Why meditation doesn’t work for you

This is a culmination of observations I’ve made over the last decade and comes from a desire to genuinely help people control their own minds.

Since meditating as a practice came into my life over ten years ago, my awareness also began to pick up on people’s resistance towards it. Specifically, movers and shakers who disliked sitting for extended periods; people usually in possession of high levels of kinaesthetic awareness, energetic and active in nature, and arguably, folks who could really benefit from observing and quietening their own minds, over time.

“Meditation doesn’t work for me!” is the quote I’ve heard the most often. The trouble with this statement (I’m paraphrasing) is it’s not specific enough to really hamper down on what is not working.

When you say the word ‘meditation’, whether you realise it or not, you’re objectively referring to a noun – a name for a group of mental training techniques. Notice ‘techniques’, plural.
There’s multiple ways to meditate. Meditation is an umbrella term, a category. Meditation is not a verb, it is not describing an action. Meditate is a verb, but not a specific one. It doesn’t tell you anything about which technique you are using to train your brain, it merely suggests that your brain is being trained, somehow.

When I hear “Meditation doesn’t work for me!” I can’t help but hear someone who is throwing the baby out with the bath water. You hear a similar tone when people say, “I can’t stand Yoga!”
It’s like saying, “Tools don’t work for me!” My immediate thoughts are “What tools are you talking about? And in the context of what job?”

Someone who says, “I tried meditating, it didn’t work for me!” is as specific as someone who says “I’ve tried working a job, it didn’t work for me!” You can see how both of these statements lack specificity. A logical repsonse to the latter might be “What job did you try? And have you thought about trying a different job, or even becoming an entrepreneur?” The same goes for meditation.

When you say, “Meditation doesn’t work for me!” are you referring to contemplative meditation? Concentrative? Insight? Mantra? Moving?

If I had to guess, most people who say meditation doesn’t work for them, tried a process that looked something like this;

1. They sat down and closed their eyes with some sort of expectation that something would happen. Maybe they had an audible guide in their ears, maybe not.
2. Their minds went into overdrive and they were either fully aware of the madness, or not.
3. But still nothing really happened relative to their conscious/subconcious expectation.
4. A few minutes later they stood up and concluded meditation doesn’t work.

Stages 1-4 are either repeated a few more times over the coming days and weeks, or not.

Here are some questions that fascinate me regarding the above stages 1-4.

1. They sat down and closed their eyes with some sort of expectation that something would happen. Maybe they had an audible guide in their ears, maybe not.

Did they know what type of meditation technique would be best suited to them, to start with?
Believe it or not, there’s more than just one technique involved in training the faculty of meditation.
Same as strength training, there isn’t just one exercise to get strong, yet there are key exercises you should spend time performing if you want to get stronger. With meditation, some types of practice will suit you from the get go, more than others.

Did they even know there were different types of meditation?
So many people fall for the lexicon semantics that there must just be one type of meditation; meditation. With this one type, they attach their perception and if there’s any ounce of perceived negativity within that perception, dismissal is usually just around the corner. Not a lot of light has been shed on the variety of meditation techniques and each of their intended benefits, and although it is becoming more mainstream now, technical variations are still not common knowledge.

Were they aware of holding expectations of results?

If their perception of meditation is that it would be a positive experience, already there’s an expectation. Very often, when a friend suggests you should try something because they enjoyed it, but you go to try it at a different location and have a disappointing experience, part of that disappointment you felt is because you expected the alternative location to provide the same positive experience that your friend was raving about. And yet you didn’t even consciously realise you naively expected a different place to offer the same experience.
What would have happened if you had prefaced yourself with a little conscious, applied awareness? “I’m going to try my friend’s recommendation, but at a different location. Therefore, there’s no guarantee that I will experience anything like what my friend did recently.”
It takes awareness to preface yourself like that, however, and that’s built upon understanding the structure of your own tendencies and thought patterns. Meditation is the path to understanding your own tendencies and thoughts, without employing judgement, or more needless thoughts.

