Meditation doesn’t work for me, and that’s okay!

Guest post by Lydia Bengtson
NOPE NOPE NOPE (Photo by: Nickolai KashirinCC BY 2.0)

I am thoughtful, open-minded person who believes in the values of calm and stillness, who understands the neuroscientific studies on the way meditation massages our grey-matter, and who really wanted to be a Jedi when I grew up.

And I refuse to meditate.

The core of most meditation, part of its intrinsic value, is to calm the mind down and then step outside your emotions by fixating on your sensations. The quiet mind is free to simply experience existence without the running commentary of consciousness. (The “dish of mold” as described in I ♥ Huckabees.) There’s easily dozens — if not hundreds — of techniques for reaching this state, all of which ask for patience as the practitioner learns how to operate their brain in a new way.

Much of meditation asks the practitioners to bear witness to their emotions as feelings manifest through their bodies. By understanding what anger, fear, sorrow, and joy feel like, and knowing where their edges are, the practitioner can gain a new level of emotional control. It’s a way of training the self to understand that a fleeting state of grief is finite and will move on, that the hot pulse of anger is that pressure in your jaw — right there, no, up a little bit and back, there — but it’s not the world-blurring threat it seems to be. These lessons are valuable and in some cases, life-altering.

All of meditation seeks to wipe out those chaotic little thoughts: I need to start a meal plan for next week. Maybe hummus. Oh wait, the kiddo won’t eat that yet. When did I start eating hummus? Man, that kid in third grade was so weird. Did he always have ringworm? I think he did…

Meditation, like many things that resonate so beautifully with virtues Obi-Wan or Yoda would extol, can be a powerful tool. And it’s a tool that does not belong in my hands.

I’m an aspiring novelist. Those random threads of thoughts and meandering internal conversations are how I work. When I sit down with a blank page, or brainstorm while I drive to work, I take a deep breath and wait for one of those thoughts. I call up an observation or ask myself what my mind’s eye sees. Then, when the right impulse comes along, I grab it by the throat and make it into raw word count. Or, even better, one of those ideas wraps itself around me like a great vine and demands to become the solution to the plot snarl-up I haven’t been able to solve for weeks.

In writing, I understand where my emotions pool in my body, and I use that to anchor my readers within my characters’ skin. I also imagine where those feelings might settle in someone else. A nail chewer’s hands grow cold and clammy while mine get hot and sweaty in the same situation. I need to feel those emotions when they happen without shying away from them or freezing them with cool cognition.

I once tried to resume a discarded meditation practice at the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. Afterward, I sat down to write and couldn’t feel anything. My placid mind didn’t offer a ripple of errant thought for me to use. The only emotion that arose was patient compassion for my inability to find the threads I needed.

I’ll wager that writing serves as my meditative act, and it will not tolerate competition for my neurons. In order to lure my muse, I’ll shun meditation. She’s more easily entertained that way and so am I.

Comments on Meditation doesn’t work for me, and that’s okay!

  1. This has always been my motivation to meditate – to not *feel* so much.
    Recently my husband has discovered mindfulness meditation, and he likes to do it a very specific way he believes to be the “best”. It ruffles my feathers and urges me to rebel and want to not meditate just because he thinks there’s one right way to do it. So thank you for your thoughts on how there are hundreds of ways to meditate, it’s more encouraging than prescribing *one* right way.

    • When I first started dating my now-husband he was at the tail end of a stereotypical-liberal-arts-college-boy-obsession-with-Eastern-religion-phase (not that that’s a phase for a lot of people, but it was for him) and I’d talk about knitting or spinning yarn or something else I do as “meditative” and he was be all “Ugggh that’s NOT what meditation is but OKAY…”
      … it’s a wonder we ended up married ;-P

  2. Well, it’s not like you have to meditate 24/7, that’s not the point. When you meditate, you meditate. When you write, you write. Meditation doesn’t stop the creative flow — if anything, it can enhance it when you need it bec. it can help you focus on being in the moment.

    I’m a writer by trade, & I don’t meditate when I’m working. That would be silly & unhelpful. But I meditate to help me sleep at night bec. I have horrible insomnia. At that time, meditation helps incredibly.

    As with all things, YMMV.

  3. 100% yes. I have always battled my need to be calm and collective when dealing with crazy emotional situations (like marital problems. Ah!) And wanting to not let go of my emotions, because I like to feel. But then add in the writing element, and it’s a total “duh” for me!

  4. This makes me giggle, because I am pretty sure you are meditating (or at least being mindful) when you notice those errant thoughts, check out your bodily feelings, etc. In my experience, meditation is not necessarily “about” anything. It is being present and metaconcious. Which you totally are if you don’t get personally swept away and can channel what you notice into writing. I think relinquishing thoughts and turning attention to sensation is a meditative technique, not the whole of it. I think you ARE a Jedi and don’t even know!

