3 Reasons Why Meditation Isn’t For You
Without question, Siddhartha Gautama, known today as The Buddha, takes the prize for being the worst meditation student in history.
It’s one of the reasons we remember him most–thousands of others before and after him reached “Enlightenment”. Gautama simply took it to the very outer edges of the extreme.
After seeing through the luxuries and comforts of his princely upbringing, he spent years seeking teacher after teacher, pushing ascetic practices to their limit, and coming but a breath away from death’s door—on more than one occasion.
You could say he was an ‘all in’ type of guy. He often wore rags that he found in graveyards, slept on beds of thorns, and, when he was feeling extra frisky, meditated among corpses. He held his breath until he felt violent pains in his ears, head, and the rest of his body, until he passed out. He lived on one grain of rice a day for a while, then nothing at all. His physical appearance at the height of his wild behavior was said to be of a living skeleton: his eyes like stones in deep wells, his legs like bamboo sticks, his skin discolored, his spine almost visible through his stomach.
His flesh body all but shutting down, the day finally came when Gautama decided to throw out all the fancy teachings and rigorous asceticism and eat some rice pudding, courtesy of a young girl who was passing by (after one look at him, she insisted). He reflected that all the self-punishment and seeking out of extremes hadn’t brought him any closer to Enlightenment. And with this understanding, he realized the path to awakening was the ‘Middle Way’—somewhere between the strict rituals of the ascetics and the indulgence of his former royal life.
While gradually recovering his strength, Gautama remembered how as a child he sat under a rose-apple tree on a beautiful day and spontaneously entered a deep meditative state. Thinking this sounded much more beneficial for his emaciated frame than a bed of thorns, Gautama somewhat renounced his quest and collapsed under a fig tree. His five companions had already long left him after seeing him eat solid food (pfft, some friends), and it was here, alone under the Bodhi Tree, that Gautama finally awakened to see the true nature of reality.
And there you have it: six years of ardent practice, hundreds if not thousands of hours of self-mortification, bazillions of past lives, and one night under a tree (some say one, some say as many as 45). There’s no denying Gautama was a gifted person, but it’s equally if not truer to say he was a massive loser. However, as he would be quick to point out (or not, as he taught to find everything out for yourself), failure isn’t a mark on your character and success, but rather the opposite. In the case of awakening, more marks mean more dispelled illusions and more deadwood carved away, so in the end you’re left with the ultimate, indestructible, ever-present truth that remains.
Even from this brief and largely patchworked account of his life, you can see that at any moment Gautama could have conceded, bowing his head and sighing, “Well, this meditation stuff just isn’t for me”. Maybe after the eleventh or twelfth time of passing out. But the reality is, as the Buddha already had a good idea of but later came to fully embrace, if meditation isn’t for one person, it isn’t for anyone. For, if we are interdependent beings, it cannot be in one person’s nature to wake up and realize what they are, if not the next.
“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” —Thích Nhat Hanh
As he isn’t a God but just an ordinary guy who woke up to what he was, I’m sure Gautama won’t mind me saying that he was a bit of a lab rat—a sort of test dummy for Enlightenment. After growing up within the safety and tranquility of the palace walls, the pain and suffering of the outside world hit him like a ton of bricks. Like living in light your whole life then suddenly being subjected to darkness, this paradigm-shattering contrast clearly made a deep gouge in his psyche and set in motion the transformation in his consciousness that would ultimately take place.
You could refute this idea as nothing but hypothetical rigmarole and say that what his Enlightenment actually came down to was the prophecy put upon him before his birth, based on a dream his mum had about a white elephant with six tusks entering her womb. But it’s likely that even he would beg to differ, reminding us that, “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”
So, if there’s one lesson that should be taken from the Buddha’s life, apart from that holding your breath for too long is a bad idea, it’s that you, me, and even that colleague who you swear is Satan can master meditation and wake up too. Any barriers you come up against, the sort of deceptions that manifest as unencouraging beliefs like “Meditation just isn’t for me,” or, “I’m just not that type of person”, are simply more illusions to dispel based on ideas that would be better thrown away.
That being said, today it can seem like there’s so many barriers to meditating that the whole path to awakening is reserved only for mountain-top recluses who live in silence and celibacy and who don’t have Facebook accounts. But thanks to the Buddha and his Middle Way, we know that’s simply not true. You don’t need to go on a 30-day silent retreat, spend 10 days in darkness, and give up social media to truly get what meditation is about. With just a little bit of insight and understanding—and practice, of course—your meditation can suddenly shift gears and blast you through the glass ceiling of awakening.
