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.