    • Amber, that’s an amazing take on the idea. You’ve got a really good point that I hadn’t thought of at all.

      When you put it that way, Actors might be really good at this sort of metaconsciousness as well. I know a few of them and they really focus on that kind of sensory awareness and thought.

      Maybe there are more paths to the benefits of meditation than we realize?

      • Yeah! And besides actors, I think about highly skilled athletes, musicians, etc. who are able to “get in the zone.” It’s not quite losing yourself in something, nor is it hyper focused effort. I had a teacher describe mindfulness as “relaxed attentiveness.” That’s been my favorite understanding of it.

    • This is exactly what I was thinking too. Mindfulness meditation is not getting rid of thoughts and emotions, it’s the skill of “noticing”. So being able to see what thoughts and feelings are coming, examine them, etc… that’s exactly what you’re doing!
      And you’ve totally blown my mind as a writer myself. I struggle sometimes to stay present as I’m writing, ending up thinking about work, or the dishes that need to be done etc… using my mindfulness meditation when I’m writing will absolutely help me stay present and focused on what I’m doing and the emotion I want to put into it.

  5. Are you me? Because I’m pretty sure you’re me.

    It’s a weird trade off for me- all these loose, frantic thoughts do cause anxiety, but when they’re not doing that, if I can catch one and hold onto it long enough, sometimes they grow into ideas. Having been alternatingly calm(er) and creative, I’m not crazy about trading the latter for the former. Best of luck in your writing!

  6. I gave up on all the meditation-type stuff (meditating, yoga, etc.) a loooong time ago. Frankly, I grew tired of people recommending it to me.

    I think people take for granted that “quieting your mind” and learning to “go inside yourself” is somewhat of a privilege. I’ve been disagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder and OCD for about 12 years now. I am not a person who has the luxury of being able to TRUST my mind to work or help me out. My mind can lead me astray. My mind can play tricks on me. I’ve dealt with psychosis. I have personally experienced the darkness and deepness to which a mind can descend when it’s at the whims of some chemical imbalance or illness.

    There’s a reason why one of the most descriptive memoirs about Bipolar Disorder was called “An Unquiet Mind.” Because that is almost an exactly apt descriptor. My mind does not have the capacity to be “quiet” or “empty.” It will always, until I die, be somewhere between depression and mania (sometimes held there only by virtue of pharmaceuticals).

    I think some of it is probably the language employed in meditation. There’s a lot of talk about “letting go” of things. Frankly, for me, letting things go has proven to be a recipe for disaster. The only viable solution for me has been to sort of mentally “grab on” to things and work through them as they come up. The amount of release that’s involved in meditating strikes me as a bad proposition for somebody like me. You sort of need to trust your own mind to do it, and I’m not in a position to trust mine just yet.

    • Ashley, you bring up an excellent point. I’d never thought of the neuronormative privilege present in meditation theory. Can I call it theory? Either way, you know what I mean.

      I’m really glad you commented, because I bet that there are a lot of people in your position who feel like they aren’t trying hard enough or doing it right, when the entire idea is stacked against them.

      Not everyone’s brain works the same way. Brains are different, measurably different. I’m so grateful that I’ve been given the chance to recognize that.

    • I have anxiety/depression issues, and my first thought after reading this article was “Wow, I would so much rather go to therapy than meditate.” I’m sure meditation helps a lot of people, but NOTHING has helped me more than talk therapy. Things get jumbled in your head, and having an unbiased outside opinion of your thought process is the best reality check.

    • Caveat: You do not need to try meditation, now or ever, if you don’t think it’s your jam.

      BUT! I think the language issue you talk about in your last paragraph can be a big part of it. I always disliked the idea of meditation for a variety of reasons. But then I did DBT and became a believer in mindful meditation. I’m sure mindfulness is a thing outside of this context, but I think of it as meditation for crazies. Almost everyone in my group had some kind of co-morbid Axis I condition, and it seemed to help a lot of people. It’s not so much about trying to empty your mind as stay calm and focus on a physical sensation. I don’t imagine it’ll snap anyone out of mania or psychosis, but meditation techniques (if not full-blown meditating) have helped me to get back to reality when I start to dissociate.

    • I couldn’t put my finger on why I liked this article because the premise of it did not speak to me but the sentiment did. Your comments made me realize why I liked it: because as a person who also suffers from OCD, being left alone with my thoughts is not equivalent to being in a “safe place.” I can’t trust my thoughts, I actively know that I can’t trust my thoughts and am constantly on a tightrope of asking myself, “Is what I’m thinking/feeling trustworthy?”

      For me, OCD is like being held hostage by my mind. Meditating does not let my mind of of those “little unimportant things,” it just gives my brain free reign to do what it wants with me.

      So, thanks for giving voice to what I was thinking! It makes me feel a lot better.

      • This, so much this. I’ve had therapists get mad at me for failing to empty my mind. One accused me of self-sabotage. You would think that somebody working with a patient with OCD would be a touch more sensitive to the fact that not every mind goes quiet without a real fight, which to me is the opposite of the purpose of meditation.

