Meditation

For The Best Results From Meditation, Forget About Results

meditation doesn't work
Expectations can hinder a meditation practice.

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.


Mindfulness, Psychology, Spirituality

Sometimes, Thoughts Need To Change Before You Can Live In The Moment

skilled thinking
Skilled thinking is an overlooked tool on the spiritual path.

We are told to be aware, to pay attention, to create space. Yet conscious engagement with thoughts, with the intention to change them skillfully, has immense benefits. Although counterintuitive, it boosts the ability to be mindful and accelerates spiritual growth.

Maturing the ego and cultivating a skilled, self-serving intellect, is just as rewarding as the transcendental elements of spiritual practice. But the message in the West is often black-or-white; the ego is all bad, the solution to troubling thoughts is always being in the Now.

Living in the present is simple and impossibly hard. The complexity of mind distracts in a multitude of ways. Neglecting the quality of thoughts makes presence much harder; if your thoughts work against you, the task is greater. Yet it’s rare to see spiritual guidance on techniques adjusting the thinking mind.

Mindfulness

Does The Phantom Planner Sabotage Your Present?

The Phantom Planner may sabotage your present.

I’ll eat a banana with porridge this morning. Yesterday it mushed into an off-yellow lump. Today, I’ll chop smaller slices, and spread evenly on top. Shall I add an apple? Mmmm… It’s 5:30am in the meditation hall, but I’m already an hour ahead, fantasising about breakfast.

Thinking! Thinking! I realise I’m distracted from the task at hand; attentive awareness of bodily sensations. I’m five days into my first Vipassana retreat, and it’s become apparent — I’m a constant planner. Now, there’s no place to hide. In this environment, with a strict schedule of meditation and rest, there’s nothing to plan. But this morning, I’m contemplating fruit-slicing like it’s the elixir of life.

Psychology

Spot The Sunk-Cost Fallacy And Know When To Quit

The sunk cost fallacy applies to all of life’s investments.

In poker, an unlucky hand, an opponent’s provocation, general impatience, or bad luck may drastically impair a player’s decision making process. Regardless of ability or experience, when this is extreme, a player takes high-risks or consistently makes irrational moves, in a futile attempt to chase losses. In game terminology, this psychological trap is called tilt.

The tilt mindset influences more than just financial investments. We invest in a multitude of ways; be it with time, emotions, creativity, or physical energy. In any situation, decisions may be impaired thanks to the accumulation of investments made, just like the poker player on a losing streak, spewing chips when the odds aren’t in favour.

Psychologists call this cognitive bias the sunk-cost fallacy. Away from gambling, it’s difficult to spot because success is linked with stories of unrelenting determination and a “never-say-die” attitude. Quitting equates to weakness. If you really want to succeed, never, ever give up!

But sometimes quitting is the best decision. In any venture, the refusal to quit can become a hindrance to success, growth, or progress. It takes a calm, measured assessment of a present situation to spot the sunk-cost fallacy. Pride, stubbornness, guilt or fear are some egoic traits motivating us to continue on a set path, even when the signs point in a new direction.

Honesty and knowing when to quit

A challenging relationship taught me the suffering caused by a refusal to quit. I’d invested so much emotion, time, energy and daydreams of perfect futures, I felt the relationship had to work. I’d created a fantasy I was attempting to make reality, despite signs indicating the relationship was over. The sunk-cost fallacy caused me to hold on, when all I needed to do was let go.

A storyline developed. I told myself I’d only be happy when we were together, in the same city, three years in the future. It dawned on me that I was holding on to the belief she was “the one,” and we were destined to be together, no matter what. Quitting was far from easy. But as I slowly sobered from the intoxication of what could’ve been, it became clear my decision was based on a “what if,” not the truth of the situation.

Awareness of the sunken-cost fallacy adds clarity to such decisions. We can then choose investments wisely, based on our present understanding, not an outdated notion or chasing of metaphorical (or literal) losses. This takes an honest assessment, like the poker player who knows when to call it a night.

I encourage you to ask yourself — where am I investing time, money, or energy, based on investments already made, rather than based on the present reality?

This conscious approach uncovers investments that have become stale. Without curiously exploring, much goes unquestioned. Yet we only have a limited amount to invest, and creating a dynamic and value-filled life means consistent assessment to align to the “what is” rather than the “what was” or “what could be.”

Flexibility and opportunities to learn

Every investment provides opportunity to learn. Quitting doesn’t erase experiences gained along the way — with a mind primed for growth, those lessons are injected into new investments as we learn to spend our time, money, energy more wisely. In this way, quitting adds flexibility to our lives, allowing us to view new opportunities with fresh eyes.

Impermanence (annica in Buddhism) is a universal truth. Everything is in constant flux, all is transient. The Buddha taught increased well-being, harmony and reduced suffering are possible when we allow greater flow into our lives. Embracing impermanence allows the old to leave gracefully, providing room for the new.