Get the rice pud ready: here are three of the most common barriers that can make you think meditation isn’t for you, along with what you can do to overcome them like a true Buddha.
1. You live in a society that exists for tomorrow, and so you never actually arrive
From the moment we‘re born, we take our place in the futile donkey-and-carrot game: constantly grasping for something we’ll never reach and continually preparing for a day that will never come.
Go to school. Get good grades. Go to college. Get a good job. Get married. Get a promotion. Get a better job. Get a bigger house, get a better car, get a more beautiful partner. As philosopher Alan Watts puts it, we’re faced with “a life problem which is insoluble, and therefore attended by constant frustration. And as a result of this problem being insoluble, it is perpetually postponed to the future”. The fruits of the cycle provide us with just enough relief to keep it turning but never bring true satisfaction. Commonly translated from Sanskrit as suffering, this scenario is the embodiment of Dukkha: the unsatisfactoriness and difficulty that comes from going through life with an unbalanced center—like a wheel with a dodgy, misaligned axel hole.
“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” —Alan Watts
Inevitably, when you try and slow down for a moment in this dynamic and just be, you can encounter crashing waves of guilt, doubt, fear, anxiety and every other unpleasant and disorientating feeling you can imagine. The shadows and ripples of these waves are even enough to keep you close to the safety of the familiar but unfulfiling shore. When it comes to meditation, this means instead of diving head-first and butt-naked into the murky, treacherous unknown, you are more likely to paddle in the shallow end and simply have a nice time: “That meditation session was good, I feel so relaxed”.
Along with the fact that tomorrow never comes, if living in modern-day Western society has taught us anything it’s that such superficial feelings never last. They only exist in relation to each other, as two sides of the same coin—relaxation is the result of stress, happiness the consequence of sadness, etc. Meditation is about going beyond such dualistic concepts, stepping off the ever-turning wheel of Samsara, and discovering you don’t need to do anything, go anywhere, or even buy the latest iPhone to be content. Like a vast ocean to a drying up creek, your nature is unlimited by time and unaffected by thoughts and emotions—you just need to return to the source to realize it.
2. You’ve been told about it a million times, but never truly heard it
If meditation transcends ideas, concepts, and language, why would anyone think it could be transmuted back into words and explained? It‘d be like Picasso painting a masterpiece and then describing it to you over the phone. Or Beethoven writing a composition and sharing it through a game of charades. Or, to stretch the metaphor a little further, Einstein discovering the theory of relativity and explaining it by doing a little dance.
As expected, great artists and musicians display years of practice and understanding through the medium in which they work: paint, sculpture, composition, song. In the same way, then, great teachers of meditation should convey their years of practice and understanding through the medium in which they work: life. It seems obvious, yet every other day someone releases a book or audio course on the matter claiming that they are the ones with The Answer. And try searching Amazon for writings on meditation and you get well over 100,000 results.
When Beethoven graced the stage and conducted the 5th Symphony, or even when Rihanna gets up and performs Work, they don’t spend half the time with their heads in their notes. They forget everything, including all their hard work and themselves, giving up to something much greater than them both put together. Enjoying Rihanna’s twerk action or the rhythm of Beethoven’s 5th requires a much more holistic and dynamic field of awareness than does the linear, sequential world of words. Similarly to how you’d find it impossible to appreciate a meal at a Michelin Star restaurant by merely chewing on the menu.
“To accept some idea of truth without experiencing it is like a painting of a cake on paper which you cannot eat.” —Suzuki Roshi
It only makes sense, then, that the reality in which everything is embedded requires not another book or podcast to understand it, but nothing less than your whole field of awareness—beyond the six senses that include sight, touch, and thought-forms. It’s why anyone who tells you they know The Truth or that they can explain what meditation is really all about, is lying. If reality is anything, it is unknowable. So that means the study of it, meditation, is similarly inexplicable—imagine the impossibility of describing to Rihanna how to compose like Beethoven, or better yet, explaining to Beethoven how to twerk like Rihanna. The school of Zen Buddhism gets closest to this point with its tradition of koans. Koans are stories or questions designed to push the mind to and beyond its limitations, for example, “What is this?”, a popular koan from the Korean Zen tradition.
