“I panicked, I just couldn’t lie there anymore, I had to move and didn’t know what to do,” said one of the guests in the group I was teaching on a yoga and meditation retreat out in France this past week.
The group had been led through a half hour guided relaxation exercise, based on the ancient yogic practice of Yoga Nidra. Afterwards, we came together and sat down to share experiences. “Why did you panic? Were you experiencing back pain?” I ask her, knowing she had spells of back pain after herniating some lower discs a few years’ ago.“No, I didn’t have pain. I just felt like I couldn’t lie there anymore. I had to move and do something.” “Did you know you were completely calm and relaxed for the first 15 minutes of the guided relaxation?” “Was I?” she replied with real surprise, “I can never normally keep still for that long. Was I really?”
This guest on the retreat is a strong, successful, attractive woman, high up in her job in academia, in a loving relationship and has an idyllic home. She is also a long time practitioner of yoga. So why the need to pull away when drawn into stillness?
Her response to the Yoga Nidra (which others had found mostly relaxing, with some even reporting they felt they were taken to another dimension) did not surprise me and got me reflecting on the times we live in and just how hard it is for many… to be still.
This became a recurring topic throughout out yoga and mediation retreat week and not just on the yoga mat. In fact, at nearly every lunch and dinner time, when we would be all sitting along a long table and sharing a meal with no hurriedness or agenda, a conversation would arise relating to things like, attention spans, how to find ‘more time’ in our lives for stress-relieving practices or things we want to do for our wellbeing and the feeling of being caught up in a life that seems to be accelerating faster than ever before and is beyond our control.
Among many a discussion had, we talked about: long working hours, commutes to and from work, juggling family and work, the expectations of women to be family carers and workers (and fabulous lovers… all at the same time), ‘breadwinners’, the emotional life of men, how we get our news, how much we should keep ourselves informed on what’s going on in the world as well as how much to stay connected and informed with others in our life, the choices we make that impact our energy, the addiction to mobile phones, the effect of technology and social media on children, families, couples, relationships and friendships, cooking versus buying-in, vegetarianism in places where a vegetarian diet is not the norm, compromising on where you want to live based on what you can afford and your workplace and meeting a new partner who lives in a different place, and how to find ‘quiet’ somewhere… anywhere!
On the last night of the retreat I was asked the question I was waiting for: “Why is sitting to meditate so hard? Even for a few minutes?”
“Well, if we look at it, who wouldn’t want to pause for a little while in their day, and just be who they are, and not have to fulfil any expectations, and relax with your breath. It’s pleasurable just hearing being in that state, isn’t it?” The group agreed.
“And now we have all the science to back up the amazing benefits of slowing down and practising a bit of stillness on a regular basis. Yet, why is it so hard to do this? You raise a key question.”
My thoughts that I shared were as follows.
The actual ‘doing the meditating bit’ can be confusing because of all the associations and different advice given about it. For example, the idea that you must clear your mind, or that you must focus on one thing only, or you must follow this mantra, or you must do that, and not do this, and do it at this time, and for X amount of time. There’s also been a mass proliferation of schools and techniques, and meditation empires built via social media (!) promising the way they teach you meditation will make you happy, healthier, and even richer. As with the yoga industry, the explosion of popularity of meditation can lead to too much of a good thing that leads to mainly surface experimentation rather than sticking with one thing and going deeper and staying with the challenges.
The other reason is that most people believe they need to do something else instead, to fulfil something or to find enjoyment through the senses or to spend time with others, rather than sit quietly with nothing. The ‘I don’t have the time’, or ‘if it’s a choice between doing something like meditation and spending an extra 20 minutes with my kids, it’s a no brainer for me’.
I often here other responses like this: “I’d much rather move my body, or feel some movement or exercise as I know I always feel much better afterwards”.
And then others are just honest about their feelings on it and say they can’t find a value in sitting quietly, or they get bored or too restless.
So here’s the thing. The very act of choosing to pause in the day or night requires a decisiveness an is an act of courage as it goes against the grain of our modern, ‘you are what you do and what you can show to the world’ age we live.
Sitting quietly doesn’t tick any modern fulfilment boxes. Even when you know internally it has helped you, benefitting you physically, emotionally, mentally, that seems to be not enough to get the ‘act’ to happen. If sport or say even something like yoga felt good but you had nothing to show for it or feel physically from it, people will probably not turn to it so readily or at all.
When you do choose to act and bring yourself to press pause, it’s not all plain sailing. This is true.
Even monks who live mountains or yogis who live in caves can’t escape the natural human response to… to think and have feelings in response to those thoughts.
In Yoga they have a fantastic way of defining the mind (or manas as it’s called); they say manas isn’t just a thought, it’s a reflection and outcome of every emotional, memory, sense-driven, cognitive experience, impulse, desire, tendency and conditioning you’ve ever had and are having in any given moment. So yep… how on earth do you quieten down all that?
When and if you do choose to act to pause, that doesn’t just happen for most if not all of us. Internally when you are faced with your inner landscape….. or your mind… there is a lot to face there! All those impulses and impressions and memories surface. Hell, far better to go the gym, eat tortillas, stick on the Netflix, buy something, be deliberately creative, attend to important work, kick back on the sofa with your loved one, or tell yourself your kids will be better off if you give them an 10 extra minutes of your time rather than pause and do nothing, right?
Because it’s not a question of ‘instead of’ doing those things. It’s a question of adding into your life something that will sustain your wellbeing in the here and now as well as the rest of your life.
When you sit quietly and face and navigate whatever arises, without having to solve or fix anything, that very act and process helps us deal with whatever challenges arise in life, from major losses and stress factors to every day responsibilities. It helps us sleep and digest better. It helps us be more present to the activities we engage in, and present to an intuition that will tell us what is in our best interest and what isn’t.
True, there are some schools of meditation that will say their tradition wants you to eventually have fewer thoughts and reactions, that you will be more balanced and unattached.
To this, another great enquiry was asked by a guest on the retreat. “I’m generally a well balanced person. I rarely lose it. For whatever reason, I feel even in my emotions and thoughts even when in stressful situations. I also like being on it and sharp. Why do I need to meditate? What is the point of it really for someone like me?”
Well, I say, just the very act of choosing to be still for a few minutes, each day, is the act each one of us can take to counter the very over stimulated, fastness, fullness, productivity-driven, resource-intensive, aesthetically and materially minded society that we all live in. The very pattern of society that gets in the way of us finding our own wellbeing is precisely what sitting quietly for a while is both the antidote and remedy to.
The guest’s response when I pushed her a little further on her experience of the Yoga Nidra seems significant.
“Ok, so you love the yoga physical practice,” I said. “But sitting or lying still for a while makes you uncomfortable. What do you think lies beneath that”?”
“Because…” her voice trailed a bit, “because I am not accomplishing anything, even in my head when I am focused and still at work, I am organising or planning or creating something and that feels productive and helpful”.
I could list all those science-backed reasons here for ‘why you should meditate’.
I could pass on those messages you see in social media memes, telling you to be peaceful, be happy, love yourself.
I could signpost you to impressive apps, links, books, workshops, courses to entice you to learn how to be still.
But really none of that will make a real difference until you believe yourself that you can do something radical and brave, and not just for yourself but for the entire world we live in. Which is… to sit quietly with yourself and be ok with that, just as you are, for a little while.
(Then we can talk about benefits, tools and what happens later….).