Navigating the Path

Recently, I have been reflecting on the value that meditation can offer outside of formal practice and how readily available such benefits are. While the fruits of an ongoing practice can be abundant, a novice practitioner may not understand how sitting quietly and watching the mind could produce any benefit in the real world. Many questions act as obstacles that can prevent one from moving forward on the path and these questions often come when one isn’t formally sitting in meditation. Ultimately, meditation needs to produce some tangible benefit to our lives off the cushion if we are to continue with it in a meaningful way. In this article I will address some common questions about the value of meditation and share my views on how to best think about these issues. These are, of course, only a few questions among many that may arise from an ongoing practice.

Can meditation help with acute anxiety?

If meditation is to have any value in our lives it should enable us to more gracefully traverse the landscape of psychological and physical discomfort. Such states can be commonplace for many people and almost everyone will brush up against these at some point in their lives. In these situations meditation can be an effective tool. Though, as someone who has practiced for some time I often still struggle to effectively stay afloat when finding myself among waves of anxiety. A common suggestion from meditators (and Buddhists) would be to remind oneself of the impermanence of all things when experiencing such episodes. Regardless of intensity, states of anxiety or stress will pass at some point, as will all things. Such wisdom has it’s place. However, the place for such wisdom is typically not during a particularly fierce encounter with anxiety. Attempting to calm oneself through the assurance that such states will eventually pass can in fact produce more anxiety. Yes it will end, but how long will it last? Will it get worse before it gets better? What if it happens again? What if this starts happening more often? There may be some underlying awareness that these feelings will expire but such awareness can be of little help once one is already in the throes of the storm. But the wisdom of meditation does offer an alternative.

During an episode of acute anxiety an effective approach can be to pay attention to the physical sensations that are arising. Notice where they are arising in the body. The sensations that accompany periods of stress and anxiety are usually centered in the chest or stomach. When you determine the location try to focus your awareness on the raw sensation. Is there a burning or pulsating feeling? This is not an effort to be drawn into or mesmerized by such feelings but simply noticing the raw physical data associated with anxiety can often detach it from the accompanying psychological stress. From this vantage point it is possible to narrow down the experience. When you are able to determine exactly what is being felt you are no longer being swept into the unknown by a whirlwind of confusion and aversion. This is an exercise of confronting the experience directly. The same can be done from a psychological standpoint. Without attachment or hostility, notice the thoughts that are arising in consciousness. This exercise of identifying precisely what is happening in the body and mind usually has a dissipating effect and can enable one to transcend anxiety by developing an overarching awareness. Such a technique is by no means easy but a formal meditation practice such as Vipassana can train the mind to habitually become aware of the common traps and pitfalls of anxiety when they arise.

Should meditation be enjoyable?

After recently listening to a conversation between Tim Ferriss and Dr. Peter Attia I began to reflect on the question of whether meditation should be enjoyable, or more importantly, whether meditation needs to be enjoyable in order to derive any benefit. This is a small point discussed throughout an entertaining and valuable conversation that touches on psychedelic therapy, depression, and meaning, but it is an important one. If one does not enjoy meditation should it be continued? The short answer is yes. Many of the activities we do on a daily basis are not done purely for enjoyment. Though activities like exercise, eating well, or cleaning up can sometimes be enjoyable they often aren’t but we do them anyway. We don’t normally do these things because they provide immediate pleasure or gratification but rather because we know there is an underlying benefit that will improve our lives in the future. Interestingly, once we know and understand that an activity is benefiting our lives there can be a deeper and more meaningful level of satisfaction when engaging in that activity. This can also be said of meditation. Though some sessions can provide deep levels of concentration or even bliss, such states are rare and attaining them should not be the goal. If we are to truly allow the lessons that come with formal practice to flourish they should do so in a way that has benefit for the most mundane of activities. The feelings that arise while you are approaching the second hour of sitting in a traffic jam can be observed as raw sensations in the body and need not be accompanied by the usual psychological stress that we tend to fuel by reacting to these feelings. Meditation sharpens our ability to notice that there is in fact a small window between an event occurring and our reaction to it. If we can simply notice and acknowledge this space between event and reaction we can realize that this is where our freedom lies. It is here that we can decide whether to throw a tantrum or play witness to the body and mind from a perspective of awareness. Real world results such as this can be cultivated through regular meditation even if the act of sitting in formal practice does not bring pleasure.

If I am experiencing benefits from meditation should I try to convince my loved ones to meditate?

Despite it’s recent growth in popularity, meditation remains perhaps one of the most annoying topics of conversation. As Dan Harris put it, “Meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever.” Just the idea of meditation conjures up images of Lululemon-clad millennials peacefully sitting full lotus in reflective pools of water beneath purple-hued skies, hands over knees, fingers touching. There is perhaps no imagery more cringeworthy. Yet despite this apparent ‘marketing problem’, those who have experienced benefits have good reason to want to convince those around them to develop a practice. Having sometimes played the role of annoying meditation promoter I can report that endlessly advocating the benefits is not the best strategy, in fact it’s often the worst. The most effective method to convince those around you that meditation is a worthwhile pursuit is to actually embody the lessons you have learned. Continue a daily meditation routine, go on retreat when possible, and allow your personal growth and actions to speak rather than superficial attempts at persuasion. Be less concerned about whether or not those around you are practicing and instead focus on your own intention to establish a routine and grow from it. Your own personal advancement will speak more clearly and vibrantly than your words.

Is meditation an antidote to suffering?

The list of potential health benefits of meditation is extensive, ranging from stress reduction to fighting addiction to promoting emotional health, and because of this one could conceivably make the argument that it is a solution to almost everything that ails us. Further, a basic introductory reading of Buddhism will inform us that mindfulness, in part, paves the way to the end of suffering. This is a compelling and exciting idea. However, meditation is not a panacea and the confidence that some practitioners place in it seem to suggest that they believe it is. One should not approach meditation with the expectation that it will solve all of life’s problems. Psychedelic enthusiasts also sometimes approach the use of those substances in this way, which, I would argue, is not just a recipe for disappointment but potentially for despair. Attempting to apply a single practice or philosophy to navigate a multi-layered and complex reality can be a shortcut to nihilism when one is met with a problem for which the method cannot be applied. This is exacerbated by the overly simplistic ‘living in the moment’ definition of the meditative philosophy, which tends to suggest that doing so will bring eternal happiness. Those with a deeper understanding of meditation will rightfully argue that it does not simply entail moment to moment living but is more about a gradual cultivation of awareness. Such an awareness can indeed help us to live more fully in the moment but more importantly it can assist us in seeing that life unavoidably cycles through peaks and valleys. Honing this awareness through meditation can enable one to cope with the more painful aspects of life but even an advanced meditator will not be able to fully exit this cycle in any permanent way. To believe that meditation will provide permanent relief to our suffering is not only wishful thinking but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the practice. Rather than pushing suffering away, mindfulness allows us to rest in suffering, to accept and embrace it as an inevitability, and work to improve our relationship to this uncomfortable reality. This does not, however, entail that we will be able to extinguish it in any permanent way.

As we deepen our understanding and awareness we also need to become realistic about our expectations of what can and cannot be achieved through meditation. The practice is not a cure-all, but then nothing is. Meditation is a tool that when consistently sharpened can vastly improve our ability to cut through obstacles that impede us from living a more full and complete life. However, it is a tool that should be kept alongside a range of others as we navigate through the complexities of reality. The belief that meditation can improve our lives and the lives of those closest to us is a noble desire but it needs to be met with an effort that is equally noble and realistic if we are to move confidently forward on the path.