Over the course of the last few years, the practice of mindfulness meditation has sparked a great deal of interest in private and public discourse. For many this discourse takes on the form of a full-scale spiritual reawakening in their lives–the rationale of looking back to what some would call time-tested wisdom, as a guide to navigate through modern life. Still to others, who might belong to a more pragmatic mindset, the adoption of meditation into their daily routine is less about reaching an esoteric sense of enlightenment, and more about wanting to find a means of focus for the cluttered thoughts they feel are clogging up their minds.
My own interest into mindfulness meditation began sometime in late-2016, and stemmed from a general curiosity regarding the positive results being attested to by its practitioners–ranging from all sort of different personalities; including (but not limited to) self-appointed gurus, public intellectuals, corporate bosses, average laborers, and everyone in between. What peaked my curiosity most was how the underlying message from this diverse group of people was a resounding agreement that: “Yes, indeed, meditation works!” The full definition of how it “works!” and what it means for it to “work!” often vary as much as the individual backgrounds of meditation practitioners, however there are some very clear commonalities among all the positive testimonials.
A greater sense of focus is one reoccurring benefit attested to by mindfulness meditators. Specifically, a greater awareness and appreciation of the details encompassing the moment one happens to be currently occupying, as well as the multitude of thoughts that accompany it. Another common theme among meditation circles is how it leads one to confront the (supposedly false) preconceptions surrounding the fundamental concept of the Self, and the illusory nature by which we think of our Self in relations to both our internal dialogue, as well as the external world our Self interacts with (whether it is even coherent to think of the Self as an independent agent relating to the world, rather than another component in an endless string of interacting affects that make up existence).
I spent weeks researching the practice and philosophy of mindfulness meditation to get a better understanding of it, until finally, on January 1st, 2017, I decided to put theory to practice and devote a significant portions of my free time trying to gain some firsthand experience of what it truly means to incorporate meditation in my daily life. Recently, on January 1st, 2019, this personal experiment of mine came to a full stop.
When I first set out on this personal journey I expected the possible results to go one of two ways: 1. A net positive, wherein I would enjoy the benefits of reaching some semblance of self-awareness, self-discovery, and hopefully even personal growth (like so many others testified to having experienced through meditation). 2. A net neutral, the results of which would be no more dire than having wasted some portion of my time on a fruitless exercise that offered no real benefits, but ultimately no harm.
Having now gone through it, I can’t say what I experienced to have been neutral, since the practice definitely affected me on more than one level. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the affects I felt leaned more towards a net negative as a whole; so much so, I decided to give up meditating completely as something that may simply not be a suitable practice for someone like me.
Once I ceased meditating, a subsequent curiosity came over me in which I wanted to find out if there were others that have had a similar (negative) experience to my own while practicing mindfulness meditation, but surprisingly enough the answer to that questions seems to be a resounding, “No.”
I came across a few blog posts here and there of people saying they weren’t completely satisfied with what mindfulness meditation offered, or that it wasn’t what they expected, but they were still overall happy to have had the experience (even if they decided it wasn’t the right fit for them). I also finally took the time to research the medical and psychological data regarding the long-term benefits of meditation (or, more aptly, the lack thereof) I had intentionally avoided while engaging in the practice, so as not to be prematurely biased against it. Yet, other than a general confirmation that little to no empirical evidence exists to validate its self-proclaimed benefits–possibly making meditation more comparable to a placebo effect than genuine self-awareness–I still didn’t come across reports that confirmed anything close to my personal (negative) experience.
I’m not going to go into deep details regarding the exact nature of the sort of mindfulness regiment I did during this two year period; partly because I’d rather be guilty of leaving details ambiguous, then have every meditating Tom, Dick, and Mary who fancies her/himself a guru lecture me about how “real” meditation ought to be done. If that is the sort of objection coming to mind as you read this, I am unfortunately failing to get the crux of my point across.
It’s not that I meditated and got no results from it, or that my results were drastically different from what I’ve read, heard, and observed others state about their own experiences while meditating. In fact, my experiences were more or less in line with what the typical person claims to go through while practicing mindfulness exercises. My problem with meditation–and mindfulness meditation, specifically–are what I view to be the negative impact it had on my creative wherewithal.
