Why People Don’t Meditate
Not very long ago, the only people who practiced meditation regularly were Hindus and Buddhists, and even most of them were in ashrams and monasteries. Then, Westerners who were influenced by those traditions but did not adopt the religious labels associated with them began to adopt various meditation techniques as spiritual practices.
When, beginning around 1970, scientific studies started to document the practical benefits of meditation, it found a place in secular life. Physicians recommended it to patients as beneficial to health and wellness; psychologists prescribed it for anxiety and stress reduction; corporations and hospitals followed up by creating meditation rooms. Soon, increasing numbers of Christians and Jews felt comfortable adapting proven Eastern practices to their own belief systems and rituals. In some cases, they replaced the Sanskrit mantras used in popular techniques like Transcendental Meditation with words and phrases from their own traditions. Then, prodded by the presence of gurus and yoga masters, religious leaders began unlocking the vaults of their own esoteric past, making forms of Jewish mysticism and contemplative Christianity available to the masses.
Now, if you say you meditate for 20 minutes before breakfast every morning, no one will bat an eye. This is a huge cultural shift. Forty years ago, when I told people I meditated, they looked at me as though I were poking needles into a voodoo doll. Back then, if someone saw me sitting with my eyes closed on a park bench, or in a library or an airport lounge, they would assume I was either sick or sleeping. Now, they’re likely to add meditation to the possible options, and there would be nothing weird about it.
You would think that all this mainstream acceptance would make meditating as common aerobic exercise or stopping at Starbucks for a caffeine fix. Instead, for a great many people, it’s more like cutting down on carbs: they know it would be good for them—and they know there’s scientific evidence to support that assertion—but they just don’t get around to doing it.
Why don’t they? There are many reasons, of course, but in my experience two stand out.
The most frequently mentioned excuse, predictably, is lack of time. Nowadays, everyone feels that he or she has too much to do and too little time to do it in. But isn’t it interesting that we always find time for things we truly value, whether it’s texting friends, or watching our favorite TV shows, or taking the kids to soccer practice? If you really valued a period of silent meditation, you’d find the time: if not an hour, then a half hour; if not half an hour, then 15 minutes, or 10. With a little time management, most people find they can free up time to nurture their souls, relax their bodies and quiet their minds.
The real problem with people who say they don’t have time to meditate is that they have not come to appreciate its value. In America, where I live, people pride themselves on being pragmatic. So do people in every country where modern technologies and business practices dominate, and the term “bottom line” means prioritizing activities that lead directly to tangible benefits. But, in the process, we have become so outwardly driven that we are deluded by the notion that fulfillment comes from what we do rather than what we are. So we think that ticking off items from our long to-do lists is more valuable than spending time at something inner-directed, like meditation.
What gets left out of that way of thinking is the direct line between our inner well-being and the quality and success of our actions. Meditation should not be considered an escape from our duties, responsibilities and goals, but rather as an aide to accomplishing them. By reducing stress, quieting the mind and tapping into internal reservoirs of energy and creativity, meditation can enhance performance in all spheres of life. It is no more an obstacle to achievement than taking time for sleep, or proper grooming, or analyzing data for that matter.
Consider Mahatma Gandhi, a rather busy fellow who was trying to drive a colonial power out of his homeland and keep Hindus and Muslims from slaughtering one another. At the start of one especially busy day, Gandhi is said to have remarked, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”
Meditate on that for a while.
Another reason people who say they want to meditate but don’t is: they don’t know how.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “I’ve tried to meditate, but it doesn’t work for me” or, “I’m not good at it.” When I ask if they’ve ever actually been taught how to meditate, their answer is usually “No.” For some reason, people think they ought to be able to just do it, or figure it up on their own. Well, you can pick up computer programming or scuba diving on your own too, but if you want to do things well and get the most out of them, it’s a good idea to get some proper instruction.
And proper instruction does not usually include the haphazard meditation guidelines that are typically found self-help magazines. Nor is the guided relaxation in a yoga class or a stress management seminar proper instruction for doing something at home on your own. The result of such cavalier approaches to meditation is that the experience is likely to be unsatisfying. Why? Because, having heard that meditation silences the mind, people try too hard to achieve that result, and that invariably leads to strain.
As a result, we find situations like this: someone suffers from anxiety; she decides to meditate to reduce that anxiety; but she hasn’t been properly instructed, so she gets anxious about her meditation; the more she tries to get it right, the more unpleasant it becomes; she concludes it just doesn’t work for her and gives it up.
Meditation should not be a chore. It should not be painstaking or arduous. It is meant to soothe and relax, not challenge the mind the way weight-lifting challenges the body. And the best way to assure results is to take up an effective meditation practice that comes with skillful instruction. Look for a form with an honorable history, a record of proven benefits (both immediate and long-term), that is taught by a well-trained instructor and can be performed on your own with ease.
There are other reasons why people don’t meditate. One is, “Life is good, so I don’t need it.” That’s like neglecting diet or exercise because you’re not sick at the moment. Then there’s the opposite: “I’m under too much stress now,” to which the best response is, “Duh! What better reason to do it?” But, in my experience, shortage of time and lack of proper instruction are the main obstacles, and they’re easy to overcome if, like Gandhi, you recognize the value of regular meditation. And that recognition comes over time. So, once you start, stick with it long enough to give peace a chance.
About Philip Goldberg:
Philip Goldberg has been studying India’s spiritual traditions for more than forty years, as both a practitioner and an author. He is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path and his latest, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, which was named one of the top ten religion books of the year by both the Huffington Post and the American Library Association’s Booklist. For his work on American Veda, Philip was given an Award of Special Distinction by the Uberoi Foundation. As a public speaker and workshop leader, he has given presentations at venues throughout the country and has appeared in national media. An ordained Interfaith Minister and spiritual counselor, he blogs regularly on the Huffington Post and Elephant Journal. His websites are www.AmericanVeda.com and www.PhilipGoldberg.com.
* Photo of meditating yoga practitioner: Freedigitalphotos.net