Since attending a Vipassana retreat in April, I sustained the recommended “dose” of two hour-long sittings each day. After a while, I reduced this to two 45-minute sittings, which I managed to maintain for a few months. All was going well.
Then, during a trip to Bristol a few weeks ago, out of the blue, I stopped. Complete standstill. I woke up one morning and didn’t feel any desire to meditate. So I didn’t. In some ways, I was experiencing meditation fatigue, and I put it down to placing too much pressure on myself to sustain the practice. I’ve a tendency to be a bit militant in these situations…
Taking the scientific approach of monitoring results (and remaining as equanimous as possible), I was surprised to notice my general level of mindfulness increased after a few days without meditation. I felt sharper. I felt more in-tune. The unplanned sabbatical led to a useful insight into an error in my mindset.
I’d developed and expectation of the results of meditation.
The Downside Of The Benefits Of Meditation
Each day presents new information about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Increase focus, reduce stress, find inner peace, manage emotions skilfully. Granted, the benefits are significant. This isn’t a passing fad, it’s an age-old technique of mind mastery, arguably inherent in human nature.
But there’s a downside to the flow of positive affirmation. “The benefits of meditation” forms an expectation. It becomes a conceptual belief of what meditation should do to the mind, what it should provide. Yet meditation and mindfulness are experiential, observing what is with acceptance and awareness. As soon as expectations arise, we leave the World of Experience and enter the World of Thought.
“Meditation Doesn’t Work For Me”
Expectations lead to disappointment or a sense that you’re meditating incorrectly. “Meditation doesn’t work for me,” or “I’m no good at meditation,” or “I couldn’t quieten my mind” are comments I’ve heard regularly from beginners and those who have meditated for a while. I understand why; there are a number of common misconceptions about the nature of meditation.
The above perspectives are oxygenised by comparison. In this context, comparing the lived experience of meditation with the expectation of what should happen. The gap — between experience and expectation — leads to disappointment. The greater the gap, the greater the disappointment.
I’ve been there. Many times I’ve felt disappointed with meditation, I’ve judged a sitting to be rubbish. Perhaps my concentration was poor, perhaps I felt excessively tired, agitated, disinterested, caught up in planning. Mindfulness, however, teaches us to always be with what is. To experience, observe, accept. With this mindset, there can never be a “bad” meditation.
The Deeper Impact Of Expectation
My experience in Bristol had more to teach. I realised that when I sat faithfully, I felt a sense of entitlement, as if the trade off of meditation was guaranteed calm. “Well, I’ve meditated for 45 minutes this morning, I must feel great today.” The instant this mindset creeps in, expectations form.
As a result, meditation becomes conditional. It transforms a genuine practice of open curiosity and observation into the desire to change state. Ironically, the more we wish for our state to change, or place expectations on feeling calm or happy or full of energy, the more likely we will experience frustration and disappointment.
Meditation isn’t the game of changing state
Meditation isn’t a game of changing state. We are moving away from the cultural game which pathologically flees unpleasant feelings by chasing comfort and craving pleasant states. We are moving away from an addiction to seeking sensory influence from outside of ourselves, to alter states we find undesirable, while simultaneously indulging in states we find desirable.
This game keeps us stuck. We don’t want to be stuck, we want to grow.
Applying A Balanced Approach
To really benefit, to increase self-awareness, emotional intelligence and to move along the path of spiritual growth, we need to learn and apply the fundamental approach of mindfulness — balance. This isn’t running away or running towards. It’s being comfortable in the presence of all thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations.
By falling into an unconscious trap of believing meditation would make me feel “better,” I’d started to indulge in the concept of better, instead of remaining mindful as I went about my day. I was playing the game of changing state, and regardless of how you feel, this game is lose-lose.
Feelings not matching expectations are resisted. Feelings matching expectations create a feedback loop of future expectations around desired outcomes. Both approaches take us away from the Middle Way, throwing us off balance.
True Meditation Never Stops
Meditation is a time of intense focus to practice mindfulness, in preparation to apply the skill to everyday experience. Unlike exercise, where the job’s done for the day after a gym session, every moment is an opportunity to learn and apply the practice of mindfulness.
So what’s the answer? Isn’t the point of mindfulness and meditation to make us feel better? Isn’t that why we try? Yes, it is. All of the benefits aren’t only possible, they’re probable. The studies don’t lie, I can vouch for that. Meditation has transformed my life for the better.
But — and here’s the key but — the benefits are byproducts of sustained, effective practice. Forget about them. Focus on the technique and let the magic do the rest.
To really see the best results from meditation, forget about results.