Once again another article about the dangers of meditation is making the rounds of the Interwebs. This one is from the Guardian in the UK and is called Is Mindfulness Making Us Ill. My favorite part of this new article goes:
Rather than removing the source of stress, whether that’s unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale, some employers encourage their staff to meditate: a quick fix that’s much cheaper, at least in the short term. After all, it’s harder to complain that you’re under too much stress at work if your employer points out that they’ve offered you relaxation classes: the blame then falls on the individual.
I’ll let you read the rest of the piece for yourself. It’s just that one little section (above) I’d like to comment on here.
There is a lot of very deep confusion out there about how meditation can be beneficial. It seems to me that quite a number of people appear to imagine that meditation works kind of like magic or, if they’re a bit more rational, sort of like a drug.
Take LSD. Well, don’t actually take LSD! But take it — as in consider it — as an example. When I was 19 I took LSD. I swallowed a tiny piece of purple blotter paper, waited about an hour and then all of a sudden I was in the groovy land of yellow submarines and girls with kaleidoscope eyes. Nothing to it!
I get the impression from articles like this one and many others I’ve seen that a lot of people expect meditation to work the same way. They imagine that they’ll take the posture, count some breaths and then ~ presto! ~ they’ll be free from all their worries and stress. There are a plenty of people who know it’s not quite that simple. But still, even a huge number of those folks seem to think that meditation will have some kind of near magical effect.
I know this because that’s how I thought of it myself. That’s how I approached it when I started. At first I thought I must have been right because initially meditation did seem to make me calmer and more even-keeled just by virtue of simply doing it.
It took a while before I started noticing something else. As I got deeper into my practice, the darker side of it began to show. I became aware of thoughts and urges I had repressed for a very long time. It could be uncomfortable. In fact, it often got downright terrifying. If you feel like purchasing the new edition of my first book Hardcore Zen, check out the chapter titled I Think of Demons for further details on one of the more memorable times when that happened.
Some of the most useful insights I’ve gathered from meditation were about the things I was doing when I wasn’t meditating. Often it would become suddenly — even shockingly — clear to me that certain things I had been doing as normal, routine parts of my every day life were actually quite harmful and damaging. I knew I needed to quit doing these things, but often that was extremely difficult.
It was difficult because some of these were the kinds of things all of society tells you that you should do. They’re things that nobody in their so-called “right mind” would ever tell you to stop doing.
My own best example related to the piece I excerpted from that article would be the time in late 2009 when I was offered a cool job that would have paid me a lot of money.
For the entire year 2008 I was living in Los Angeles and receiving a retainer from Tsuburaya Productions in exchange for the promise that I wouldn’t take another full time job until the new management could offer me one. They’d sent me to LA four years before that and, in the meanwhile, the entire company had been sold and bought by new owners. The monthly retainer was just about what I was paying in rent. This meant it wasn’t quite enough to live on. But I was getting a little bit in book royalties and doing a few paid speaking gigs, plus I had some savings, so it was just enough to keep me from accepting one of the offers I’d been getting of a full time job at another Japanese film production company.
At the end of the year Tsuburaya Productions bought me a plane ticket to Tokyo and put me up in a hotel there for a couple days so I could have a meeting with them. At that meeting they offered me a much better position than I’d had before with them at a much higher salary. The only catch was I’d have to move back to Tokyo.
I didn’t like LA all that much back then (I do now) and I loved Tokyo. I’d been struggling financially and didn’t know if I could ever make enough to support myself on the meager earnings from my books and the tiny bits of dana (donations) I got when leading retreats.
Yet some little voice in the back of my head told me that even though the sensible choice was to accept Tsuburaya’s offer, that wasn’t really what I ought to do. After much deliberation I politely declined the job offer. Ever since then I’ve been a lot poorer, but a lot happier.
That’s just one example, and it happens to be one that’s fairly easy to articulate and easy for others to understand. There have been countless other examples that would be much harder to explain, yet fundamentally much more important.
The point is it wasn’t that meditation magically reduced my stress levels. It’s that meditation allowed me to see how much of my stress was caused by working the way I had been when I was at Tsuburaya Productions. It allowed me to see that making a lot less money and working a hell of a lot harder for it was actually the more sensible choice.
Now maybe I’d have been able to see that even without daily zazen practice. It’s the other, less easy to articulate things that I know for sure I would not have been able to see without the practice. Many of these are very private matters or just really hard to talk about in public. But there have been countless little and big things I noticed about my regular life off the cushion that needed to be changed. Many times this meant radically revising my habitual ways of doing stuff. Quite frankly, it has often made me into even more of a weirdo than I was before I started meditating. But I’ve been happier because of it.
So, while there are what one could call “direct benefits” of meditation practice that come about simply from the very act of sitting down and shutting up for a set period each day, a huge amount of the benefit of meditation comes from the way the practice allows you to see things you need to work on outside of your practice.
Sometimes just seeing this stuff can be stressful. You’ll notice problems you didn’t even realize you had. Or you’ll notice there are things you do that nobody would ever label as “problematic” that you have to alter or stop doing altogether. But the good thing is that the practice often allows you to have the confidence necessary to be better able to do what needs doing.
That part, I’ll admit, is sort of magical.
* * *
Our Saturday morning zazen in Culver City now starts at 10:00 am!
* * *
Registration is now OPEN for our Spring Zen & Yoga Retreat March 18-20, 2016 at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt. Baldy, California
* * *
Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kaleyah, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
* * *
I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
February 3, 2016 Ventura, California Ventura College
February 28, 2016 Houston, Texas Houston Zen Center
March 5, 2016 Austin, Texas Austin Zen Center
March 18-20, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California SPRING ZEN& YOGA RETREAT
March 25, 2016 Venice, California Mystic Journey Bookstore 7:00pm
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
* * *
One of the main ways I make money now that Tsuburaya Productions doesn’t pay me is through your donations to this blog. I won’t get any of the recent Angel City Zen Center fundraiser money. I appreciate your on-going support!