BY: MARIYA GUZOVA
Over the past several years, both my parents have become very devout and active yogis. And I don’t mean they go to a hot yoga class twice a week in cute Lululemon outfits. I mean they wake up every weekend morning at 5am and go to a Buddhist temple, where they learn about the ancient, real tradition of yoga.
They’re no experts, but they’ve taught me a lot of what the westernized version of yoga won’t teach. It’s amazing how much has been lost in trying to make yoga accessible to everyone. Many ancient practices have been reduced to pre-packaged, bite-sized pieces that devalue its essence and strip it of necessary instruction. Not surprisingly, there is a lot more to yoga than downward dog and warrior one. In fact, it was an entire month before my parents even did simple flows, learning instead cleansing and thinking techniques.
One major element of the Zen school of Buddhism and across the many varieties of yoga practices is meditation. Sitting meditation is repeatedly endorsed and encouraged by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Russell Brand, and there is an expectation placed on it to cure your anxiety and increase your mindfulness. It’s endlessly popular online and everyone seems to be doing it, so why isn’t everyone calm and happy and zen?
They’re all faking it, and you can blame their instructors.
When the Great Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen, arrived at the Shaolin Monastery in 527 AD, he found that the monks were too weak — mentally, physically, and emotionally — for the intensity of sitting meditation. In fact, sitting meditation, called Zazen, is considered an advanced skill that is meant to evoke deep insight into the very nature of existence. It is also meant to be used as a Kōan, which is something that creates doubt and tests the student’s progress in the zen practice.
The purpose of this type of mediation is to suspend judgements, and allow thoughts and ideas to flow through you without getting involved with them. It is meant to provide insight and promote introspective and deep thought and isn’t necessarily used for relaxation. In fact, the word zen in the western world has become synonymous with relaxed when it should be synonymous with enlightened.
Sitting meditation is considered to be an advanced skill meant to evoke deep insight into the nature of existence.
Now, tell me if this sounds familiar. You sit down on your bedroom floor with the intent to meditate. You pretty much get the concept and could really use some peace of mind—maybe you even open the window, light a candle or burn some incense. You position yourself in roughly the same pose as you saw in a YouTube video, put your hands on your knees and close your eyes. For half a second, you’re able to enjoy the bliss and tranquility of a clear mind, but then it starts:
My back is kinda uncomfortable? Am I doing this right? Stop thinking. Don’t think… I hope my roommate doesn’t walk in right now. I can hear her walking around. I think my leg is falling asleep… Brain. STFU. Clear mind. Inhale. Exhale. I am the universe experiencing itself. Inhale. Exhale. My shorts are riding up. I should do this naked. Then it would probably work. Inhale. Exhale.
This goes on until you get kind of sleepy, and you call it a day.
Some of the reasons why most people’s experiences with mediation resemble this description include:
1. There’s no one to teach you.
Meditation may be an introspective experience but the practice of it is taught person to person. It is a tenet of Buddhism and yoga that the practice helps improve lives, and the people with knowledge and experience have the responsibility to pass on their wisdom. You need a living, breathing teacher to show you how to do it. It is the only way. Yoga has long been commercialized, but there are temples in most major cities that offer completely free programs to the public that teach yoga and the various meditative practices that come with it. All you have to do is show up.
2. It’s too advanced and too still.
Sitting meditation isn’t the only type of meditation. It’s an advanced technique and requires a powerful mind in order to truly control your thinking. Other forms of mediation can incorporate physical movement. The physicality of it can help a beginner anchor themselves against their waves of thought.
The movement allows you to suppress your thinking and experience longer periods of a meditative state, whereas a sitting position usually means longer periods of thinking interrupted by short bits of meditation.
3. You aren’t strong enough.
Sitting meditation looks easy, but it can actually take quite the toll on your body and mind. When the Great Bodhidharma started working with his monks, he taught them strengthening exercises like Lifting the Sky and the 18 Luohan Hands. There is an inherent connection between the body and the mind. If you want to improve your mind, then you must improve your body. If you’re sick, feeling weak, or are in pain, then you shouldn’t practice sitting meditation. Sitting position meditation isn’t intended to relax or heal your body. It’s meant to enlighten your mind. In fact, the position can aggravate pain and injuries.
Don’t be discouraged though. Meditation can still be something to work towards and it can truly change you for the better. It’s important to realize, though, that there’s more to it than an e-how article, and that in the case of expanding your mind, faking it ‘til you make it doesn’t work.