“Try to imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up… now try to imagine what it was like to wake up having never gone to sleep.” —Alan Watts
In the West, we find koans especially tricky as we’re so accustomed to engaging in cognitive inquiry: “What is this thing? What’s that guy looking at?” And as a result, we believe that nothing can be known beyond intellectual knowing. The unknown is labeled simply as ‘what we don’t know’ and put into another box as if it were another piece of knowledge of a particular shape. And we stop there. Meditation is about inquiring into and exploring what we don’t know—to viscerally feel and experience the infinite. It makes sense that to truly ‘hear’ what the infinite is with the whole of your being, you’ve got to ask the unanswerable—“What is nothing? Who am I? What came before everything?”—and trust in the process, as with music or art, to work its mysterious magic.
3. You know everything that meditation is, but not what it’s not
Meditation is like Fight Club. When you join, there’s a few strict rules you must stick to unless you want to wind up dead in a dark alley. I mean, waste your time. The first is that life is dukkha/suffering—LIFE IS SUFFERING!–as Tyler Durden might say. It involves pain, grief, loss, illness, heartbreak, stubbed toes and everything else that makes it at times intolerable.
The second is that the source of suffering is tanha, translated as craving and desire, and Upadana, clinging and attachment. The third rule tells us that it’s possible to put an end to suffering. And the fourth rule lays out The Eightfold Path—how to get there.
But like Fight Club, there’s also a set of underlying principles that govern these surface-level rules: a mutual understanding that needs to exist for everything else to make sense. In Fight Club, the underground bare-knuckle fighting franchise is made up of people who’re sick of living under the restraints of a conformist society that’s driven by fear and predicated on the false idea that more stuff and more control is the answer to all life’s problems. This context is what makes it cool to punch someone in the face until their teeth fall out, without someone calling the police or a full-scale riot breaking out.
In meditation, the idea is similar but deeper still: the nature of our being, our Buddha-nature, soul, true self, or whatever you want to call it, is interconnected with everyone and everything at all times. This deeply-rooted certainty is what makes it cool to talk about the fact that “you” don’t exist, that everything is essentially meaningless, and that you are God, without falling into a deep depression or having to start a cult.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” — Tyler Durden
So, within the context of Buddhist philosophy, when you hear rule one, that life is suffering, you understand—or are at least aware—that you have a life built around an individual self that is an ‘illusion’. A sense of separateness and identity that appears to be real but is not what it seems—like a magic trick that causes you to mistake what is seen for what is true.
In the same way, when you’re told that desire is bad and not to cling to people and things, you don’t give up on your relationships and restrain yourself from all pleasure, you recognize the non-attachment that is inherent in all things to begin with. In order to have attachment, there needs to be separation and a self to attach to things. But if you wake up to the fact that you are everyone and everything, there’s nothing apart from you that could make you any more complete.
Perhaps the biggest unwritten tenant that underpins meditation, however, is that of the unknown—the mystery behind the mystery. In Buddhism, this is given the name of shunyata or emptiness. Emptiness is the context is which all things come into being—the formless that gives rise to the form, the nothingness that gives rise to somethingness, the darkness that gives rise to the light. But this is where most people get caught up, stuck in a pit of apathy and meaninglessness. Real emptiness is much more (or much less, depending on how you look at it) than it first appears.
“Emptiness which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness is in fact the reservoir of infinite possibilities.” ―D.T. Suzuki
For there to be form and the formless, something and nothing, good and bad, large and small, there needs to be something that precedes them all—the source of everything, including nothing. In Chinese, this is called the Tao. And although “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”, as Lao Tzu explains, whole books—including many by him—have been written to attempt to describe what it is, or, more accurately, what it’s not.
The Tao takes the Buddhist idea of Shunyata a step further as it says: everything you think emptiness is, it is not. In doing this, it strips any notions of apathy and nihilism away, pointing out that if it can be thought of or imagined, it is not it. As something (nothing) that is infinite and unlimited, it doesn’t have any characteristics or boundaries to define it by or latch on to. But there’s also another reason.
Whether you realize it or not, you are already in touch with the Tao. In fact, you cannot get out of touch with it; you are it. And like getting smacked in the face by a topless checkout assistant in Fight Club, that truth can’t be conveyed in a book, a talk, or any other concepts or representations. You have to experience it directly.
Meditation is the practice of stripping away everything that stops you from seeing this Truth and waking up to what you already know. So don’t be fooled, the very fact that someone like Gautama mastered meditation and woke up is living proof that everyone, especially you, can do it too. All you have to do is see the subtle but liberating Truth that there’s nothing really to do or wake up to.