Why meditation is not for everyone
I attended a talk the other day about the Lotus Sutra with Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. I won’t go into too much details about what the Lotus Sutra is, because that would require years of study. Honestly even I’m not sure what it’s about because that talk was my introduction to this ancient Buddhist text. The Rinpoche spoke about many things, but a comment that made me smile was his comparison of meditation to a narrow cliff with dangers on both sides.
I think he was quite generous when he called meditation a narrow cliff. A novice like me would call it a tightrope - dangerous when you get involved in a negative spiral, and even worse when you feel you’re meditating well. You see, meditation is a multiplier. If you become involved in negative thoughts, it increases negativity in your mind. And if you become self-congratulatory about your powers of concentration, you develop a spiritual ego, which is the beginning of the end of your spiritual practice.
So I find it rather surprising that meditation is offered as a cure-all for all problems. Yes, if done correctly it is energising and relaxing at the same time. It gives you answers to impossible problems, and on a very material level, it’s the ultimate anti-ageing cream. But it takes years of practice, discipline and concentration. For a beginner like me, it has taken about five years to become energised with my practice. When I began, I used to feel drained. I would meditate in the morning, feel extremely tired and then take a short nap to feel refreshed. It’s only in the last year that it makes me feel energised.
The problem is that we want to become advanced without any practice. This is the curse of this new millennium. We want to do handstands before a basic downward dog, and want to meditate before learning how to breathe. In the yoga sutras it is clearly mentioned to practice asana first to open the body, then pranayama to calm the mind, and finally meditation. But we focus only on asana and meditation. Pranayama is considered for old people.
But look at it this way, if you’re depressed or anxious then would you want to be left alone with your thoughts? The reason you have anxiety is because you haven’t been able to detach yourself from your mind. When you are angry, stressed, heartbroken or unhappy, meditation will not make you feel better. It will make everything worse. If you really think about it, when we are emotional or stressed we forget to breathe. How many of you can say with complete confidence that you even exhale completely?
Another meditation myth that I want to break is doing the practice outside. Or creating the ideal scenario with incense sticks and music. Just the other day someone told me about an essential oil that will make you meditate better. How can anything that takes you to the outside make your practice better? Isn’t meditation all about going within? If you meditate in the garden, your attention will be on the nature around you. Similarly oils, incense and music will take your attention outside. Not within. Unless you’re an experienced meditator (and by that I mean someone who has practiced for many lifetimes), it’s best to do it in a quiet, dark room. Even sages in the old days would go to caves to mediate - so they could do it without distraction.
But I digress. I was talking about pranayama. Now this is a practice that works wonderfully for everyone. Just the act of breathing deeply nourishes your tissues, expels microbes that cause disease, and relaxes you instantly. The best time to practice pranayama is right after you exercise. Just take 10 minutes to simply breathe deeply. Or do alternate nostril breathing. Or the 5-6-7 breath where you inhale for five counts, hold for six counts and then exhale for 7 counts.
The problem is that pranayama is too simple and democratic. These days we like things that are inaccessible, be it the foods that we eat or the workouts we do. But the thing is, before you even think of meditating, at least learn to control your breath. When you can sit for a period of time and just enjoy the simple act of breathing, then be still for a minute. And slowly work your way up. But if you find yourself getting sad or agitated, go back to your breath again.