When teaching meditation, the right metaphors make all the difference between great instruction and a lack of clarity. I often compare meditation to exercise when teaching. Physical exercise is commonly understood, while many struggle to grasp the technique of strengthening the mind.
This point of reference supports learning. We know exercise is beneficial for our physical health, just as meditation is beneficial for mental health. Developing your practice is like training your mind at the gym, building strength, improving form, developing muscle memory to alter the structure of the brain.
But there is a significant difference between physical exercise meditation. When allowing this metaphor to dictate your approach to meditation practice, it could do more harm than good.
Why Meditation Isn’t Like Exercise
The biggest benefits of physical exercise come from working out a certain amount of time each week. Aim for 20 or 30 minutes each day, and you’re good to go. Get yourself in the gym three times per week, eat well, and feel satisfied knowing you’re on the right track. Time in between sessions is mostly for recovery — whether focusing on weight training or cardio.
It’s tempting to compare meditation to this process: sit for 20 or 30 minutes each day, and rest in the satisfaction of a job well done. The problem is, meditation doesn’t work in the same way. While it is crucial to sit as frequently as you can, meditation is the development of a technique to apply to each moment.
Sitting, eyes closed and in silence, is the training ground. The real benefits are applying these new skills actively with purpose, to cultivate the same level of balance and mindfulness in waking life. The hard work begins the moment we stand up and start our day.
A Conscious Process
That doesn’t mean comparisons to physical exercise aren’t applicable. If you build your fitness levels by running three times per week, you’ll find it easier to run for a bus or climbs flights of stairs. If you develop strength by weight training, you’ll find it easier to carry shopping or you’ll start bending spoons and door handles, unaware of your own strength.
Such physical activities, though, are often on auto-pilot. And mindfulness (present moment awareness) is the opposite of autopilot. We have to consciously apply skills developed in meditation to certain moments and notice when we are being unconscious, habitual or reactive in our behaviour.
When practicing mindfulness, all action and inaction, becomes meditation. Washing the dishes is meditation. Walking to the supermarket is meditation. Doing your taxes is meditation. Watching Netflix is meditation. Eating chocolate is meditation. Opening a door is meditation. The transition from sitting to standing it meditation. Staring at trees and questioning the meaning of life is meditation.
The Potential For Complacency
I’ve previously written about my surprise when I took a break from meditation and became more mindful throughout the day. Without my practice, I didn’t have room for the self-satisfaction of “doing the work.” Applying the exercise metaphor to your meditation practice sets the potential for complacency throughout the rest of the day.
My ego loves any excuse for complacency. I can fall into the trap of spiritual smugness when I’m meditating a lot. I become fixated on how long I’m meditating for, like it’s a commodity. “Aha, I’m meditating for over an hour each day, aren’t I doing a great job.” Then I pat myself on my back and put my feet up to celebrate.
Meditating regularly and for prolonged periods of time is absolutely beneficial in deepening your practice. But I’d go as far to say it’s better to sit for less time (or no time at all) and set the intention to be as mindful as possible throughout each day, than to sit for longer and feel the job is done.
This is why I love mindful reminders: little nudges throughout the day that remind me to be present, to practice meditation in each moment. A simple note, such as “Pause, Breathe, Reflect” can work wonders.
A Different Metaphor For Meditation
Shakespeare said “all the world’s a stage.” Rather than compare meditation to exercise, think of the practice as a rehearsal for the world’s stage. Those moments of stillness, where you’re alone and sat in silence, rehearse techniques that will serve you as you take to the stage of life.
I find it exciting to see bring new levels of awareness into “waking” situations. For example, when practicing loving kindness, it’s quite remarkable to experience a spontaneous feeling of compassion flooding from your heart in a situation where you’re usually reactive or frustrated or annoyed.
Or when in conflict, the moment you notice the ego’s storyline unfolding, pause, breathe, and don’t react and follow the story but make a new choice. These moments are signifiers of growth. These moments are meditation in action.
Over the years, complacency has been a blind spot of mine. Without staying vigilant, meditation becomes something to cross off the to-do list. “I’ve done my 20 minutes for the day, I’m good…” When I remind myself that meditation is a rehearsal, a sacred space to practice techniques that apply to each moment, I find more flow in my day, less stress, and greater harmony between my being and doing.
Next time you find yourself feeling satisfied at having sat in meditation, remember: meditation isn’t exercise. Aim to sustain a level of awareness throughout your day, for longer and longer periods, until each moment becomes as still, easy, and even joyful as the time spent on the mat.