Of the eight limbs of yoga, four — pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and that ever elusive mistress, samahdi — are forms of meditation. Clearly, Patanjali thought meditation was kind of important and who am I to argue with a great sage?
Lately, though, I’ve been asking myself: why? Why should I meditate? My goal-oriented, Type A, pitta self keeps asking for some sort of tangible return on investment. I am just not sure I am experiencing any discernible benefit.
When I think about the benefits of meditation as they’ve been explained to me, I would put them in three general categories:
- Domesticating our “monkey” minds, putting them on a leash and learning to more effectively manage them;
- Cultivating an increased sense of calm;
- As a path to enlightenment or greater spiritual connection.
My personal objective for practicing meditation is behind door number three: I am seeking a sense of being connected to the Universe; communion with, dare I say it, God (whatever that means).
In lieu of a one-on-one with the almighty, though, I’ll gladly take any other cool, metaphysical phenomenon that might occur during my practice. I was envious, for example, when a friend told me about the time he saw his deceased father sitting in the room with him as he meditated. I gather it was not in a spooky, Sixth Sense kind of way, but a peaceful, beautiful experience. That’s the kind of thing I am after.
Though I’ve never experienced anything on that level, back in the day, I did have a variety of interesting things happen during my meditation. Sometimes, I would lose feeling in my hands. Other times, I would experience a sense of falling. Occasionally, I would start crying or laughing. None of these things happen much anymore.
In his book, “A Path with Heart,” Jack Kornfield advises against getting too caught up in striving for these experiences:
“The value of transcendent states is the great inspiration and compelling vision that they can bring to our lives…But their dangers and misuses are equally great…the drama, the body sensations, rapture and visions all can become addictive and actually increase the craving and suffering in our life. The most pervasive danger of all is the myth that these experiences will utterly transform us; that from a moment of ‘enlightenment’ or transcendence, our life will be wholly changed for the better. This is rarely true, and attachment to these experiences can easily lead to complacency, hubris, and self-deception.”
OK, Jack, duly noted. I’ll happily focus on the benefits of #2 and #3 from the list instead. My monkey mind is quite rascally and I certainly have a tendency to get all wound up on a pretty regular basis. Learning to manage my mind and creating some inner peace are definitely priorities for my practice. At the moment, though, I am bemoaning a perceived lack of “progress” on any of these fronts.
While recounting my struggles to a friend a few months ago, she mentioned Headspace a web-based meditation program, to me. I checked it out in the hopes that it might get me back on track.
I highly recommend Headpsace. It doesn’t hurt that Andy Puddicombe, the voice and vision of the program, is not only an ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk — there are few more credible sources than a monk, in my book — but also has a dreamy British accent (is it weird that I just used the word “monk” and “dreamy” to describe the same person?).
I went through the initial 10 day program and, of course, signed up (and paid) for the next 10 days and the 10 after that. Now I am in what Andy calls “phase three of the Headspace journey.” He begins each session with a discussion of the benefits we are likely seeing at this point. I want to yell at Andy through my iPad, “Hey! I am still struggling!” I don’t feel noticeably calmer or more mindful as I go about my day, as he suggests I might at this point. So, am I a Headspace fail?
In the past, when I was feeling a bit more confident about meditation, I was of the opinion that it’s not particularly productive to judge the practice; that whatever happens on our mats is the practice. As long as you are sitting and bringing your awareness back to your anchor – breath, mantra, Andy’s voice, whatever – you are meditating, even if you have to bring your awareness back every other second, as is happening to me. I am trying to listen to the wise, knowing voice of my former meditative self. But I still feel like it should be easier and that I should recognize positive changes resulting from my practice.
In light of my meditation crisis of faith, I reached out to a few of my yoga friends to get a sense of others’ experience. And I got very helpful feedback. In the coming days, I’ll post some of what they shared with me. I was not only reassured but also encouraged. Spoiler alert: I am going to keep on trucking with my meditation practice. Hopefully, the advice and anecdotes I’ll share will help those of us with a current practice as well as those who are interested in starting one. So stay tuned for more.
And, in the meantime, if you’ve got any guidance about meditation — or if, like me, you want to kvetch about your challenges — share away!
 Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life p. 121