Most people come to meditation practice because they think it will make them feel better. And this is a big mistake. Shamatha, in Sanskrit, translates as “developing peace.” But the development of this peace is often anything but peaceful.
When you first sit down to observe your mind in shamatha meditation, it may feel like you are submitting yourself to a tour of the rainforest: thick vegetation obscures clear vision, terrifying sounds call from the darkness, the path is laden with obstacles. No wonder so many people try sitting meditation and give up after a while.
But here is one big mistake you may be making in your meditation practice: expecting results.
I fell into this trap for a long time. I kept hoping meditation practice would make my fear go away. One of my biggest fears in life is speaking up when I need something. I am painfully private and often shy, so voicing my personal needs can be excruciating. When I was around 13, my parents had been divorced for about a year, and I went for a weekend trip with my father and his new girlfriend, who I had just met. I got my period while we were driving to the mountains. I was so ashamed and embarrassed to ask him to stop at a drugstore, I couldn’t do it. I chose to suffer and worry rather than risk asking him to stop at a drugstore for some painkillers and sanitary pads. It was only my second period in my life and it was all so mysterious and new, I was embarrassed by it all. I spent 4 hours huddled in silence in the back seat, worried about staining my father’s leather seats.
Observing these patterns in meditation practice has helped me to see where I need to work, but I still need to do the work. So it has been a lifelong practice for me to speak up and ask for what I need. Especially when the need is something personal or private. Like love. Like affection. Like respect for my feelings and the security of knowing I won’t be abandoned for having needs. I’ve learned slowly, like a scaredy cat, to trust that my voice is welcome.
Years later, after much practice, many therapists and many therapeutic tools to help me learn to trust that my voice was welcome, I spoke of these needs in dialogue with an intimate partner. I shared my feelings with kindness and honesty and love, admitting my fear as my whole body trembled. Imagine my surprise when my then-partner quietly got up and walked out without responding. Without a word.
Let me tell you, meditation practice did nothing to soften the thunderclap of that door shutting. In that moment I felt utterly devastated, rejected, humiliated. Lost. And meditation practice could not change this.
What meditation practice does do is allow me to stay present in the moment while the turmoil plays itself out.
I no longer freak out and dive for the nearest drug to ease my pain. I manage to stay in my body and feel the emotions as they arise. After a few minutes of observing my experience, I have enough clarity to call a friend for support.
And THAT, is what meditation can help you do do. It’s not going to make life go the way you want, but it can help you deal when shit happens. It helps you stay present with experience no matter how difficult, so you don’t add to the pain by layering all sorts of other garbage on top of the original experience like self-doubt, judgement, and destructive behaviours.
What is the biggest mistake most people make in their meditation practice? It is expecting meditation to eliminate suffering from your life.
Don’t expect meditation to make you feel better, more calm, more confident. Whatever your habitual pattern is, when you deepen into an experience of meditation, you’ll most likely experience this pattern in technicolor vision, with surround sound as well. It’s not always easy. Or fun.
If you’re anything like me (first of all, my condolences) then you need meditation to be able to discern the edges of your experience. Second, you need tools to work with what you discover.
All of this is just to say that meditation is not a panacea for suffering. Shit happens. Really painful shit. And sometimes I think meditation makes it more intense because you become aware of the excruciating details of the process, like watching a great literary scene unfold. You watch the characters undo their lives, moment by moment, gesture by gesture; the pauses between the words, the missed cues. You feel the magnitude of what they are about to say before they say it and still you can do nothing to alter the course of the story. All you can do is watch as the protagonists destroy themselves.
So what is the point then? Why meditate? Why not just carry on as most of humanity does, letting awareness flit from one distraction to another, ever ready for the next sound byte to carry them away from the present moment, avoiding the unpleasant or unresolvable questions that might highlight the precariousness of the human predicament?
Because it is fundamentally unresolvable.There is no lasting happiness as long as we base that happiness on external circumstances.We come here for no good reason that we can discern, fumble about trying to figure out what to do once we’re here, and then BAM we die. Really, who wants to think about these things?
(Apparently I do. and if you’ve made it this far with me, you do too.)
A quote by Elisabeth Mattis Namgyel encapsulates this dilemma in her little gem, The Power of an Open Question:
“How do we live a life we can’t hold on to?” How do we live with the fact that the moment we’re born we move closer to death; when we fall in love we sign up for grief? How do we reconcile that gain always ends in loss; gathering, in separation?”
Meditation is simply a tool to help settle into the ultimately unanswerable questions life poses. We don’t have all the answers, and we never will. But we can learn to formulate interesting questions and then learn to rest in the space that arises after we ask the question, without running or turning away or solidifying experience into what we expect or want.
I prefer to be aware of the fundamental mystery we are living. Resting in a clear view of open potential makes it manageable. I’ve learned to be OK–maybe not always happy – but OK when shit happens. Because I know that too is impermanent. And I learned to trust this through meditation, through observing the mind. Eventually, with sustained effort, the practice does allow you to rest in a state of peace while the earth falls away under your feet. And that is a wild ride worth working for.