The Excruciating Joys of Meditation

by Alisa on March 10, 2009

When I meditate, I don't look this happy.

When I meditate, I don't look this happy.

It’s a proven fact: if you meditate often enough, long enough, and correctly enough, you will become happy. Seriously. Scientists have done all sorts of research on this.

You see, happy people have a lot going on in their left prefrontal cortexes. (In case you’re curious: that’s a place somewhere just behind your forehead.) Sad and nervous people, on the other hand, tend to have an overly active right prefrontal cortex.

People who meditate tend to be both left brained and excessively content and resilient. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who meditates a lot, then you know about what I speak. Nothing bothers them. You can say, “The world is about to end,” and they will slowly reply, “Is it? That will be a new and interesting experience for me. In this moment, I am very much looking forward to the end of the world.”

For this reason, I’ve had an on again off again relationship with meditation for many years. I’ve gone to yoga ashrams and have learned to meditate on a mantra. I’ve studied Zen. I’ve taken courses on mindfulness. I’ve breathed in many, many different ways: panting, through one side of my nose only, deeply, and so slowly that I thought I might pass out. I even read the Bhagavad Gita and tried very diligently to read and understand at least a sentence of Patanjali.

Still, I’m an imposter. I could be in a beautiful mountain location. I could be surrounded by calm, happy meditating people. My mind will be plagued by thoughts like:

  • Why does everyone here smell funny? What exactly is that smell? It’s sort of like garlic, but different.
  • Gee, people who meditate a lot sound a lot like people who smoke pot a lot, minus the coughing, munchies, and inappropriate laughter. Are these people all getting calm through meditation, or is there a pre-meditation party that someone isn’t inviting me to?
  • Why is my teacher wearing that funny outfit? And those sandals can’t be comfortable. I should send her a pair of Danskos. I’m sure she’d be grateful and maybe the gesture would earn me some karma points.
  • I wonder how long I’ve been sitting here? Oh, right, mantra, mantra, mantra. I forgot. I’m not supposed to be thinking. Still, I wonder how long it has been. Hey inner chatty voice: shhhh. Stop thinking so loudly. The teacher might hear you.

See? If meditation were an actual class, I’d earn an F-. And, yes, I do realize that wanting to be graded on my meditation efforts only demonstrates my very poor grasp of Buddhism to begin with.

Still, when I saw the little postcard with the words “Meditation & Buddhism” sitting next to all of the other little business cards and other advertisements that people leave behind at my husband’s store, I was intrigued. When I read that a Buddhist nun would be teaching a course called, “Transforming Relationships Through Meditation” every Monday night not far from where I live, I thought, “I could use some relationship transformation.”

So I not only made sure to get the night off from parenting, I even asked a friend if she’d like to join me.

That might have been a mistake, though, because as soon as we sat down and the nun started talking, I thought, “She’s going to be bored. She’s going to rue the day she ever met me. She probably wants to leave right now, and she can’t because I drove her here and she’s stuck with me.”

See? I’m hopeless. Just hopeless I tell you.

It gets worse. Oh, does it get worse.

See, the nun started us off with a simple breath meditation. You know, the one where you just focus on the sensation of breath at the tips of your nostrils? That one. Well, she said something about closing our eyes, but not all the way. We were to leave our lids open a little tiny bit in order to let in a little light.

I thought, “I’ve heard that before, but I’ve never understood why I should be doing it. And honestly, do you know how hard it is to keep my lids open a little bit?”

To which, my all-knowing mind-reading nun replied, “This will keep you from falling asleep.”

Which is exactly what I think I did for the next 15 minutes. If you don’t think it’s possible for a person to sleep with her eyes half open while she is sitting up, all I can tell you is this: come to my next meditation class. Then you can experience this thing known as Sleep While Seated and Eyes Half Open with your very own eyes. That is, assuming you don’t fall asleep, too.

After my little nap, the teacher wanted us to understand that happiness comes from within, to which I thought, “Gee thanks Yoda. That’s really going to change my life.”

Then she talked about this happiness from within stuff for a good 15 minutes. During this time, I thought, “I could have said all of that in about 1 minute. She needs to work on her efficiency. Buddhism will never catch on if these monks and nuns continually refuse to learn public speaking skills. Someone should invent a Buddhist Toastmasters.”

Then, I told myself to pay attention. When I did, I realized she was still talking about happiness from within. I hadn’t missed anything.

She eventually moved onto a new topic, telling us that we can’t change others. We can only change ourselves. She took about 15 more minutes to explain this. I know because I spent most of that time willing myself not to look at the clock, yet again, and continually losing the battle I was waging against my will.

About 45 minutes into the session, she got to the good stuff: how to like unlikable people. This is something that I’ve always struggled with. I believe in unconditional love, patience, understanding and acceptance as a concepts, but I have a hard time putting them all into practice, especially when I am surrounded by annoying people who don’t deserve my love, patience, or acceptance.

I’m going to paraphrase what the nun said next, because right around that time my butt started hurting in a really big way and I found it even harder to pay attention as that pins and needles sensation crept into my thigh and then my calf and eventually my foot. She said something to the effect of this: there are no bad people. Bad people are just figments of our imaginations. If I change my perception of bad people—by forcing myself to see them as good—they will stop being bad. They will stop being bad because they will be overwhelmed by my goodness and will jump right on to my goodness bandwagon.

