Does meditation leave you feeling bored and restless? Maybe you took it up so you could find a refreshing oasis in the midst of a too-stressful life — but it’s just not doing much for you. Sunada offers her perspectives on how to work through this all-too-common situation.
Most of us come to meditation with varying degrees of expectation that it’s supposed to make us feel good. And really, that’s a very normal human reaction. We seek out things that make us feel good, and lose interest in things that don’t. Even when we know intellectually that meditation is good for us and we want to keep at it, we get that irresistible urge to do something, ANYTHING other than sit there.
Even when we know intellectually that meditation is good for us and we want to keep doing it, we get that irresistible urge to do something, ANYTHING other than sit there.
Certainly a good place to start examining this issue is to take a closer look at the rest of your life. Like most of us, your days are probably pretty packed. How much have you gotten into the habit of filling up your time with things to do? Are you constantly multitasking throughout your day? Do you feel the need to fill every spare moment, including you leisure time, with tasks, projects, and doing, doing, doing? Are you constantly checking your email, phone messages, Facebook and Twitter? When we have a momentum of speediness in our life, it will inevitably carry over into our meditation. What can you do to slow that down a bit?
But I think another even more important place to look is around our views of meditation itself. I’d like to suggest that feel-good meditations aren’t really what we’re after. I think what we really want is not to feel held so captive by the ups and downs of our lives. To not get so blown off course when things get tough. More sturdiness and resilience.
Am I right? If so, I’m going to ask you a challenging question. Is boredom bad? Just because it’s uncomfortable, does that mean we should avoid it? What if we were to get to know boredom so well that we could prevent it from happening in the first place? Or knew how to deal with it confidently when it arrived?
The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron suggests what this might be like in her book, The Wisdom of No Escape.
“There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.
A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or fearful thing.”1
What she’s alluding to here is a kind of contentment and confidence that comes from a deeper place than simple ego-driven pursuit of pleasure or avoidance of discomfort. Rather than being at the mercy of our feelings, we learn to stay and hold our ground from a different place of knowing. We’re able to stand firm no matter what’s going on, whatever storms blow us around. We make our choices from a fuller awareness of who we are rather than what feels good. And because we’re acting with a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us, we can choose to flow in harmony with the world as it is, rather than fighting our way through it.
Rather than being at the mercy of our feelings, we learn to stay and hold our ground from a different place of knowing.
So when we sit in meditation, feeling bored or restless, what can we do? Start by taking a deep breath and bringing your awareness to what’s coming in through your five senses: what are you seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling? What’s the quality of your physical experience? Is your energy high or low? Are you tense or relaxed? What thoughts are running through your head? Acknowledge those thoughts for what they are – just thoughts. (Recent research suggests that just noting these thoughts weakens their hold on us.). Notice that we’re not judging anything, but simply observing and taking in everything that parades before us.
And what does that do for us? When we do that over and over, something subtly starts to shift. At first it will feel really hard to stop judging everything, wanting the boredom to go away, wishing it will all end. (When that happens, it’s OK. Just try to observe those thoughts too.) But after a while, a small space begins to emerge between “me” and those seductive thoughts. It may only be a tiny crack, but it’s just enough to take the edge off the experience. When that begins to happen, celebrate it. THAT is the start of your connecting with a deeper awareness. It’s a far more stable and satisfying place to be than just “comfortable”!
So if you’re feeling discouraged by your meditation practice, please don’t give up! I think the arrival of boredom is actually a good sign. It means you’re ready to progress to a new level, and you’re being shown the doorway in. It’s about as direct and concrete an invitation as you’ll get. Why waste the precious opportunity? With patience, it IS possible to let go of our likes and dislikes, and to see through them to a deeper layer of sturdiness, resilience, and yes, contentment. It’s a place that’s much more free and unburdened. We can stop investing all that energy into running around, chasing after this and that, and instead BE the stillness and calm that we were seeking all along.
1. The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness by Pema Chodron (Shambala, 2001), p. 3.
[…] February 25, 2009 by giannakali From wildmind Buddhist meditation website: […]
Thank you for this post. The quote from ‘Wisdom…’ was something I needed just now. What a profound and simple and powerful suggestion:
“A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet.”
Cheers. It’s still very difficult to carry on when I get to this ‘wall’.
I believe that when meditation starts to ‘feel better’ after a perioud of boredom it doesnt necessarily mean that i’m getting any more skilled at meditation. It might just mean that I had a good day, or i had something deep to process which kept me entertained.
When something is boring, we have evolved to move away from it. Maybe its good to move away from meditation sometimes so we are less dependant on it for our sense of ‘meaning’ in life.
What do you think? Thankyou for this opportunity. XX
If you think it’s time to move away from meditation, of course, that’s entirely up to you. You need to decide what’s right for you.
I personally wouldn’t dream of doing it. Why? Because meditation itself isn’t what gives my life meaning. It’s something that keeps my mind and my consciousness sharp, open, clear, and sensitive so that I am able to find meaning with this particular mind that I occupy. Without a sharp mind, what’s left of my life? It’s the same with exercising my body. I wouldn’t give that up when I get bored of it either. Because it’s not the exercising that gives meaning to my life. It’s what it does for my body — it keeps me strong so that I’m able to get the most out of life in this body. I consider them essential to my well-being, like food and water. To me it’s not a dependency.
As you point out, having our meditation feeling good or not isn’t an indication of progress. I think progress is happening all the time, as long as we put in the effort. Going through ups and downs is a perfectly natural process of growth, just like trees go through periods of growth and hibernation (or whatever you call what they do in winter). I think what makes a meditation practice effective in the long term is our ability to stay with it, regardless of whether we see any obvious “rewards” at the moment. The reward comes ultimately when we see that we’ve changed for the better, and that’s something than comes from perseverance over the long haul.
A very good response, Sunada!
Cheers Sunada. :-)
[…] From wildmind Buddhist meditation website: The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron suggests what this might be like in her book, The Wisdom of No Escape. There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same. […]