Meditating on Meditation

I started meditating in 1968, and I’ve hardly ever missed a day since. Thirty years ago meditation seemed like a bizarre ritual to most people; I had to endure cynicism, disapproval and a lot of bad jokes. Now, like Bob Dylan, it is mature and respectable. Hundreds of scientific studies have documented its benefits; physicians and therapists recommend it to patients; corporations and hospitals have meditation rooms. You would think that this stamp of approval would make meditating as common as stopping at Starbucks. Instead, for a great many people, it’s more like cutting down on carbs: something they know would be good for them, but that they don’t get around to doing.

Why don’t they? There are many reasons, but two stand out. So, if you (or someone you care about) have been meaning to add a meditative discipline to your regular routine, listen up.

The most frequently mentioned excuse, of course, is lack of time. Human beings have never had more freedom from toil, yet everyone feels that they have too much to do and too little time to do it. But there is always time for something you truly value. If not an hour, then half an hour; if not half an hour, then fifteen minutes. If you doubt that, keep a log of all the things you do and how much time you spend on them. You’ll be surprised how much time is taken with superfluous activities. Chances are, a little spiritual time management can free up ample time to nurture your soul.

The real problem with people who say they don’t have time for meditation—or prayer, contemplation, etc.—is that they have not come to see its practical value. Americans are pragmatic, bottom-line people. Unfortunately, our sense of pragmatism is a bit off kilter. We tend to be outwardly driven, deluded by the idea that fulfillment comes from what we do rather than what we are. Plus, we fail to appreciate the vital link between inner well-being and outer achievement. Meditation is not an escape from goal-oriented activities, it’s a way to enhance them by reducing stress, quieting the mind and connecting you to the deepest part of yourself, where abundant energy and creativity reside.

Whenever people say they can’t spare even 20 minutes a day, I quote Mahatma Gandhi, a rather busy fellow, who was trying to drive a colonial power out of his homeland and keep Hindus and Muslims from slaughtering one another. Gandhi once said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

Meditate on that for a while.

The second reason people who want to meditate don’t is simple: they don’t know how. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “I’ve tried to meditate but it doesn’t work for me,” or, “I’m not good at it.” When I ask if they’ve ever been taught how to meditate, the answer is usually no. For some reason, people think they ought to be able to pick it up on their own. Well, you can pick up dancing or scuba diving on your own too, but if you want to do it well and get the most out of it, it’s a good idea to get some instruction. Actually, some people who think they’re not the meditating type have received guidance, but it’s usually some haphazard directions they picked up from a magazine or something they vaguely remember from a guided meditation at a yoga class or stress management seminar. Such instructions are not always easy to take home and apply, and they certainly don’t include follow-up.

The problem with such cavalier approaches is that meditation is likely to be unsatisfying. It might even be unpleasant. Why? Because, having heard that meditation silences the mind, people try too hard to achieve that result, and the combination of strenuous effort and unrealistic expectations leads to strain. Strain is not pleasant, and it is not conducive to the open awareness and inner peace that we associate with meditative states. The point is, meditation needs to be properly learned.

In looking for an appropriate mediation practice, don’t be fooled by the notion that they’re all the same and have equal value. The various forms may be similar in intent, but that does not make them identical in either use or impact. Look for one that suits your needs and circumstances; that can be practiced with ease on your own; that has an honorable history of proven use; and that produces both immediate results—calmness, clarity of mind, etc.—and long-term benefits, such as better health, greater ease and happiness, heightened awareness and a deeper connection to the sacred ground of being.

There are other reasons why people don’t meditate. One is, “Life is good, so I don’t need it.” That’s like neglecting diet or exercise because you’re not sick at the moment. Then there’s the opposite: “I’m under too much stress now,” to which the best response is, “Duh! What better reason to do it?” But shortage of time and lack of proper instruction are the main obstacles to regular meditation, and they’re both easy to overcome if, like Gandhi, you recognize its spiritual and practical value. And that recognition comes only with experience, so when you begin a meditation practice, make sure keep at it long enough to give peace a chance.

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021