If they were holding expectation of results, what results were they expecting?
“Twenty percent happier,” is a term I like because I think a lot of people expect things to make them one hundred percent happier. This term prefaces that expectation with a little realism. However, I also feel like if people actually consciously investigated their own expectation biases, they would see they are being ridiculous. You actually thought that sitting down on a cushion, ten times, for ten minutes, would transform your life in such a fashion that it would never be the same again?
It can happen, but the reality is far more bleak than that. Learning a new mental skill takes time. Especially one that’s not very natural to us. Just because someone raves about what meditation has done for them, doesn’t necessarily prime you to the amount of their failed attempts, trials and obstacles. And with an insta-result society we live in in the western world, expectations and instant gratification are joined at the hip.

Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.

Sam Harris

Were they using an app, with a teacher, in a class, or just trying it of their own accord?
If you don’t have a specific protocol that has been taught to you, there’s a good chance you’re either guessing, experimenting or copying someone else’s suggestions. The rise of meditation apps has meant it’s now more accessible than ever to get assistance with awareness. The beauty of apps are that they make good teachers more accessible and bad teachers’ reputations come to light. The benefits of having a good teacher in person are numerous, but in my experience, hard to find. The probability of having a bad teacher is high, and the effects can last. Classes can take the pressure off of a D.I.Y. approach but also sacrifice specificity. And taking a D.I.Y. approach will teach you the most, but you can also waste an insane amount of time barking up the wrong trees without decent guidance. Just because you’re trying out a meditation practice or diving in daily, doesn’t always mean it’s the best one you could be doing.

2. Their minds went into overdrive and they were either fully aware of the madness, or not.

This can be a very interesting and highly frustrating experience, especially if you’re going into a brain training session with the high ideal that you are going to be able to control your mind, quieten it, and bliss out the first time you’ve ever tried to meditate. Or even the twentieth, hundredth, or thousandth time.

Modern day culture has attached a seductive quality to meditation practice, partly because science has shown the results to be profound and who doesn’t want to feel slightly better? Instinctively, we can begin the journey of learning to control our own minds with very high expectations because various studies have proven the benefits, our mate Joe won’t shut up about it and suddenly ‘mindfulness’ is a term cropping up on breakfast television shows and lunchtime workplace workshops. The reality of learning to quiten your mind, however, is just as profound, but perhaps far more overwhelming than we had anticipated.

Some people are aware of how busy their brains are, and it’s a frustrating, somewhat alarming realisation. Most people don’t even know that they are thinking, however. That is a key point. If you don’t even know that you are thinking, achieving a deliberate meditative state is a long way away. Noticing you are having thoughts without engaging in those very thoughts is not a commonplace skill. People aren’t just born with the ability to watch themselves watching the world.
So to conclude that meditation doesn’t work for them, when in reality they aren’t even aware of the very thing they are trying to observe (consciousness, it’s contents and in particular for thought analysis; thinking), is absurd.
To illustrate this type of mentally unaware glitch, picture yourself sat in a cinema, about to watch an engaging, new movie. At the moment that you feel your attention is captivated during the show, I want you to press the red button on your arm rest.
If you actually tried to do this, i.e. perform a task the moment your attention is captivated, you’ll notice that you will practically never press the red button. Why? Because when your attention is captivated, unless you’ve practiced being aware of your own captivation, you will be so engrossed in the movie that you won’t have any conscious attention to think about pressing the button.
Some forms of meditation, such mindfulness, are ways of learning how to press the red button during movies without the movie being any less entertaining.

Another way to test just how easy it is to be oblivious in your day-to-day activities, comes from P.D. Ouspensky. I call it awareness checking. It’s very simple. As many times as you can per day day, simply try to label your actions in realtime, with a noun. For example, if I get up off of the couch and walk to the kitchen, I can awareness check the action simply by saying to myself, “walking.”
I’ve now linked my conscious attention to the action of walking, using a mental note in the form of a label/category/noun, as the trigger. You can literally awareness check anything; playing video games, eating, running for the bus, etc.

This blew my mind when I first tried it, for a couple of reasons. I didn’t realise that awareness checking is about making a subtle shift in your direction of attention. It seems like it should be so easy but is in fact difficult to habitulise in the beginning. And I noticed that I certainly was not living out my day-to-day life moments with high levels of realtime awareness.

