A recent Psychology Today story summarized the benefits of meditation with an almost exasperated tone: “if a pharmaceutical company developed a medicine akin to meditation — providing such broad health benefits with so few side effects — it would probably be treated like fluoride and placed in the nation’s water supply.” Just do it, you idiot.
As the story outlined, meditation can lower blood pressure, improve nervous system function, and enhance emotional regulation. Less quantifiably, from my understanding, meditation can steady a broken heart, open doors of self-knowledge, and promote calmness and equanimity.
Science journalist Robert Wright’s 2017 book Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment got me meditating for a few weeks when it came out. I liked Wright’s funny, practical, and warmly grumpy tone (this opinion piece in the New York Times is a good example), and then there was also his author photo, in which he’s half-smiling and looking sort of resigned and endearingly goofy. I also liked how on a podcast he described getting mesmerized by tree bark during the heights of a meditation retreat. (“I have found myself almost literally, at the risk of discrediting myself entirely, almost literally caressing a tree.”) I appreciated the short meditation sessions he inspired me to try (using the Headspace app), but they didn’t stick.
Why? Increasingly I wonder if it’s a loneliness thing — if sinking into solitude (i.e., if meditating at home, alone) is the problem. And then there’s the off-putting tone that some meditation content can have — a sort of “behold me” vibe, or a quietly superior tone, that can offset the appeal of the information. On another note, I think I also resist meditation out of a complicated fear of being left behind. Reading about meditation sometimes gives me a sense that others are unlocking deeper and deeper rooms of consciousness. It doesn’t really make sense, but the fear is that I’d fail to catch up, so why bother trying.
“You’re afraid that other people are ahead of you on the path to enlightenment?” Wright asked, recently, when I tried to describe this to him. “Yes,” I said. (“It’s like being afraid of the after-party-party?” he said. Yes, I said. Exactly.) Wright agreed that meditation advocates “can sound obnoxious,” and he even outlined two distinct strains: “There’s the old stereotype about meditation, which is like ‘kumbaya, granola, Northern California,’ and that can be off-putting. The new obnoxious is the corporate, ‘I’m meditating, I’m seven percent more efficient’ variety.”
Wright said he’d encourage people to not think of either of those stereotypes as role models. To not think of the goal as becoming more productive, and to also not think of the destination point as “winding up at Esalen.” He recommended focusing instead on “becoming maybe a little calmer, and having somewhat more insight into your own self and your own motivational structure. And to gain some increment of self-mastery,” even if it’s just to more deeply question the motivation behind favoriting or retweeting something. “I do think these things pay off in various ways,” he said. “If I didn’t think it would make the world a better place to do this, I wouldn’t spend time evangelizing.”
I enjoyed our conversation and agreed with everything he was saying, but I still don’t meditate. Why do we resist things that seem to be good for us? Are we afraid? Are we, on some level, not actually convinced? Is some inner calculator running numbers, and do they subconsciously not add up? Is there even a fear of it succeeding? Maybe meditation is like doing the KonMari method — in her book, Marie Kondo noted that after decluttering their houses, many of her clients went on to leave their marriages, or their jobs, or other, non-home-related things. Freed of unnecessary items, they were often able to look more critically at their lives (this sort of happened to me once, too — I KonMari’ed and abruptly moved out of state).
Maybe it’s the same with meditation, and I’d be forced to sit with myself and realize I need to make big changes, and I’m not ready. Or maybe I’m just lazy and afraid of being still. Maybe I’m afraid of the emptiness at the center of my life, the meaningless of my own existence, the lack of love and connection in my life, the infrequency of joy, the memory of the kind of laughter I used to experience. Maybe it’s a fear of death. Maybe I have no idea, but still it seems strange that there’s this thing I’m attracted to but don’t pick up. Maybe it’s a fear of being too touchy-feely, of losing a sense of humor and lightness about everything.