Without doubt a major part of my improved mental health has been due to regular meditation practice. I’ve noticed though, when I talk to people who haven’t themselves practiced meditation that some reoccurring themes surface. I think these themes reveal some of our deep-seated cultural myths, those about ‘being good at something’ and also the enticing but ultimately false myth that it is possible to ‘empty your mind.’ I recognize these misconceptions; before I began to practice meditation I entertained them myself.
Yesterday I enjoyed a frank and open conversation with some people I’d just met. Opening up to people about my struggles with mental illness inevitably paves the way for others to share similar stories, whether or not they’ve been diagnosed as ‘depressed’ by a doctor. Here is a fly on the wall moment from that meeting.
Me: Meditation is one of the things that’s helped me most with depression, that’s for sure.
Other party: So do you meditate every day?
Me: Yup. I started in May 2010, when I went to a weekend Buddhist course at that centre up the hill. I wasn’t converted that weekend, but I did buy a cd of guided meditations which each lasted 10-12 minutes. Right away I started doing one each morning before I went to work. I only remember one thing the teacher said that weekend which was “This is the most important thing you do each day.” Obviously that was what I needed to hear at the time.
O.P: So if you’ve been doing it for three years…You must be really good at it now! Do you just sit down and empty your mind and go into that Zen state?
Me: Actually, no.
“Zen” seems to be a handy label for Westerners to attach to the idea of meditation. My brother’s opening comment last time I returned from a meditation retreat was “So are you all Zen now?” with his tongue firmly in his cheek! The myth persists that mediation is a kind of ‘fix’ that you can learn to apply in order to anesthetize that pesky daily companion which causes us all so much angst, the mind. And like every other skill that you learn, the more you do it, the better you get at it, right? Well yes, and no. Foreign as the idea may be to our achievement based culture meditation is not about progress so much as its long forgotten sister, process.
So what does meditation do for me if it doesn’t give me relief from my mind? The kind of meditation I practice focuses on developing mindfulness and awareness by bringing the attention back to the breath. Some days I’m all I’m aware of as I sit and meditate is just how distracted my mind is, how much it wants to be off somewhere else, anywhere other than the present moment! Meditation is also at it’s heart about making friends with yourself, opening yourself to experiencing your emotions fully ‘on the cushion’ so that you can then apply what you’ve ‘practiced’ in real life. My meditation teacher spoke about it recently:
“What regular meditation practice does give you is moments of choice. Suddenly, out there in the world, a situation will arise and, rather than falling into your habitual way of reacting you realize that you have a choice. It’s as if time slows down and you see everything, including your own reactions clearly for just a split second longer. That’s all. And it’s not as if you keep that ability forever. If you stop meditating you go back to your old way of relating to the world.”
I had one of those moments today, alone on the train station I received a text message from an ex-boyfriend. Our romantic relationship is well in the past but the old emotional pattern persists. Hearing that he wasn’t free to catch up with me I felt swamped by a wave of inadequacy, as if I had been judged and found lacking in some essential way. In the past, despite rational awareness that this feeling was neither fundamentally true nor based on reality, this minor event would have spiraled me into depression for at least a day if not weeks. Meditation has taught me that I don’t have to believe such thoughts, but neither is it helpful to suppress or deny them. All I had to do, in fact all I could do was to sit and gently observe this phenomenon as it passed through me.