Seriously? Just Sit There? Why Meditation Might Not Be For You

Sure, these days everyone has heard about how great meditation can be for you. Great does not, however, describe my early experiences. Despite the lack of public hype years ago, smart people I trusted were recommending it. I watched them grow in their ability to stay in challenging conversations and remain calm when things were falling apart. That didn't make it suck any less when I sat down on a pillow to stare at a wall.

I squirmed. I twitched. I obsessed about finding something, anything to do other than this for the full three minutes I tried to sit still. It was so horrendously uncomfortable and, what I then called, "boring", that I never got around to giving it a second try. Every few years I would sit, squirm, and give up.

For me, meditation didn't work. It frustrated me and kept me from doing anything at all. Fortunately, I found other steps towards mindfulness that were much more manageable and, for me, enjoyable. When mindfulness seems useful for one of my clients, and meditation a brick wall on the freeway, I draw from my work with movement and focus training in studies like martial arts, climbing and theater.

Martial Arts

I'll use martial arts as one example. Many martial arts focus on combat up front and have a secret mindfulness underpinning that develops throughout the path. When students are young and full of vim, they are given fast repeating movements. These movements can later be slowed and the mind learns to stay with the body throughout a movement. (Something like Tai chi or Qigong.) The martial arts with this secret end game eventually move into some kind of standing pose and, ultimately, sitting and breathing slowly. Ta da! You're meditating and... you were secretly doing it all along.

One of my favorite martial arts is a Chinese Kung Fu style called "Ziranmen" or, "Natural Style". A part of training involves walking slowly in a circle in a low stance. You move your hands and arms and legs in a rotating pattern, like a wheel turning before you, synchronized with your breath. The first time I tried this my teacher walked behind me giving pointers until, suddenly, I realized that his voice had stopped. In fact, he was gone. All that existed was a still, light fog over the park in the morning, the sound of my breath, and the slow continuous movement of my body around the circle. A sense of deep peace and wholeness arrived in me. Much later I slowed to a stop and stood still. My teacher appeared, walking up from behind me, where he had been moving in perfect unison the whole time.

The beauty of this practice for me at that stage was that I felt like I was "doing something" and the physical movement and challenge kept me excited and interested enough that I still do it today. It helped me through a tough breakup and, yes, it also improved my Kung Fu.

My Approach

I like to take a modern approach to this process. Without the need to best someone in combat we can draw from the fundamental principles and apply them to daily activity. Walking between offices and counting your steps can become a practice. Mopping a floor. A few simple movements in the morning before catching the train. I would even go so far as to suggest that without building a practice that moves in life, meditation alone misses key ingredients. (But this is a topic for another day.)

Of course, the stillness allowed by sitting is quite powerful in the long run. I find that once my clients get up to 20 minutes a day they experience enough direct benefit that it's no longer "homework" and they are eager to keep it up. As a lifetime extrovert and high energy human it still blows my mind that I can sit perfectly still for forty minutes a day. I would never have made it, though, without the help of other practices.

I also want to be clear that you may not currently feel a need for what mindfulness offers in the first place. In the end it comes down to your own sense of what's right for you. Without understanding how it fits your situation, the lack of motivation would make it nearly impossible to sustain a practice.

You'll know if and when the time is right.

Kai Mantsch

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