Like I said, I’m paraphrasing a bit.

Then, she asked us to meditate on a phrase. It was something like, “I will hold others in at least the same high regard I hold myself. Other people desire happiness just as I desire happiness. I want happiness for others, just as I want it for myself.”

It was very nice, and as long as I didn’t specifically think about someone annoying, I found myself really believing it.

Then we were done.

As we walked out of the room, I realized I felt really good. I was happy, and not just because the class was finally over.

My friend asked me what I thought.

I said, “It was absolutely excruciating, but I think I got something out of it. So I’m coming back next week.”

What are your experiences with meditation? Leave a comment.

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mollie March 10, 2009 at 10:11 am

You sound like me. I’ve been trying to ‘get’ meditation for a few years now and my mind just never shuts off long enough to reach the ‘totally relaxed’ state. I’ll be all like aummmmm, what do I need to take out for dinner tonight, did I finish my homework, wonder if Matthew (The Editor) wants to go to the movies this weekend, etc and so on lol.

I’ve recently started a program called the New Hermetics that gives you CD recordings of an actual certified hypnotherapist and it’s supposed to help you get into that ‘altered state’ and although I can’t say I’ve reached it yet, it definitely helps and I’m getting there lol

Namaste =)

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Mollie March 10, 2009 at 10:45 am

Weird. There’s another Mollie? Wow. I have actually had success in Biofeedback. It seems to help you reach a state of “alert calm”. It has helped me with anxiety a lot. It seems very similar to meditation. Things don’t bother me like they used to.

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Allison O'Neill March 10, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Meditation is so important. Yes our minds can drift, but it doesnt mean you are wasting your time. I consider myself a good meditator, yet my mind still drifts. I still get amazing benefits, and as time goes on you do handle the mind drifting better. Dont give up!! Its so important! I wrote my take on it here: http://liveknowingthis.blogspot.com/2009/01/meditation-tool-for-super-successful.html

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Marilyn Bauman March 10, 2009 at 3:26 pm

I am very much a novice meditator. And I started late in life.

In the beginning, I had powerful experiences: my mother, father, aunt, and three dogs, all of whom have passed on, visited me; I saw a white light and a deep tunnel and felt, what my leader said is called, “bliss.” That felt so peaceful, perfect, and enticing I did not want to leave the meditative state (I even wondered if people ever did that: dug in and said “No way am I coming back to that other miserable world”).

Now, after a few months, I find the practice boring and predictable. Undaunted, I just signed up for an advanced session. I still hope to become less irritable, negative, and judgmental. I hope I have enough years left to achieve this.

Thank you Alisa for making me laugh. That, in itself, made me happy today.

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Tracy March 10, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Hilarious! I can so relate. I get an F-, too, but at least I think I get points for effort.

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Grace March 10, 2009 at 10:41 pm

If you expect meditation to help you win the argument with your mind, you will be waiting forever. :)

Meditation is an opportunity to allow everything to be exactly as it is. No argument, no fight. No trying to stop thinking (as if you could).

Minds think. That’s what they do. They’re very good at it. So just let your mind think. It’s all okay. Just allow your mind to do what it does and pay it no more attention than you’d pay the car driving past in the street.

What would it be like, right now in this moment, to stop arguing with your mind?

Enjoy!

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Kat March 10, 2009 at 11:15 pm

I laughed about the examples of your thoughts. I’ve thought the exact same thing, especially the one about getting high.

I’ve just never been able to get meditation. I tried for years. In the end I feel much more frustrated than I did to begin with because I feel like I wasted time just trying not to think about everything on my mind but ended up stressing about it anyhow. I find other things like a bath, reading or prayer (which I guess is a form of meditation) much more effective because I’m doing something or putting my mind to a specific non-stressful task. Maybe, when I’m older and less impatient I’ll try meditating again. For now, kittens work just fine.

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Amy L. Musgrave March 12, 2009 at 7:40 am

Me and ‘New Age’ – do they even call it that anymore? – do not mix. I am a give me a pill, that will work, kind of person. You would think after 10 years of trying pill after pill to make me happy I would try something new, this got me thinking, thank you! Plus, as always, I got my good morning laugh, I love your work and how you can reach people who are far far from being married. How about so far I am putting up with a guy who lives 3 hours from me (who I always have to visit) that I have been seeing for 8 months but will still not allow me to call him my boyfriend, although I do. Wow, I think that says a lot more about me….

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Sarah March 16, 2009 at 1:08 pm

I’ve meditated for years, although, I must admit…the more ‘pressure’ my life adds, the harder it is to find the quitness that a good meditation session requires. That being said, if I DON’T meditate for a few days in a row, I’m quite the brat. Meditation, for me, helps me center myself, calm myself, step out of myself and realize how much a part of everything else I am, and vice versa. A lot of people can’t meditate, and I understand that, I’ve been doing it for years and sometimes, it is difficult. But, it is so worth it. I’d recommend you keep trying, because I promise that NOTHING on this earth beats a good meditation session! NOTHING! That being said, thanks for sharing your honesty, again. Different strokes for different folks and this post helped me understand why some people have a hard time with meditating. Thanks! God Bless Always!
-Sarah

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Meditation Bliss April 28, 2009 at 8:58 am

I Really Love Reading Your Blog. Excellent. Keep up the great work!

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Peter Dobson February 1, 2010 at 3:31 am

I found this post very edifying. thankyou very much!

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