Yesterday at work I attended my first mindfulness class and the result was very unexpected: I came out of there annoyed and sad, not quite the peaceful and serene person I usually am after a meditation class. Wondering why?
I have been practicing meditation (mostly vipasana and zazen) for over 3 years now and have heard a lot about mindfulness, but never tried it. I do however occasionally use some of the techniques taught as part of the mindfulness programme, such as body scan and fully experiencing a regular routine – eating, walking, etc. What I discovered at my first mindfulness class was a real shock and made me want to absolutely write this blogpost to check that I wasn’t the only one to feel this way.
Mindfulness: the discovery
The person giving the class isn’t a professional meditation teacher and that’s just fine. She turned on some programme with a voice and music to ‘guide’ us during the mindfulness, which I thought was really awkward since she was around and could or should have guided us instead.
The next 30 minutes were spent by all the people around me lying on blankets. I had taken my zafu, expecting a meditation class. The voice invited us to breathe in and breathe out at a regular pace and after a couple of minutes where we were told not to focus on our thoughts and just let them float by, the voice told us that we were in a garden, with the lawn freshly mown, a fountain, birds chirping, etc.
After this visit to our ‘secret inner garden’ (sic), we were told to focus on one of the thoughts we had previously and to look into it in more detail, spend time on it, trying to solve a problem or find an answer to a question we had.
The session ended by going back to the secret garden and then into the breathing in and out which eventually led us back into the ‘real’ world.
Mindfulness: the scam
Now let me tell you why I think the whole session was a scam and why I believe mindfulness is to meditation what McDonald’s is to gastronomy. This article is purposedly a bit provocative because my secret hope is that there will be people out there to tell me that this is NOT what mindfulness is about and the above class was just a bad joke.
1. Meditation is NOT relaxation
If you want to relax, you lie down and have a nap, or you just enjoy swinging in a hammock while doing nothing. You cannot meditate lying and this for two basic reasons: if you lie down, you send signals to your body which then goes into a state of sleepiness, thus preventing you from taking your meditation one step further into the exploration of your consciousness; and you disrupt the flow of energy which moves vertically along your spine, from the sky to the Earth and vice versa.
2. Meditation is NOT about thinking
The whole idea of focusing on an idea and benefitting from your state of enhanced consciousness (not that you could arrive there by listening to computer-generated bird chirpings) to progress on this idea or solve an issue has nothing to do with meditation. Meditation is about moving beyond thinking, to reach a higher degree of consciousness where you don’t think anymore with your head (it’s just an image for us Europeans, Asians for example think with their heart), but with your whole body, and even beyond your own body with the outside world when you reach a certain level of practice.
3. Meditation is NOT about telling you how you should feel
I was quite shocked when at some point the voice we were following said “you feel a great sense of peace”. Meditation lets people explore at their own rhythm the emotions that are triggered by the exercise they are working on, whether it is not thinking, focusing on a mantra or opening up chakras. If you hear someone in a meditation class tell you how you should be feeling right now, run away!
4. Meditation is NOT about listening (even to a computer)
States of altered consciousness can be induced through different techniques, including guided meditation. But mindfulness, at least the way I have experienced it and read about it, doesn’t let you freely explore this state of altered consciousness because it keeps you busy listening to what the person says. I find nothing more annoying than to enter this altered state and to be interrupted every 30 seconds by a voice saying that now I should be doing this or that, feeling this or that. Instructions for meditation should always be provided before you meditate, never during.
I’m not saying there should never be guidance when you practice spiritual exercises. In Hindu tradition, especially in tantrism, there are guided exercises called visualisations, often with Cali in the lead role. These exercises are not considered as meditation though, but as part of what a yogi needs to undertake for the purification of his ‘atman’ (soul or self in sanskrit).
5. Meditation is NOT a nice break in your busy life
Although I have always felt replenished, serene and humbled after practicing meditation, there are often times during meditation where I feel like shit – because sitting in lotus or seiza position for an hour is though, because my back hurts, because I feel like I’m not focusing enough, because I can’t open one of my chakras, because I’m not aligned with my inner self.
Not once did the mindfulness programme put me in an uncomfortable spot. For those who only ever know meditation through mindfulness, I am really sad for you about all that you are missing. You are being served the Walmart’s version of meditation. Meditation is not fun, it’s not cool and it’s not easy.
Meditation is hard work, hard on your body, hard on yourself. It’s about asking yourself the essential questions: who am I, why am I here, do I need to be, am I more than ‘I’, why do I need to stay in this body when I feel connected to something much bigger out there beyond my body, etc. (add here some of the deeper questions that meditation triggers for you).
So for all those that do mindfulness and are absolutely thrilled by it, how it makes you feel fantastic and that you are so much more productive after, great, please go on (at least you’re not killing lions or selling weapons while practicing mindfulness), go to your mindfulness class and then go back to work, take a stroll in the mall, have a nice dinner in front of the television and numb your brain and your body with as much junk as you can, in total mindfulness.
As for me, at my next meditation, I will just forget about all this and enjoy not being there 🙂
PS: in looking for an image to illustrate my article, I decided to move away from all the cliche visuals that usually illustrate mindfulness articles, the stones, the smiling faces and the yoga mats, and to show you what meditation can be instead.