When I signed up for an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, I thought it would help me “deepen” my commitment to mindfulness meditation. Now, going into the final stretch of the program, I’m wondering what, exactly, I was thinking.
I’ve had plenty of time on the cushion to contemplate the purpose of my intensive foray into the world of mindfulness—or, in the parlance of the meditation community, my “intention.” I think I was hoping to develop some serious meditation chops, to transform myself from a meditation amateur into a meditation professional.
Now I’m realizing the daily practice I’d fashioned for myself was deep enough just the way it was. Which, I guess, is the very essence of mindfulness: recognizing things for what they are, accepting them, and not trying to make them different.
For this achievement oriented striver, the concept of “good enough” has required a major mental attitude adjustment. You mean I don’t have to be an expert? And what would that even look like for a meditator? Going on a weeklong retreat? Becoming a Buddhist monk? No, I just have to keep plugging away to reap the subtle benefits—improved focus, better tolerance for frustration, more patience—I get from practicing meditation on a regular basis.
This observation came to me after the all-day retreat last week. (With hours devoted just to sitting and observing thoughts as they floated by like clouds in the sky, I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t come away with at least one insight.)
I’d anticipated the day with a great deal of trepidation, as did many of the participants. Would I be able to stand being silent for 7 hours? Sit for long stretches without needing to get up and move? Endure just “being” without doing anything? Heck, I even wondered what to pack for lunch and how I’d slip away discretely if I needed a bathroom break.
But, as with many unfamiliar situations, the experience turned out to be far less taxing than I’d feared. We moved smoothly from one meditation to another—sitting, yoga, walking—so there was plenty of variety to break up the time. We could leave whenever we wanted and even had permission to take our lunches outside (which turned out to be an unexpected delight given the beautiful weather and fortuitous park bench I happened upon). The only rule was “No talking.”
Three hours passed surprisingly quickly. I enjoyed having nowhere to go and no chores to do. But when we returned from our lunch break, the afternoon started to drag. I felt drowsy. The last instruction of the day was to do any meditation of our choosing for a half hour. I welcomed the opportunity to stretch out on a yoga mat and close my eyes. And then I promptly fell asleep.
Even though improved sleep may be one positive outcome of meditation, sleeping isn’t meditating. But given the intensity of the day’s activities—yes, just being can be exhausting—and the focus on self-acceptance, I cut myself slack for missing out on the last part of the session.
So what did I learn? I realized more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to meditation, or many other pursuits, for that matter. Sometimes you reach a point of diminishing returns.
I plan to continue meditating. But I probably won’t be putting in 45 minutes a day, and I certainly won’t be going on a 7-day silent retreat any time soon.
I’ve discovered the importance of evaluating—mindfully, of course—what you need in any given moment. It might be meditation. Or it might, in fact, be a nap.
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