Quitting can be viewed as failure. Or it can be viewed as letting go to create space for the infinite potential of new opportunities, people, or experiences closer aligned to the person we are becoming. With limited energy, letting go of what no longer serves us allows us to invest in what does.

Quitting takes courage, especially when it closes the door of familiarity and opens the door of unknown possibilities. But when enacted skilfully, quitting is an act of faith — in ourselves, and in the universe.


Spirituality

I Wasn’t There, But I Saw You In Dreams

A tribute.

My Nan died at 9pm last night. I wasn’t at her bedside as she drew her last breath. I wasn’t comforting, talking, stroking her hair, holding her hand. I wasn’t with my dad or my mum or my sister, herself facing fear to share this sacred moment. I wasn’t with my aunts or my uncle or my cousins.

My Nan loved in presence. She liked to sit back, to observe, to drink in the atmosphere of family gatherings as mindfully as she’d drink her (specially selected) glass of Cherry Brandy each Christmas. As my awareness grew, I saw this clearer and clearer — she loved her family, us, deeply. So much so, being surrounded by us was all she required to be content, to remain hydrated.

In her final moments, she was surrounded by us. And I’m certain she felt this familiar presence, from those there physically, and those separated by distance but there in spirit, as the Derisz constellation drifts, from Bristol, across the world, to Manchester, to Berlin, to Melbourne, and now the stars.

My family is close in our unique way, as all constellations are unique. Being away from home, awaiting a ping from a phone usually on silent, thousands of miles away, an hour ahead of time, I realised more than ever how close our bond is. We’ve stuck and stick together, we share the highs, we share the lows. Today, we share the grief.

The Realm Of Dreams

My Nan’s breaths slowly shallowed as she faded, peacefully, passing in her sleep, after some days spent in the realm of dreams. A hospice in New York interviewed 14,000 dying patients. The study found, as they drifted in and out of consciousness, from one world to the next, the majority had exceptionally lucid, vibrant visions.

In these states, they had detailed conversations with deceased family members. They reflected on their lives, sort unfinished business. My Nan would’ve lived forever, if she could, but I have no doubt she was finding peace with what was — her physical body, the container of her essence, shutting down.

“Instead of having this fear of death,” said Dr. Christopher Kerr, who documents the hospice study with his team, “it almost transcends the fear of death to something bigger.” Patients report these near-universal dreams are “more real” and different from anything experience before. They offer relief. They offer healing.

Make no mistake — my Nan was getting shit done. She would move on from the physical plane, yes, but only when totally ready. I can picture her now, rolling up her sleeves, telling her son, my uncle Colin — it’s time to get to work. In our lifetime we may never know the full nature of this work, but her fight, resilience, tenacity, and will to keep going will benefit missions of another realm immensely.

May You Be Happy, May You Be Well

All of us had time to process; days passed after the inevitable became clear. It was painful to be away. But I had my time on Wednesday evening. I drifted, in and out of sleep, dazed by lifelike hallucinations. The dream world was vying for my attention.

It’s unlike me to be awake at such an hour, but come 2am, I brewed a mint tea, journalled my reflections, and sat in meditation. Intuitively, I knew; I wasn’t choosing this time or this moment — this time and this moment was choosing me.

My intention was to send loving kindness, compassion, and healing to my Nan, beyond time and space, communicating with her in the place she was, where dreams are lived and shared.

As my mind stilled, an electrifying vision appeared in my mind’s eye, full of life, accompanied by presence, causing a shift in perception, awakening of a deeper intelligence. There you were; sat in your chair, smiling, knowingly. I recited phrases of loving kindness: “May you be happy, may you be well, may you be peaceful, may you be loved.”

I hadn’t cried that day. But then there was the look — you know how it feels, when someone looks at you, attentively. A look felt across distance. A look, in this context, orchestrating a symphony of chills. As my Nan looked at me, completely at ease, a bright white light filled the room; a room so familiar, now drenched in an ethereal, timeless quality of another dimension.

“May we be happy, may we be well, may we be peaceful, may we be loved.”

Opening Our Hearts Through Grief

In that moment, I knew she was okay. I knew she was loved and loving, peaceful, understanding, wise, more alive and vibrant than her physical body ever could be. Her divine spark, previously in one form, now moving towards the light.

As we locked eyes and hugged and shared and smiled and cried, I wasn’t sure who was reassuring who. In truth, maybe we were reassuring each other. That’s what families do.

In the past grief has hardened me, made me put up barriers. It’s taken some work to break open that shell, to move through the pain. But I now understand death has the potential to open our hearts to what is most meaningful.

I am humbled, and I look forward to being with my family — to grieve, appreciate, express the deepest expressions of what it means to be human. To be there.

For you, Nan…

I wasn’t there, but I saw you in dreams.

And I’m sure you saw me, too.