Ouspensky continues with a conversation he had with G.I. Gurdjieff on the subject of consciousness, in his book, In Search of the Miraculous;

“‘Only one thing is true in what you have said: that you can know consciousness only in yourself. Observe that I say you can know, for you can know it only when you have it. And when you have not got it, you can know that you have not got it, not at that very moment, but afterwards. I mean that when it comes again you can see that it has been absent a long time, and you can find or remember the moment when it disappeared and when it reappeared. You can also define the moments when you are nearer to consciousness and further away from consciousness. But by observing in yourself the appearance and the disappearance of consciousness you will inevitably see one fact which you neither see nor acknowledge now, and that is that moments of consciousness are very short and are separated by long intervals of completely unconscious, mechanical working of the machine. You will then see that you can think, feel, act, speak, work, without being conscious of it. And if you learn to see in yourselves the moments of consciousness and the long periods of mechanicalness, you will as infallibly see in other people when they are conscious of what they are doing and when they are not.'”

G.I. Gurdjieff

“Some of those present said that during attempts at self-observation, what they had felt particularly strongly was an incessant flow of thoughts which they had found impossible to stop…

The first impression was that attempts to remember myself or to be conscious of myself, to say to myself, I am walking, I am doing, and continually to feel this I, stopped thought. When I was feeling I, I could neither think nor speak; even sensations became dimmed. Also, one could only remember oneself in this way for a very short time…

I said that European and Western psychology in general had overlooked a fact of tremendous importance, namely, that we do not remember ourselves; that we live and act and reason in deep sleep, not metaphorically but in absolute reality. And also that, at the same time, we can remember ourselves if we make sufficient efforts, that we can awaken.”

I believe we’re wired to think vast amounts of thoughts without consciously realising just how much we’re thinking. It’s an effiency, species-survival thing. What does seem to be a common report, is that quality of life increases as meditative awareness increases, and so investing time in practicing how to do it, is worth the mental effort, even if the initial buzz of your brain is unnerving.
The hard part is snapping out of the ‘dream,’ so to speak, the movie of daily life where you’re so captivated you can’t detach and observe yourself watching it.

Once you do become aware of the mental overdrive, however, you are on your way to pooling and collecting data about your own thought patterns, habits and tendencies. You just have to be consistent enough with your practice, presuming it’s the right modality for you, so that you can see the patterns of your existence over time without judging them, and adjust those patterns as you see fit.

3. But still nothing really happened relative to their conscious/subconcious expectation.

This makes me laugh because if people removed the cultural, seductive narrative attached to meditative practice and were told objectively what it is, I bet hardly anyone would be inclined to give it a go. “Essentially you’re going to sit down, watch the shit-storm that is your cerebral circus for ten minutes, or not even, and then feel forced to seek solace by running through your to-do list, wishing you were getting on with it instead of being sat on this awful cushion, then you’ll get up and actually get on with your to-do list because you can’t believe you just wasted all that time sitting.”
Not much of a sell, is it? But to enter a meditative practice with the expectation that something other than happening is going to happen, is like watching a sports game in a stadium as a ticket holding fan and expecting to be called up to play.

A large part of meditation practice is learning how to observe yourself as you are thinking, whilst knowing that you are observing yourself as you are thinking. To even get to this stage takes a little time and the journey an ambiguous and cryptic one. One thing I have noticed to back up the claim of consistency in my own meditative experience, is that it is cumulative. The more days in a row you practice, the sharper you become. I’m not convinced the average beginner meditator can learn what needs to be learnt at a frequency of one to two sessions per week, each session lasting ten to thirty minutes. I think ten to twenty minutes a day, ten minutes per session, every day is far more effective for initially learning the ropes. And expect no real tangible differences until day thirty.

4. A few minutes later they stood up and concluded meditation doesn’t work.

This conclusion is unfortunate because it is based on an unfair trial. They tried chopping the log with a hammer and never even took the brand new saw out of the packet. The people I have met in my life that could have benefitted greatly from learning how to meditate properly but concluded it is not for them, are always the ones that I figured needed it most. And I believe meditation is useful for anyone with a normal, functioning brain. It’s just the getting there that could do with more unpacking.

Which is why I want to pose an alternative way in to the meditative state, one that is natural, uses the power of the human reflex, and is accessible to all people on earth. And is especially powerful for the movers and shakers out there who just hate sitting still.

Caveat – this method does not replace the traditional sitting practice of meditating but rather reinforces its efficacy through visceral experience and subtlety of motion. Arguably this method I am about to suggest in a future post will provide a point of reference that can be transferred to the cushion later on.

Stay tuned.

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