
Meditation, for me, is the continuous practice of witnessing and observing the state of the Self without judgement, from a place of open-hearted, awake, concentrated awareness.
Lots of spirituality buzzwords in there, so in short, meditation is the practice of sitting with ourselves.
For most of us in a generation consumed by social media and opportunities to satiate our need for instant gratification, sitting with ourselves can feel disturbingly foreign.
Mindfulness, which has also become a new self-help/productivity hack/life trend, I believe, is the state itself, the space in which our mind and hearts exist when we are fully present with ourselves, when we bear witness to the range of emotions underlying our current experience of life.
The continuous practice of mindfulness in a concentrated state = meditation.
If we are being mindful, one could argue we are practicing meditation, even if we are not sitting on a cushion with our palms in front of our chest.
Much like committing to the next fad diet, when we force ourselves to do something that is “supposed” to lead to a certain outcome, that is “supposed” to make us feel better, it becomes infinitely harder to actually do that thing.
Even though we know that we “should” feel healthy and feel better if we choose to drink a kale smoothie, our brains are actually wired to make us remember experiencing something positive when going for that slice of cake or drinking alcohol.
There’s something about doing the things that we know are not healthy for us which makes us feel good, that send happy chemicals to our brains.
With meditation, if we believe that meditating is something we should do in order to achieve a certain outcome, it will always feel like work, and it will always be a challenge that we must overcome, which in some ways, is quite contradictory to simply sitting with our experience.
There’s a saying among yoga teachers that the real act of yoga, is taking our practice “off of our mats and into the world.”
Early on in my practice, I often sat with my legs crossed, palms in front of my chest, you’ve seen the look, thinking I was performing some spiritual act of meditating. In reality, though I appeared to be “yogi,” I wasn’t actually being with myself and the reality of my experiences off the mat.
Though I was meditating most days of the week, sometimes multiple times a day, this ended as soon as I left the cushion. Outside of my seated, formal meditation, it was like I became a different person.
The realization that my life outside of my yoga practice is not separate, but in fact, a deeply connected, interwoven and interrelated part of my entire life, and thus my entire spiritual practice, was a turning point for me.
My practice that was once a coping mechanism now turned into a source of healing.
Meditation and yoga became places where I brought my full self to the mat — whether I was experiencing joy, exhilaration, sadness, misery, or one of the most interesting states of all: neutralness. It’s quite hard to sit with being simply neutral, because it’s not so exciting.
Going deeper into meditation meant sitting with everything, including the quite common — not particularly pleasant, but not quite unpleasant — feeling of indifference.
Anyone who has studied meditation or teaches meditation will talk about observing the mind during a neutral state.
When we feel neutral, our minds no longer have something to chew on. And our minds love to chew and gnaw, our minds must keep running in circles, like hamsters on a wheel, or else, what would our minds do? Be still?
Isn’t it interesting how the second we aren’t feeling so high or so low, we just want to cling on to something extreme again, regardless of whether it is a positive or negative feeling?
Every time I watched my mind attempting to cling onto another feeling, I judged myself. I got angry at myself that I wasn’t getting “better” at meditation.
But over time, I started realizing that there was nothing to get “better” at, and that in fact, me witnessing this experience of my mind judging and wanting and unraveling and unfolding in this awake, aware, mysterious way, this was the point. And there was no greater “goal,” no outcome to achieve.
With mindfulness and meditation, it’s not about what I can feel if I meditate. It’s about what I’m feeling right now.
How can I move closer to my Self, without judging myself for whatever happens? Without expecting myself to achieve something? Can I just sit, listen, and observe, with whatever chooses to arise?
This is the space, I believe, where the real practice of meditation exists, when we move beyond the “what I can feel if” and “if I do this, I will feel that”.
When we begin to let go of clinging onto what we think might occur or what kind of person we think we are becoming, and when we simply do the work of meditation: being and bearing witness.