How can Meditation Solve a Crisis?
When I started meditating over 10 years ago I wanted the Big E. That’s Enlightenment. The full on Gold Medal of Olympic Spirituality. I chose meditation as my method to achieve it. I call this the ‘Positive Crisis’ of meditation, the one you come to that will make you into a more attractive Human 2.0.
I can tell you already that I failed and was always going to fail because there was a lot about meditation, and even more about myself, I did not know.
The next time I approached meditation was after a very stressful time in my life. I’d had a bad break up. I didn’t know where I was heading in life. These were feelings I wanted to get rid of. I refer to this ‘wanting to be rid of’ as a ‘Negative Crisis’ of meditation.
Did I succeed this time? Actually, yes, after a while. But again not in the way I expected, and not just as a direct result of only meditation.
Since then Meditation has developed a cult-like status. With every other silicon valley CEO, life hacker, and celebrity touting its advantages, meditation sometimes seems almost beyond question as the solution to all life’s problems. It has become the new thing you do, to become the new you. After enough successful people reference meditation as part of their morning routine, you’d be forgiven for thinking meditation was a life-hack to success.
It’s ironic, because as anyone who meditates knows, this is not what meditation delivers. Science has backed this up for a number of years, but we must be aware that in promoting something we believe works for us, we don’t also convince people for whom it is not the right solution.
The reason we do anything is to make us happier. But with meditation when we come with a crisis to solve have we been sold the right solution? Normally in a crisis we want the fastest solution possible, not an investment of time. But meditation is anything but quick.
I’m going to explain why I don’t think meditation does solve a crisis, but I still think you should do it, for the future crisis’ that will arrive.
The Happiness of The Moment
In 2011 research looked at the happiness bought about by living in the moment, versus the unhappiness caused by the natural human state of mind wandering. We all experience a wandering mind, thinking over and over about things that concern us. But in some people this can lead to increased anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and clinical disorders. Researchers studied very experienced meditators over an 8-week period, practicing Insight Meditation. They found that meditators demonstrated less mind wandering than non-meditators. This appears to support the idea that meditation leads to happiness.
There are limitations to this, including a research period of 8 weeks. Let’s not forget that’s 8 weeks of study, examining meditators with certainly more than 8 weeks of experience. While I’m buoyed by the overall positive news, as someone pro-meditation, I think reporting this without examination is exactly the sort of promotion that misleads people about meditation. I wouldn’t refer to myself as a very experienced meditator even after a decade of experience, but I have discovered that meditation takes time to work. More importantly it takes consistency.
What Does Continued Practice Achieve?
Like training for a long distance run, meditation allows you to build mental strength over time. This doesn’t mean you never face another crisis or sadness in your life, because meditation doesn’t stop your thoughts. You might still want a new job, house, personality, or relationship, but you’ll realise those thoughts are not integral to your identity or happiness.
The reason is that the areas in life we fight define our mental struggles. The areas we accept define our happiness.
The struggles hurt us because no matter how hard we fight there are many things we cannot change. This can include who we are and who we want to become. When we dip into a practice we dip into a solution. It should come as no surprise that solution is neither long-lasting nor consistent. This is why science has discovered lasting results only in experienced meditators.
A consistent practice is about opening a truthful internal dialogue with yourself, and building upon this across a lifetime. Like any celebrity we look up to who talks about meditation changing their life, there are many other factors that can be attributed to their success. But in a social media age meditation can be a simple and well-meant suggestion followers could also pick up and apply harmlessly. If anything it’s our own corruption by quick-fix social media headlines that has made us susceptible. The honest dialogue of consistent meditation breaks this down. Meditation teacher Pema Chodron refers to this as “the beginning of the beginning.”
“Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.” — Pema Chodron
What inexperienced meditators do not understand is that the meditation you practice doesn’t just cover your allotted meditation time. A meditation focussing on the moment for example, is simply training you not to react to and be overrun by your thoughts in the moment. This is why many practices return to a breath, or mantra. But after a while you carry this awareness even beyond your meditation. This dialogue with yourself looks at the larger pictures of everyday life and decides the real value of the struggles because you now have experience dealing with your passing thoughts. Sometimes we can let them go and concentrate on what really matters to our lives.
This is the real value of meditation. Because the thoughts themselves don’t really matter across a lifetime.
When you go Beyond Crisis
This is why you don’t get to trade the old you for the new you. You don’t get rid of the parts you no longer like. But when you’ve stopped feeding your brain with your instant reactions you’ll have found the secret sauce of meditation.
Because as you meditate subtle changes will happen. The mind still jumps around and gets excited. It still chases dreams and products and lusts, and loves, and gets angry. It still enjoys happiness and tries to avoid sadness. You are still you.
But little by little the mind also calms, and notices both in meditation and in life it sometimes gets all worked up over something, that in hindsight seems a little abstract. Around this the meditation practice is giving you the awareness to look at your thoughts, pause, and observe the effect they’re having. It’s less about giving up your surface identity and more concerned with having the perspective to meet your deeper self.
And in this way you do change by having a relationship with a part of yourself you may not have known existed. This is the reason meditation takes time. Because time gives you experience with your thoughts. You can look at who you are, and the problems you wanted to solve but have been unable to, and do it with love.
That might sound clichéd, but this is the real transformation many are looking for I think. We can work forever to change what we dislike about ourselves. But in the end how do we forgive and accept ourselves for who we are?
Meditation isn’t the Only Answer
A further study of 3515 people found that while there is evidence meditation could help depression or anxiety there was,
“…No evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment (ie, drugs, exercise, and other behavioral therapies).”
So meditation does not work for everyone, because not everyone comes to meditation for the same reasons. There are other options that work just as well or better. Sometimes we come to meditation looking for a magic pill for our problems. If you’re looking for pills, you can talk to your Doctor about antidepressants. They work too.
Welcome To Your Deeper Self
The inner peace you are seeking is not a magical switch that gets flicked one day. For me, at least, it has taken time. And that time is not over.
If meditation is something you enjoy, you will meditate and it will feel like you are starting again, over and over. This starting over and over takes a lot of mental resilience.
You can achieve it so simply. Sit. Breathe. Think. Return to your breath. Your life will change. You don’t have to spend all your time wondering if you’re doing it right or fighting crisis. The deeper self is perfectly happy as it is, and is waiting to be found.
And it will (one day) bring you peace.