TLDR: Meditation is not all fun without struggles. It takes time and effort. It doesn’t just deliver peace and calm. It doesn’t make you invincible like a superhero. Here are 3 things I wished I knew.
Meditation has a wealth of awesome benefits- such as increasing calmness, improving memory and IQ, reducing anxiety and depression. As such, it is not surprising that well-known names have adopted these practices to ‘up their game’ literally. From NBA’s best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, to top cliff diver David Coltur, they have all sworn by the benefits of meditation.
They claim it sharpens their focus and prepares them for facing and managing highly stressful situations and powers their stellar performances. Meditation screams power, perfection and prestige. But is it really as such?
NBA star Lebron James as Calm Meditation App’s Ambassador
It’s easy to look at these glowing testimonials and have a wide-eyed naivety about what meditation can do for us. We may think, “Finally, something that can cure me of all my misery. I can be productive, successful and happy at the end of a 10 day Vipassana retreat!” This perspective most people have about the benefits of meditation is simply the product of marketing and branding in a world of “do more, be more, and have more”. However, the reality is not that fun. Here are 3 things I wish I knew before starting meditation.
1. Meditation Takes Time And Effort
Meditation is no different from any other methods of self-transformation. You need consistent practice over time to reap the fruits. While there is no exact time frame given for when one can expect to reap the fruits of meditation, the research by meditation app , Headspace and various mindfulness programmes suggest it takes 8-weeks to make changes such as increased neuron activities in different parts of the brain. Other research suggests a liberal estimation of 5 years for deep changes to be experienced by the meditator.
One thing that the body of literature can agree on though, is that the magic number for a consistent practice to experience the benefits is at least 3 times a week of 10–20 minutes practice.
Think of it as planting a mango seed- there needs to be consistency in watering the seed, protecting the sapling as it takes root against wild animals, bad weather and finally, taking care to remove weeds and pests that may grow as the plant matures. Eventually, with all the right conditions in place, you can take shelter under a beautiful mango tree while savouring the fruits of your delicious, sweet juicy ripe mangoes to your heart’s content.
2. When You Are Meditating, You Don’t Just Experience Calm And Peace.
Whoever told you that meditation was all about blissing out into cloud nine and thoughtless voids probably confused meditation with taking ‘weed’. Meditation is about developing an objective and non-judgmental attitude towards whatever that manifests in the present moment (as defined by the father of secular mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn).
This means whatever you face in life before you sit on the cushion- crippling anxiety, unresolved childhood traumas, anger issues, obsessive thoughts… will arise in your practice and unleash its full wrath. You will cry and you will break.
Evolutionary neurons in your brain will beckon at you to run, to hide, and to avoid thoughts you have hidden under the carpet for a long time.; But it is in staying with these moments of wreckage, and tuning into the ephemerality of this chaos that true acceptance occurs.
Meditation is not always an experience of peace, but always a training of peacefulness.
That, my dear friends, is the beginning of a beautiful healing.
3. Meditation Doesn’t Make You A Superhero
In this journey of life, we all come with different baggage, some heavier than others. We have to acknowledge our own limitations and be open to seeking and receiving help to lighten the load. Sometimes, meditation is just not the right support at the moment.
Imagine you are on your way to work and you get caught in a sudden downpour. You will need appropriate tools, such as a raincoat, umbrella or seek shelter indoors to keep yourself dry . You won’t just be standing there declaring “I’ve got an expensive $4000 water-resistant suit on, I’m safe!” Just because something is inherently high value, doesn’t necessarily mean it gives you power.
True power comes with being able to use the correct tool at the right time and right place. This applies to meditation too. Unfortunately, when it comes to our mental storms, some of us might be adamant about fixing ourselves only with our meditation practice, even though the depths of our struggles are well beyond what our muscle of mindfulness and acceptance can carry.
There could be a false belief that being spiritual or having a spiritual practice can bypass the immense challenges faced in one’s life, such as mental illnesses.
Sometimes, we just need professional help or to open up to the kindness of the community. It takes courage to be truthful to ourselves by acknowledging our sufferings. As someone who faces regular mood swings, I wished I knew earlier that my meditation practice doesn’t take away my right to be imperfect and to be a mess. In other words, it doesn’t make me a superhero and I don’t have to be one either.
In summary, meditation simply is a tool with wide-ranging benefits when mastered and applied skilfully; it doesn’t add to your identity or your personality.
It digs into what already is there – both the skanky and the dandy.
Facing your experience of being human after an eternity of distraction and avoidance is definitely not easy, so let compassion and acceptance light your path. Progress and maturity come with understanding. The human experience is complex and chaotic, and understanding that there is value to be found in every experience- even negative ones, and choosing to embrace them with kindness and discernment, is the definition of being alive.
May this reflection be helpful to all who begin their meditation journey, and may all find peace, healing and happiness. Inner change is the key to a better world. Hurt people hurt those around them.
If you are in a community, encourage open discussions and conversations on personal struggles and challenges. There is absolutely no shame in being a meditator AND feeling overwhelmed, and the more people talk about it, the less embarrassing it becomes.
Identify other tools that you can supplement your meditation practice with, such as journaling, yoga, breathing exercises and use the tools appropriately to each situation that you face in life.
I transform into the worst liar whenever I fall into the rabbit hole of YouTube.
