For many people, the notion of simply sitting alone with one’s eyes closed and focusing on nothing seems like a complete waste of time, if not a horrifying, anxiety-producing experience. We want to know that the activities in which we are choosing to participate have some value, and the novice meditator may see little value in sitting still with his or her own thoughts and feelings. As humans, we tend to look for things outside of us that we can control, things that might help us to make more money, maintain our friendships and relationships, relax, etc. But we frequently wind up feeling unfulfilled with our endeavours to find what we are looking for as we perpetually seek some abstract experience that must be right around the corner, assuming we play our cards right or get lucky.
Approaching life from this angle does not take into account the power of the subconscious mind (or unconscious, if you prefer) to control our experiences of reality. If you have ever felt that you were basically the same person having pretty much the same experience and the same emotional triggers day after day, you have been a victim of the power of the subconscious. The subconscious mind includes a vast array of memories dating back to the moment we were born (and perhaps before), and it seems that its principle duty is to protect us from harm through constant analysis of ourselves and our surroundings. While this served as an essential survival skill with our early ancestors, it has more recently adapted to take on the job of analyzing our own individual psychology and individuality in a world where we are less likely to be consumed by tigers and more likely to be consumed by that relationship that went south.
Our memories constitute how we experience reality. They are the framework around our awareness and the choices we make. We decide what’s good, what’s bad, what’s wrong, what’s right, and remain somewhat fixated with our preferences, the origin of which we can’t necessarily determine. Without really questioning it, we assume that our experience in the future will be roughly the same as our experience of the past. As our subconscious goes about its job of trying to keep us alive, it sifts through memories that seem to give our lives context. This tendency keeps most people bouncing back and forth from the past to the future in their thoughts and missing out on the substance and value of their own presence.
Meditation, far from being simply a means by which to relax, is the most effective tool for working with, rather than against, this powerful subconscious influence. By committing to a meditation practice, to showing up and sitting with one’s self regardless of how one feels about doing so on any particular day, one can begin to separate the observer from the object of observation; in other words, we can see our own thoughts and feelings from a detached perspective, almost as though they were happening to someone else. By doing so, one can become more empowered to choose which thoughts and feelings to follow and which ones to ignore. The thoughts and feelings that emerge from inspiration can be noted, while those that contain self-judgment or random musings can be dropped.
This separation from one’s incessant thinking and the deep relaxation that comes about as a result must be earned. Just like any skill, we have to practice meditation regularly if we wish to receive its benefits. It is particularly difficult for people living in a results-oriented culture to practice something which only has benefits if you eschew the desire for results.
The biggest obstacle that people face in meditation is not financial (it doesn’t cost anything) and it’s not logistical (you can be anywhere, anytime). Like most obstacles, it is our own minds getting in our way.
Sam Morris is a meditation expert and motivational speaker. Sam created a system of mental and physical training based on Zen philosophy, meditation and somatic disciplines, Zen Warrior Training.