How To Talk To Your Friends About Meditation.
Without boring them to tears.
We’ve all been there. You have a friend or a loved one whose life you know would be changed by meditation, but however many hints you drop they just don’t seem interested. Short of forcibly signing them up to a three-month silent retreat, how can you rescue them from their emotionally reactive, spiritually inconsequential existence?
Thanks to a rich and storied history of messing up this exact situation, I feel uniquely qualified to share some lessons I learned along the way. The path of spreading enlightenment is not an easy one, but there are some pitfalls you can avoid as you walk it.
Pick your moment aka, don’t be annoying.
There’s a reason why people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses have become living, breathing synonyms for irritating behaviour. They turn up unannounced and uninvited, they’re incapable of listening to any perspective other than their own, and if at first they don’t succeed, they try and try (and try) again. Most right-minded people come to the conclusion that if these people represent whatever it is they’re preaching, they’re better off without it.
Whatever you do, don’t be that guy or girl who is constantly trying to convert your friends. The harder you try to persuade people, even if you’re genuinely trying to help, the more likely they are to run a mile from whatever you’re peddling.
If you think that meditation would be beneficial, explain why as clearly as possible. Do so in a way which is specific to the person you’re talking to. If appropriate, you could invite them to meditate with you if they feel like giving it a go. Put the ball in their court, and leave it there.
As old as it is, meditation is full of new ideas.
Imagine being a fitness enthusiast in the early days of exercise. I’m talking about the days when people would have thought you were crazy for running in place on a treadmill or lifting heavy weights for no reason. The days when doctors still recommended cigarettes on TV.
Now imagine talking about VO2Max and High-Intensity Interval Training to those people. You probably wouldn’t get too far. Most people had never thought about physical exercise at all, and they certainly didn’t know (or care) about the high-level effects it has on the body.
Similarly, most people won’t be too receptive to ideas like the dissolution of the self, or the illusion of free will. Not only will they sound strange to somebody with no frame of reference for them, but they’ll likely sound off-putting.
Explain the benefits of meditation in clear, simple language based on how it relates to the person you’re talking to. Don’t expect them to grasp concepts they’ve never heard of before. There’s always a bit of a lag for new ideas. Even new ideas that are thousands of years old.
Talk about what it does, not what it is.
Given that meditation is such a rich practice and there are so many different approaches, it can be tempting to try to cover all the bases. Maybe you want to talk about vipassana meditation, but then it occurs to you to mention metta too. Of course, you’d be remiss if you didn’t at least touch on koans and walking meditation. Once you’ve gone that far, you might as well cover chanting and zazen. Meanwhile, you fail to notice that your audience’s eyes are glazing over.
If your friend isn’t immediately interested in meditation already, I promise you they aren’t interested in the intricacies of the eightfold path, or the life and times of the Buddha. With any new idea, the question that’s uppermost on people’s minds is “what’s in it for me?” Talk about how meditation has helped you, how you think it might help them, and leave it at that.
At a push, mention that there are many different approaches to meditation, just in case they don’t feel like the method they try first is a good fit. Let them ask you for more information if they want it.
Mind your language.
Just as unhelpful as speaking too technically, is speaking in a way which is too esoteric. Zen koans and paradoxical spiritual doublespeak might sound like wisdom in certain circles, but for most people in the West, it sounds, to put it as politely as possible, pretentious.
Many spiritual seekers reach a point where they seem to delight in being confused by enigmatic metaphors and obscure, impenetrable riddles, but most people still appreciate precision and simplicity. Analogies are useful, but real-world examples are better. If you happen to be speaking to somebody who is scientifically minded, there are plenty of well-designed studies which support the many benefits of meditation practice,
Remember, complexity should never be a substitute for actual wisdom. If you can’t explain something clearly enough that a child can understand it, you don’t understand it.
Be an example.
For experienced meditators, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that sitting still and trying to think about nothing is a strange thing to do. Talking about how your half-hour meditation seemed to pass by in an instant or how calm you feel afterwards will, at best, make people think of meditation as some sort of spiritual Lexapro, and at worst as a waste of time.
Rather than presenting a list of benefits, isn’t it better that you embody the benefits so clearly that they can see them for themselves? Sure, you can talk about feeling calm and centred, but it’s better if they can see what that looks like for themselves. As we writers like to say; show, don’t tell.
To repeat the comparison with fitness, be the person who shows up one day looking so fabulous that everyone wants to know what your secret is. Express the benefits of meditation in your own life. Be calm, be kind, be patient, be a living example of what meditation offers, not just a salesperson trying to convince people how great it is.
Resist the temptation to oversell.
Depending on who you speak to, the rewards of meditation include the ability to speak to trans-dimensional beings, perfect knowledge of the nature of the universe and the ability to halt the ageing process. Well-known spiritual teachers make all sorts of fantastical claims about what meditation can offer, and I think these claims serve only to deter laypeople from taking the practice seriously.
All too often, the ability to talk about the nature of the self is mistaken for the authority to speak on a whole range of personal, philosophical and moral topics. It’s a similar phenomenon to the one that sees us asking health advice from football managers or taking political advice from has-been celebrities. We seem to believe that knowledge itself is a transferrable skill. It isn’t.
Unless you are personally able to read minds or talk to spirits, don’t suggest that it’s possible once a high enough spiritual vibration has been attained. Talk about what you know. People who speak with sincerity always do so from personal experience.
Don’t be afraid to share what you know.
Meditation clearly works. It helps millions of people around the world to lead happier, healthier, kinder lives. Practitioners of meditation owe it to the people around them to speak about the benefits it has to offer, otherwise, where is the compassion which meditation promises to reveal in all of us? At the same time, we have to be sensitive to the needs and comfort of the people we talk to. Otherwise, where is the wisdom which meditation promises to reveal in all of us?
Our aim as people who have been fortunate enough to discover meditation should be to learn to communicate this complex subject matter as clearly and precisely as possible. To speak in a way that doesn’t require faith or years of previous experience to be understood. To embody the benefits it offers. We’re the ambassadors of a practice which our world needs more than ever in these divisive times. And until it’s as commonplace as going to the gym, it’s our job to share it.