What exactly do I mean with this? Allow me to explain.
A heightened awareness of the current moment is one of the major benefits promoted in favor of meditation. While I see how it might help those who have a habit of wearing their emotions on their sleeves to meditate–or maybe those who suffer from impulsive decision-making in general–I’m someone who came into meditation already relatively calm and collected, possessing a decent set of stress management skills to begin with. Furthermore, I’m someone who relies on having to construct imaginary plots, involving imaginary people, and projecting them into contrived scenarios that could resolve themselves any number of ways I see fit to write. Now, seeing that creative writing is generally penned in the past tense, about things that have yet to be imagined, involving situations which do not exist, I never expected mindfulness meditation to offer much in the way of benefits in this part of my life. But I also wasn’t prepared for how downright harmful it could be to it, either.
Prior to incorporating meditation into my daily routine, sitting at my desk and passionately typing away at my laptop’s keyboard for long enough to lose my sense of self because I am too immersed in the world I’m creating, was the feeling that gave me satisfaction at the end of a day when I went to bed. And, slowly but surely, I felt this passion begin to erode the more progress I made with my meditative practice. (Then subsequently return when I stopped meditating altogether.)
Sure, I got better at focusing on my breathing, as well as the various physical sensations that made up my moment-to-moment experiences, which in turn made me more aware of not just my thoughts, but the process by which these thoughts seemed to spontaneously manifest into my conscious monologue, but all of this came at a cost. Being more aware of my thoughts–moreover being conscious of the act of thinking–made it harder to lose myself within those thoughts when I needed to weave together thoughtful writing.
And it wasn’t just writing. Other creative outlets like painting became harder, too, because a large part of my painting process revolves around being able to foresee and focus on what shapes and images can be created (rather than what are present in the moment), and what method/color scheme will illustrate them best. Being aware of the moment, and the act of what I’m doing (in this case sitting in a chair while painting) offered no benefit to the act itself, and ironically often served to distract from letting my thoughts roam towards conjuring up the inspiration needed to complete the project.
Yes, inspiration. That is the key ingredient that I felt slipping the deeper I delved into meditation. Ironically, as a result I found myself feeling more frustrated and stressed as a person when I sat down to do my work; traits I largely did not possess (at least not to the level I developed) going into meditation.
Like a lot of bad side effects, it took time for the signs to come to the surface, at which point meditation had already become part of my daily routine (and, really, routines can be so hard to break once they’ve cemented into our daily lives). So I carried forward through all of 2017, and the first half of 2018, somewhat oblivious to what was the source to my depleting creative spark. Then, last summer I wrote a post on this blog titled, The Pitfalls of Self-Help, after which I started to consider the possibility that all the positive testimonials I had heard in praise of mindfulness (which got me interested in it) were just as vacuous as the testimonials of people following any other self-help/self-awareness fad.
I started to seek out other mindfulness practitioners to see what insights they had to share, and was largely met with not-fully-thought-through regurgitations from self-proclaimed meditation gurus, whose wisdom sounded more like buzzwordy slogans from the reject bin of yesterday’s fortune cookie stash.
One particular conversation proved most enlightening. The gist of it went something like:
Meditator: “How you perceive of the Self is an illusion.”
Me: “I perceive of my Self as a collection of atoms that make up the matter that is me; occupying a specific space in time that only I occupy. In what sense in this an illusion?”
Meditator: “That’s not how people define the Self. When people talk about a Self, they speak of it in terms of a separate entity that’s observing their doings, instead of being a part of it. That’s an illusion.”
Me: “But I just told you that doesn’t apply to how I, personally, conceive of the Self; as it pertains to me, or anyone else.”
Meditator: “It does. You’re trying to intellectually rationalize you perception. In reality, you’re just not being honest with how you really perceive your Self, in everyday practice.”
