I’ve never been a particularly patient person, but I’m getting worse. And frankly, I blame TV.
Specifically, I blame the X-Factors and the Bachelorettes and Strictly Come Dancings of the world. Just thinking about how much time humanity has lost to these televisual fidget-spinners which somehow manage to masquerade as entertainment makes my blood boil.
But you know what I hate most of all? It’s the pregnant pause, this infuriating affectation which has seeped into every corner of our entertainment culture. The “‘And the winner is…’ followed by a five-minute pause and tense music” approach to saying things, our growing inability to just for the love of god spit it out. To get to the point.
Instead, the information you want gets hidden behind endless fluff so that 2 minutes worth of entertainment can fill 45 minutes of airtime.
Spiritual practices have elements of this too, or at least many spiritual teachers and teachings do. There’s this fetishisation of the “process”, an implicit belief that the longer the journey takes the better it must be. If you aren’t lucky enough to have some kind of profound experience in the first few attempts, then you either soldier on blindly or fall by the wayside.
It’s like those stories about would-be zen monks waiting outside the temple for days, with no food or shelter, as a test of their resolve. Should it really be this way? Shouldn’t the monks, having discovered something of value, something that is supposed to make them more compassionate and wise, be eager to share that with the world? Or at least with those who come looking for it?
But no, the fact that the process is difficult, even obtuse, is accepted as the price of admission. Looking back, it seems like a matter of pure luck that someone as impatient as I was was able to become a practitioner.
And this got me thinking; what would I say to someone like me if they hadn’t been lucky enough to “get” the value of meditation quickly? How would I get to the point about what it is, why it’s worth pursuing, and why there’s an inevitable period of not getting it?
If you’re such a person, or if you’ve tried meditation but you’re not sure about it, I’ve collected a few thoughts which I hope you’ll find useful. I’ve even broken them into sub-headings to save you valuable time…
1. Meditation isn’t just sitting quietly.
There are good reasons to practice meditation whilst sitting quietly, but if that really doesn’t work for you, there are other paths to insights about yourself, your nature and life in general. In fact, any activity that absorbs your attention can serve that function. Woodwork, playing an instrument and dancing are a few good examples.
If you try one of the above examples, try to focus as deeply as you can on the cut or note or step that’s happening now, not the reaction you’re hoping for when you finish, or your concerns about what people might be thinking of you. This too is meditation. There’s no rule that says you have to do it sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed.
2. Meditation doesn’t have to take over your life.
Perhaps you’ve heard stories about months-long retreats where you meditate for 18 hours a day and wake up at 5 am and concluded that meditation is not for you. I’m not going to claim that it makes no difference how long you meditate for, but if you’re just trying to get an idea of the process, marathon stints aren’t necessary.
One way to think about meditation is like a workout for your brain. You’re sitting there, your attention drifts, and you get distracted by a thought. But then you realise you’re distracted, refocus on your breath and you’re meditating again. Each time you repeat his process of refocusing your brain is, as Dan Harris put it, “like a bicep curl for your brain”.
There’s nothing to stop you from getting in a few reps as you go about your day. Challenge yourself to focus on your breath for just a few seconds, 5 times per day. See if you can remember to do this despite whatever distractions your day throws at you.
The mental process of bringing your attention back to this prior commitment is the same mental bicep curl.
3. Meditation doesn’t require you to change yourself or your beliefs.
Meditation is not, or at least does not have to be, a spiritual practice. If you’ve been avoiding meditation because you weren’t interested in chanting or repeating mantras or the sound of gongs, know that you can meditate whilst continuing to avoid them.
Meditation doesn’t require you to think about the world or your spirit in any particular way, or even to think about them at all. All you need to do is be willing to examine the way you think about yourself.
4. You’ve probably been meditating as you’ve been reading this.
Here’s the funny thing about meditation. People often think of it as a break from life, a special quiet space that you can take refuge in before the demands of the day come rushing in. But this isn’t the case.
If while reading this you found yourself distracted and brought your attention back to reading, this, in a way is meditation.
There’s nothing more complicated or esoteric than that to it. Consider how often you’re distracted over the course of a typical day and think about how much your life would improve if you could be just 5% less distracted. That’s almost an hour of extra attention every day.
5. Like all processes, meditation takes time.
If you’re thinking that this all sounds very interesting, but you still don’t quite get it, that’s not surprising. Meditation does require a certain amount of “sitting outside the temple”. This is simply because it’s a process and processes take time. I’ve made the comparison to exercise before, but it’s so perfect that I’ll touch on it again here.
Imagine if we lived in a world where nobody exercised. Running in place on a treadmill or repeatedly lifting heavy weights with various parts of your body, would seem completely insane. If you were to try it, you’d likely find it monotonous, painful and tiring, you might even get injured, and for the first few weeks, you’d experience no benefits whatsoever.
Those first few weeks are the exercise world’s equivalent of “waiting outside the temple”. It’s the point at which most people fail, yet it’s an unavoidable part of the process. Only with meditation, the challenge isn’t muscular soreness or injury, but boredom and confusion.
Your mileage may of course vary, but it seems to take around a month of regular practice for the benefits of meditation to begin to become apparent. Some people will, of course, take less time, and others may take more.
If you’ve tried meditation very sporadically, or only for a few days, consider giving your mental muscles a bit more time to adapt.
Most of us spend our lives reacting instead of acting. Life happens, and we respond so quickly that we don’t have time to think or even to notice that we could have behaved differently. Meditation is a way of changing that.
Becoming more aware allows us to “widen” the space between stimulus and response by not being immediately overcome by our thoughts or emotions. Often it’s only an extra split second, but sometimes that’s all we need to notice that we’re about to do or say something we’ll later wish we hadn’t.
It gives us an opportunity to get things right the first time. And for us impatient types, that’s an opportunity we don’t want to miss.