Meditation Is Not An Aspirin.
The right tool for the right job.
We live in a culture of vitamins vs aspirin. And aspirin is winning. Aspirin is quick, easy, it solves an immediate, urgent problem and has an (almost) immediate effect. Aspirin is great.
Vitamins are a little different. Vitamins don’t do anything immediately. The only immediate benefit that exists even in theory, is the gentle buzz of self-satisfaction that one might get from taking care of their long-term health. Vitamins must be taken regularly, not simply as needed, and the rewards for taking them lie at some theoretical point in the future when we might have been suffering from scurvy but we’re not.
When it comes to our mental health, what we want is an aspirin. We want something quick, easy and effective which will cure our symptoms and make us feel better. I’m not going to launch into some sanctimonious tirade about how this shouldn’t be the way we think about it. This is a perfectly reasonable way to think about it. Pain, all pain is bad. The only natural thing to want is to end it as quickly as possible.
The problem is, that meditation is increasingly presented as a method for treating mental health issues, and meditation is most definitely not an aspirin. Meditation is a vitamin. You might take a vitamin when you have a headache but you most certainly don’t take a vitamin because you have a headache. By the same token, it might make sense to meditate when you’re sad, but it makes absolutely no sense to meditate because you’re sad.
Meditation is a way of getting in touch with who you are at that moment. If you’re happy, you’ll get in touch with your happiness. Perhaps you’ll gain some insight into why you’re feeling that way. You might find that the feeling grows or contracts as you sit with it. It’s possible that your happiness will fade whilst you meditate but there’s not really any reason to expect it to. It might grow. Changing it isn’t the aim. The aim, if there is such a thing, is simply to be with what is.
Exactly the same is true of sadness. If you’re sad, you’ll get in touch with your sadness. Perhaps you’ll gain some insight into why you’re feeling that way. You might find that the feeling grows or contracts as you sit with it. It’s possible that your sadness will fade whilst you meditate but there’s not really any reason to expect it to. It might grow. Changing it isn’t the aim. The aim, if there is such a thing, is simply to be with what is.
Meditation is like taking a vitamin, only as well as its slow, ambiguous, “deferred until some point in the future” effects, you have to invest time to take it. Maybe it’s 5 minutes a day, maybe it’s 30, either way, it’s longer than our tendency towards instant gratification would like it to be.
I’m not trying to tell you to be more patient, or to appreciate meditation for what it is rather than wishing it were something else. You’re more than capable of deciding whether to do that for yourself. I’m simply pointing out that if your reason for meditating is to fix a problem that you have now, then you might be better off trying something else. Have a good laugh, listen to a beautiful piece of music. Talk to a close friend. There’s a good chance that one of these, or maybe even all of them together, will make you feel better.
Just as you wouldn’t rob you of happiness, meditation won’t rob you of sadness either. Its job isn’t to remove pain, but to help you understand it. To give you the perspective to be able to face it. This takes time, and consistency, and dedication. The only immediate benefit is the gentle buzz of self-satisfaction that you might get from taking care of your long-term spiritual and emotional health.
Meditation can’t be taken as needed, but it can get you to a point in the future where you need other interventions less often. In the meantime, keep some aspirin handy.