Health

Why meditation isn’t working for you (and what to do instead)

So here we are. You’ve downloaded that 5th meditation app on your phone, you’ve stuck to your daily 10-minute routine for a few days… but life happened! And now it’s been a week since your last mindful moment. You’ve (once more) failed to make it a routine, you can see mindfulness slipping away from your hands, and the doors to inner peace slamming in front of you.

Paradoxically enough, the healthy habits that were supposed to help you relieve stress are becoming a new source of anxiety. Maybe you’re feeling anxious when going to bed, as you’re thinking about how you ought to wake up 10 minutes earlier the next morning in order to meditate, before sitting down to your kitchen table and mindfully enjoying that sugar-free organic smoothie.
 Yet you wake up feeling overwhelmed, inevitably worrying about your long to-do-list of the day while meditating, or not meditating at all. Then comes the stress of having failed to efficiently use meditation as a stress reliever (like that girl you’re following on Youtube does). What a nightmare!
 
 But what if embracing this sacred, ancestral technique from far away lands isn’t the answer for you and I, modern creatures of the fast-paced, urban world? And what can we do instead, in order to escape the noose of anxiety and, more generally, to be happy?

Harmony and happiness

French author Albert Camus wrote :

“But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

When your beliefs, acts and environment are in coherence, you feel at peace. On the flip side, stress, chaos and unhappiness often come from contradiction, for instance between who you are and who you think you should be.

For contextual and cultural reasons, if you live in a big city, meditation is probably in contradiction with your fast-paced life. And that might be why you fail to find the harmony you need through it.

Sources of contradiction

Compartimentation

If you have a busy schedule (like most city-dwellers), you probably have a tendency to compartiment your life. In other words, you break your days and weeks into to-do-lists that follow a timetable. It might not be that rigid; maybe you allow yourself to move the compartiments around if an unexpected event happens or if your crush asks you out on a gym night. But still, in order to efficiently get things done, you have to make these compartiments, and go through them. Thus, you make room for your 10-minute meditation between « work » and « Netflix ».

Even though this might slightly work, it won’t relieve you from that general feeling of anxiety in your life. Why? Because mindfulness, as practiced in antique Eastern cultures, is a mindset, a way of living one’s life. It’s a flow that carries everything else in your day. You can’t cut it from the rest.
 Were you a self-employed Youtuber -fully embracing the mindful lifestyle thanks to your self-imposed working hours and your fulfilling job-, or were you on a yoga retreat, I’m sure you’d manage to find inner peace. Your practices need to be in harmony with your environment. In other words, as much as this might sound frustrating, you need to be already leading a calm life if you want calm practices to make you calm.

External forces

Other factors of contradiction that we have little control over when leading a fast-paced include our exposure to substances which use is stressful on the long run (alcohol, caffeine, nicotine…), to constant distraction (phones, emails, notifications in general,…) and sollicitation (ads with aggressive colors and capital letters, city lights,…).

Culture

  • As Indian yoga guru Jaggi Vasudev asserts, we are too “goal-oriented”. The West is obsessed with numbers. We use mediation in order to fight stress and/or be more productive. We have apps counting our meditation time. Even though it might help motivate us to stick to it on the short-term, this couldn’t be more in contradiction with the practice.
  • Ever had a humanities class about mindful living in high school? No. I don’t know precisely what is taught in the Eastern world, but if you grew up in the West, while sitting in philosophy class, you were probably taught about great thinkers. As a consequence, you might have a natural tendency (and be better equipped) to think yourself into the good life. 
     Besides, due to religious heritage, I believe that we’re more likely to feel connected to the World, or to “God”, through dialogue -with words-. Dialogue with ourselves and with whatever divinity we believe in about our actions and beliefs. As a result, it might seem less natural for us to silence the voices in our heads, especially for fast-thinkers.

There are two types of interior dialogue (or thinking). « Shallow thinking », about common daily-life tasks, and deep thinking (which ranges from figuring out which habits make you happy and which ones don’t, to asking yourself about the existence of God, while including questions like «when Jay-z and Beyoncé got engaged, did he call her Feyoncé? »). The first probably contributes to your anxiety, especially if you (and life) have a tendency to over-fill your to-do-lists. The second, when applied to topics you’re passionate about (and lead in an appropriate context), is what might save you.

How to deep-think properly

The topic

Of course, laying on your bed with a bag of Doritos while thinking about how absurd life is,or about death, isn’t your best weapon against anxiety. However, deciding to walk your way home after a stressful day at work to think about what you really want your job to bring into your life (money, status, sense of purpose,…) will probably sooth your concerns.

What’s the difference between the two?
 
 No matter how abstract the question you’re thinking about, your reflection needs to be either about something you’re passionate about, or about something that will help you grow as a person (for example coming to grips with one of your contradictions). It doesn’t matter wether it brings you answers, as long as the process of reflection itself brings you a sense of growth and helps you ask yourself other interesting questions. Furthermore -just like mindfulness- it works better when you don’t plan it ahead. Try to resort to it only when you feel like it, or when you feel like you need it -for example when going through a personal crisis-.

How to make the most of it

Once you find a topic you’re passionate about, use your questions as drive to cultivate yourself. Find authors (fictional or non-fictional) that have written about it, share your experience of it with other people, search for podcasts, art, or TED Talks in relation with it… As long as the source of information is reliable, go for it. How fun is it to design your own lessons?

The results

Not only will it distract you from your daily concerns, it will also make them seem less important. Moreover, it will make you feel smarter, which will warm your heart (as long as you do it genuinely and don’t just use it to boost your ego). It may also bring answers to you (you might realize that it’s time to change jobs, for example) and make you grow as a person (for instance, through understanding you should be less-selfish, less conscious of your body-image, etc…). And you won’t that feel guilty over getting lost on Youtube ! A minute dedicated to making you a happier, healthier, smarter person cannot be considered a wasted minute.

Where is the harmony in this?

Lifestyle, culture, and environment.
 
 The bottom line with deep-thinking is that it is easier to integrate to our daily life. If you wake up with your phone in hand, relentlessly scrolling down your social media, it is easier to calm down by putting on a podcast about a topic you love than forcing yourself into meditation.

Plus, as mentioned above, we are culturally more keen to doing it, which allows us to focus on it while doing other things we like (reading, discussing topics with friends, walking). It also gives us a way of turning our distractions (smartphones, Netflix, Youtube…) into sources of knowledge.

Above all, after finding out what truly matters to your life, and understanding your contradictions, you’ll be fitter to live in harmony.

Last but not least

Of course, props to you if you manage to integrate meditation’s benefits to your urban lifestyle. Doing all of the mentioned above mindfully is icing on the cake. But this is mainly a guide to help people struggling with it so that they can find an easier way to chill out. It is also chiefly inspired from my personal experience (and my friends’) and readings. Therefore, it might not work for everybody else.
 
 As a human being, you will always have contradictions. Don’t expect to find all your answers. Don’t feel discouraged if you still go through periods of anxiety. You’ll always find new topics to deep-think about in your ever-changing self. 
 
As close as you might be to drawing a perfect circle freehand, it will still be an ellipsis.
 
But why not make the most of the tools that we master better, instead of feeling like failures because we don’t manage to master tools we are not adapted to use? Let’s not let that « healthy-living » trend make us turn our backs on thinking.


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