I’m fine with accepting that I have blind spots regarding my own conscious and subconscious awareness. What I take issue with is being told I have to accept the idea that someone else–with absolutely no firsthand access to my thoughts or perceptions–has figured out where all these blind spots are, how they pertain to my experiences, and how it all conveniently fits into her/his own preconceived generalizations and worldview. In other words, feel free to tell me that I’m wrong in my opinion, but don’t condescendingly tell me you know what I’m really thinking, in order to make me and my thoughts conform to your philosophy. That’s not awareness; that’s just bullshit. And I hate to say it, but a lot meditation seems to run very close to this level of discourse.
In the last half of 2018, as I drifted more and more away from seeing any value for keeping meditation in my life, I was given two further explanations by meditation practitioners for my lack of positive results: 1. I’m not spiritual enough, and 2. I’m too straight-edge.
I’ll freely grant the truth of the first explanation as a strong possibility. Even with the most elastic definition of the word “spiritual,” I can honestly say that it does not, and cannot, apply to me. While I know there are efforts made to promote a secular form of spirituality, I still feel the need to point out that I have never believed in the supernatural, nor the mystical, and the values and passions I have in life I do not equate or think of in any deeper “spiritual” terms. The things that give my life meaning and joy, are simply the things that give my life meaning and joy, and I see no reason why I need to lump on belabored spiritual terminologies that do little to further elucidate what is innately a tautological experience for everybody. Apparently, this type of thinking doesn’t sit well with the sort of people who claim to get concrete benefits out of meditation. In such circles, simply saying you appreciate any aspect of life, and your roles and perceptions in it, is an affirmation of your spirituality. Which is fine, but to me that just redefines spiritual so broadly that it becomes meaningless as a term. I’m not invested enough in the semantics behind it all to debate the issue, but it’s safe to say that I don’t personally consider myself to be a spiritual person (regardless of whether others want to see me as such).
As to the second point, concerning my lifestyle choices; on more than one occasion, it was suggested to me that meditation can only be truly of benefit when performed under the influence of psychedelics. I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, as I do not partake in recreational drug use (though I support anyone else’s right to do so). But I have to ask, how do you know that what you perceive to be a greater self-awareness while high on psychedelics isn’t just a drug-induced delusion that has no bearing on reality as it actually is? If being on drugs, and then meditating, is the key to opening the door to a greater truth about life, how come no one has ever emerged from these drug-fueled meditative states with any tangible, verifiable realizations about the world?
How come in all the centuries of taking mushrooms and meditating in caves, none of these yogis and gurus came out of the experience with something like “E=mc^2”, or the formula for penicillin, or even something as basic as “hey guys, guess what, the world is actually round” (in fact, there is a growing following of people online, at least some of whom I imagine are very prone to getting baked, that argue in favor of a flat-earth). It’s always some esoteric and vague platitude, like “the Self is an illusion” (as long as both “Self” and “illusion” are defined in very particular terms) or “states of happiness and suffering both depend on consciousness to be realized” (no shit, you’re telling me people who are brain dead can’t feel happy or sad?–Brilliant!). So, I must ask, what exactly is the point of a greater awareness, if said awareness has nothing tangible to say about the most fundamental, verifiable facts regarding the reality we inhabit?
And, look, perhaps there are those for whom such musings and conversations are of great value, and their personal experiences have been greatly enriched by their existence. If meditation has brought these people happiness, and impacted their personal growth as individuals positively, I would never argue to take it away from them on the basis that it wasn’t my cup of tea. We’re all different, and what works for you may not work for me, is one underlying message here.
The other reason for writing this post is to speak to anyone who may have had a similar experience with meditation to my own, and also struggled to find others voicing said experience. Although I didn’t find much in the way of negative testimony regarding mindfulness meditation, I have a hard time believing that there isn’t someone–at least one person–in the world who, like myself, has tried this out and found it to have been more of a hindrance in her/his life, rather than a benefit. To this person(s) I’d like to say, there’s in no point in struggling to move forward in a futile quest, and there’s in no shame in walking away from something that is doing you no good. There are many different ways to experience life and achieve personal fulfillment, and just because something is presented as a cure-all to what ails you, doesn’t mean that there aren’t better alternative out there more suitable for you.
And if you think everything I’ve written is unwarranted drivel, let me know, and I’ll be sure to meditate on your concerns post haste.