If you are like me, a 30-minute video break at night usually stretches to 3-4 hours. That’s enough time to make a round trip between Singapore to Bangkok! Despite your logical mind telling you to stop, the last video usually ends when you fell asleep or when you realised it’s 3 hours before sunrise. You wake up looking like Jia Jia or Kai Kai, and feeling like one too. You notice the quality of your work is compromised cause of the late night sleep. Regretting, you promise yourself to not do it again.
A brand-new day! You are determined to change your life for good, start watching videos on how to be productive… and you see the recommended videos on the sidebar… well, we know how this story ends. “Just one last one” turn into a pack of lies we tell ourselves.
The binge-watching cycle repeats itself, and we wake up feeling guilty and hating ourselves even more.
Like our smartphone, our smart brain runs low on ‘battery’ after a long day of usage. After a long and exhausting day, the control centre of our brain (a.k.a. the prefrontal cortex) is worn out by decision fatigue. This is the part that makes wise executive decisions for us and keeps impulses that don’t serve us at bay. But because this poor CEO (of our brain) is burnt out, the monkey mind takes over and all hell breaks loose.
Just one video to wrap the day? Good Luck! If you have ever carried a plastic bag during your hike up the Bukit Timah hill, you would know what I mean. “Oh look another goodie!” This is how the monkey mind swings from video to video, grabbing onto anything that gratifies it instantly. It tricks us to think that the next shiny object is going to make us feel good. After countless times chasing after monkeys (yes, I think there is more than one residing in my brain), I have learnt that I cannot leave my sluggish evening-brain to its own devices.
The following help me to outsmart the mischievous mind, which you can try too:
(a) Stay clear of monkey food during monkey hours.
If I can’t trust my tired brain to stop, let me not begin. Planning ahead, creating signposts and boundaries are helpful. I know my willpower is usually depleted by 9pm. So that is the time to avoid the social media mouse trap. To do so, I put my phone and computer away. If this is not possible, consider purchasing rescue time to lock specific apps after a certain timing and track your time. Beyond that, hitting the unsubscribe and delete button for Netflix is the best decision I’ve made in 2019.
(b) Meditate to gain back executive control.
If I do have to get work done by surfing the net during monkey hours, meditation helps to refill the energy (a.k.a. blood flow) to the prefrontal cortex. This helps to tame the monkey mind so I can get work done. I recommend this 30-day course available Insight Timer: Unlock your wise and mindful brain.
2. You wait to be motivated rather than create it
On good days, we can feel the fire in our bellies, ready to conquer the day and get things done. On bad days, especially rainy ones, we just want to laze around. We may wait to feel motivated to be productive. But how often do we wake up feeling great and not feel tempted to hit the snooze button? In the book, the motivation myth, Jeff Haden highlighted that motivation is not the spark behind our actions. Rather, motivation is the result of our actions. This wasn’t a new concept to the Buddha. He even gave a full discourse about the grounds of laziness and the arousal of energy. It seems that a lazy person would always be finding excuses to avoid doing what is beneficial to himself. The other person with the same circumstances would carry a different mindset. He makes effort to attain what is yet attained to arouse energy.
(a) Just do it.
Nike is right. Regardless of our moods and the weather, if we have set a task for ourselves to complete, just do it. I find that the very act of starting something creates the momentum for me to continue — a beneficial momentum that is the opposite of the monkey business mentioned above.
(b) Create conditions to feel good.
When we feel good, we feel much ready to meet a goal. And when we meet our goals, we feel good. And boom! An infinity loop. The opposite is true. So, create an entertainment-free routine that makes you feel good. This can include meditation, exercise, reflecting on what to be grateful for, having a nice meal, listening to joyful music; activities that naturally boost the dopamine levels of our brain.
3. You set goals instead of systems
Goals are something that motivate us to get our butts moving aren’t they? Not entirely. The problem with goals is that they are temporary. If we don’t change our faulty habits, once goals are achieved, with the lack of new ones, our life will revert back to a sluggish one. For example, once I finish writing this article, what do I do? Without a ’system’ in place to build my habits, I might fall into the late-night-video-binging predicament again.
Also, if setting goals is all it takes for us to achieve it, we would have been productive isn’t it? In the book, Atomic habits, James Clear put forth a contrarian approach— “We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results.” Both winners and losers have the same goal. What leads them to different outcomes is the system they implement and the actions they take.
Here’s what I do:
(a) Change tactic and have fun
Einstein is commonly attributed for the wise quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Experiment with a different input, monitor the results, refine, and optimise. Failing over and over can be frustrating. Adopting the sense of curiosity in the process has made this self-improvement journey very enjoyable.
(b) Analyse every habit
A single habit such as sitting on the sofa after a shower can trigger the next habit of surfing the web. Listing down the habits gave me visibility of the full chain of events (cause and effect) in order to break it. I highly recommend you to read the book Atomic habits, block off a weekend to complete the in-book exercises.
Above all, staying truthful to oneself to follow all the beneficial actions might not be easy, especially when the mental energy is drained. Hence, to top it up, setting an accountability system has been very effective for me. Since last December, I have been committing to meditating at least 45 minutes a day or else I have to pay by doing 50 push ups for each day I don’t. So far, I have only paid a handful of penalties. And since then, I’ve been meditating daily and more than before! So, if starting seems like an uphill climb, find a buddy to keep you going.
Being productive and effective is a lifelong journey. Of course, the list of reasons in this article isn’t exhaustive. Everyone is different and may you find what works for you.
Fun quiz: How many animals can you spot in this write up?