Just over 60 years ago, there was almost no mention of meditation in Western popular culture except in the most off-beat paths and dusty corners. Now, everywhere you look, from magazines and talk shows to books and the internet, one blissed-out person after another is preaching about how they overcame the challenges of modern-day life by sitting on a mat and cushion.
It is a fact that our schedules are hectic and overfilled with things to do, unpaid bills, deadlines not being met and an inbox that only grows with more emails each day. However, all the hype and media coverage that meditation receives these days distorts what engaging in the practice is actually like. Yes, there are great benefits, but the picture being painted by current popular culture is far from accurate.
Here's another take that might be of some use.
Imagine that one day your curiosity got the best of you, and you decided to go to a rodeo. Having never been to one, you check out the scene, and lo and behold you discover that "you too can ride a bull."
With a bit of encouragement and instruction you decide to go for it, so you mount the bull, strap in and give the OK to go. Then the gate flies open, and the bull starts kicking, leaping and thrashing around. In the midst of this flurry of activity, you realize, "This is not fun at all," and before you can blink you are thrown off the bull and let out a big groan as your body hits the ground. That's pretty much what meditation is like -- in the beginning, at least.
Now, you might be saying, "What the heck are you talking about? This is so far from popular accounts, it cannot be true." Well, it is.
Like it or not, meditation is not what most people describe. I do not know what happened, but somehow, some way, it became taboo to openly admit that the practice, albeit highly effective in terms of improving your quality of life, is not inherently fun or easy. When you first sit, you will likely be shocked by the fact that you have no control over the swirl in your head; if you don't believe me, try stopping your thoughts. This is the bull, and dealing with it is the antithesis of what we are told to expect.
Human beings are sophisticated survival mechanisms that are equipped with the ability to feel, process and create. We are wonderful machines that do amazing things, yet all of it is intended to keep us alive and give us more of what we want, and less of what we don't want.
In spite of all the wonderfulness, our need to survive is the very thing that meditation is designed to interrupt; do not be fooled into believing otherwise. This dynamic sets up a confrontation between your desire for whatever you seek and the brain's need to ensure that you stay alive; hence the experience is like trying to ride a bull that does not want to be ridden. Sorting this out requires patience, time and a willingness to be extremely uncomfortable -- this is taming the bull. And it's not a peaceful, blissed-out process.
A few years back a friend of mine jumped wholeheartedly into meditation in hopes of taming his "bull." He was great, sitting a few days a week at longer and longer intervals. Then one day, out of the blue, he told me that he quit. His reason: "I was experiencing more and more anger." I suggested that it was not that meditation made him angry, but that meditation revealed just how angry he was.
My friend never returned to his mat and cushion, opting to ignore a major source of his struggles in life. In this case, the bull got the best of my friend. Had someone shared a more realistic and less culturally idealized perspective on meditation prior to his engaging, he might have been better equipped to stick with it.
However, in contrast to my friend, there are thousands of meditation success stories of those who did manage to overcome what they were told and make their own way. After all, the practice has existed for several thousand years and has greatly contributed to the development of some of the most incredible people that have ever walked this earth. Those who can stick with it and are successful in navigating the peaks and valleys that make meditation what it is reap the benefits.
If you really want to try taming that bull, here are some of those benefits.
In addition to lowering stress and increasing one's ability to deal with pressure, research has shown that Zen meditation causes gray matter to grow and protects the brain from some of the effects of aging. Another study examined the impact of the Buddhist "insight" meditation on the brain and learned that it caused an increase in thickness of the prefrontal cortex in the brain, the part that lies behind what we call our forehead and is associated with higher order function such as attention and making moral judgments. For all of you who are paid to solve complex problems that require focused attention over time, this is a good thing. These are just a few of the many benefits that come from meditation.
Whether you are a CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, doctor, contractor, teacher, programmer, truck driver or stay-at-home mom, meditation will make a difference in your ability to handle life and whatever it throws at you.
So now that you know that meditation requires more than just good intentions and a surface-level interest, grab your mat and cushion and get ready for the ride of your life!
This Emotional Life is a two-year campaign to foster awareness, connections and solutions around emotional wellness. Join our community at www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife.