When you think about the portrayal of meditation in the West, you might think about the good qualities of being “zen,” calm, or chilled out. What usually comes to mind for people is the image we’ve seen on way too many magazine covers: a young, beautiful (often white) woman, dressed in all white, sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop or by a river, wearing an expression of complete calm and tranquility. We are given the impression that meditation is a panacea or painkiller that will make us feel relaxed and at peace…no matter what. But, unfortunately that’s not the case, and society has done meditation–and all of us–a disservice by making it all about this one ‘mission’ of calming down.
Meditation is about waking up, not calming down. It’s about being present enough to live life to the fullest. Through training the mind to be more aware and tuned-in to the present moment we can shift our perspective from hiding out from the negative parts of our world to embracing all parts of life – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Meditation can wake us up and make us feel more alive. My favorite definition of meditation is the Tibetan word gom, which translates to “become familiar with.” Meditation offers the opportunity to become more familiar with ourselves and others. By training the mind, we become more familiar with our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and gain more insight into our unique human experience. This allows us to live a life with more connection, awareness, and perhaps most importantly, happiness.
What initially drew me to meditation was not being more calm, but rather being more skilled at living life. I wanted to make better decisions at work and in my personal life, and to respond more thoughtfully when I felt angry or frustrated. I wanted to be less judgmental with myself. Since I was a kid I’ve struggled with eating, and even after losing 85 pounds, I still have a challenging relationship with food. Meditation helped me to develop a more balanced perspective on eating, and to be more forgiving of myself on days when I did “go off.”
It’s important to point out that meditation does not erase the habits and behaviors that make us who we are. We will still get stressed out by a work colleague – but because of meditation we will not be held in that stress state for so long. Unlike its common portrayal, meditation doesn’t cause a seismic personality shift where we suddenly become emotionless, detached, or unbothered by anything. Rather, the practice allows us to have a deeper awareness of ourselves, our emotions, and our tendencies, to not be so strongly hooked by them and thus to then be more intentional with our actions. The more we know our mind, the less reactive we become. We can purposefully respond, rather than unconsciously react. We can wake up to what’s happening around us–and inside us –to make better decisions and live a life with more clarity and balance.
It has been encouraging to see a wealth of research in recent years citing many benefits to meditation beyond stress-reduction and calming down. Studies have also shown that meditation improves decision making, enhanced memory and awareness, and increased creativity and performance, to name just a few benefits.
While feeling calm may be nice and, frankly, needed at times, we have the potential to experience so much more. We can live happier, healthier lives by tuning into our experiences and emotions, rather than tuning them out. Society encourages us to either escape from, put a bandaid over, or numb ourselves to any perceived problem or negative experience. This is why we are led to believe that reaching a state of calm is the best possible outcome, and why we look to meditation to take us there. However, with time, meditation can help us live a fuller, brighter life in which we savor moments in a deeper way and are more present with ourselves and others.
By using meditation as a tool for waking up, we find that we can live a life where we are in control, as opposed to getting jerked around by whatever stressful thing is occurring. The practice allows us to start noticing more details in our lives–to become more familiar with everything and everyone around us, ourselves included. Society has conditioned us to spend so much time in our heads–ruminating about the past or worrying about the future–that we are rarely tuned in to our present experience. But, with meditation, we have a unique opportunity to fully engage with each moment and to come alive. So, instead of spending those moments trying to calm down, let’s wake up!