        I’ve had middling success with mindfulness as a whole, but I just don’t find the ‘can I trust this?’ process soothing enough to pursue.

    • A little late to the party here, but your comments on meditation and the language associated with it resonated with me as well even though I have been (professionally) diagnosed with ASD. For me at least anything associated with meditation (and going into my own head) is kind of dangerous since it makes me want to lash out. I’m not totally on board with the Intense World theory of autism (as the studies need to be replicated and have so far only investigated the effects of one drug in relation to ASD), but it does account for the perpetual restlessness in the mind of someone with ASD. Since meditation is too loose of a coping mechanism, it’s not very effective for actually doing anything with that restless mind.

  7. Wow, this post and subsequent comments have really brought up some interesting things for me. Thank you!

    I have OCD, and find the ‘learning how to deal with the noise’ side of meditation theoretically appealing… not least because my novel is fighting a losing battle against the less helpful thoughts.
    However, the ‘getting started with meditation’ guides that I’ve read recently kind of brought me to the conclusion that it’s not the best fit for me.
    There are elements of meditation technique that immediately ping the ‘not a good idea’ radar: I know that there is a difference between mantras and compulsive rituals, but I also know that encouraging me to repeat things over and over as a means of relaxing is not unlike encouraging an alcoholic to relax with a nice glass of wine.

    (As a side note, I’ve found that the CBT approach of experimentation and unpicking thoughts works stunningly well for me. My problem is that I handle everything with the grace and calm of someone who has an exam in five hours and hasn’t revised at all, which is not a good mindset for creative writing. The most effective way that I’ve found of coming down from that is to treat writing sessions as small time-boxed experiments: thinking ‘let’s try this for fifteen minutes, and if it doesn’t work, then that’s not a big deal’ takes a lot of the panic out of the activity, and is often enough to get past the blank page terror.

    What you wrote about the process of sitting down and really *committing* to exploring thoughts and turning them into words… that is, for me, living the dream. I can get there, just as I can get up on stage to sing, but both are equally terrifying beforehand. One day…!)

    This is a bit of a tangent – and also a bit of an ask – but I do wish that self-help guides would acknowledge their neurological biases more often.
    I remember finding an article about procrastination a while back that specifically stated that it was aimed at a normal-to-mild-ADHD audience and might work less well for others… and all of a sudden, I realised why similar advice just didn’t resonate with me. It was such a relief to know that it wasn’t just that I was doing it wrong, and it led me to seek out some much more appropriate advice.

    I guess it comes with the territory, but the ‘it worked for me, so it will work for EVERYONE!’ aspect of self-help can be such a stumbling block.

  8. I was just contemplating writing a guest post about meditation a few days ago.

    I have been practicing Transcendental Meditation for over 15 years. I was going to write a post either about how I’m usually “in the closet” about being a meditator and/or a post about what to do when your meditation (or other) practice is viewed by some as a cult.

    Regarding thoughts: in TM (yeah, that’s the abbreviation), all of those thoughts become part of the meditation process. Maybe there are other kinds of meditation that are similar in this way, but I have never explored them so I can’t speak to them. I have so many thoughts in meditation. Sometimes I find myself composing entire emails in meditation. Now, maybe this isn’t the deepest experience, but I don’t feel like I need to have a deep experience every single time I meditate. Just like sleep – sometimes you sleep deeply, and sometimes you have dreams, and sometimes you toss and turn. With TM, you don’t have to berate yourself for having thoughts – you are still meditating even if you “forget” you’re meditating part way through.

    All of that said, I have struggled with anxiety through much of my life. When I was feeling so anxious that I couldn’t function, I couldn’t meditate either. It wasn’t because meditation made my anxious thoughts worse, it was just because I couldn’t do *anything*. Extreme anxiety is just straight-up uncomfortable, no matter what you do. If I was able to meditating while being anxious, my anxiety was either a bit reduced or the same as it was when I finished (oh, look at that, still anxious, surprise, surprise).

  9. I’m awful at, and don’t really enjoy, meditation :-/ By all logic it should be beneficial for me and my anxious self, but I *like* my busy mind. I get bored if I try to turn it off. I actually took a meditation class in college (for a required PE credit… yeah I know) and started enjoying it much more when I just decided to treat it as a dedicated “no distractions thinking hour”- I’d actually like to get back in that habit.

    (There’s also the fact that I have back problems that make sitting still and upright for any amount of time super uncomfortable… and if I lay down and try to clear my mind, I’ll be asleep right quick, heh.)

    • That said, I do really like yoga (mostly for said back problems)… but I really only pay attention to the stretching. I try to keep with the breathing too just for “getting enough oxygen” and “rhthym” reasons. (I did watch one yoga video the other day where the woman told me to “breathe out my scar tissue” and was like… 0.O)

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