Meditation can be intrinsically rewarding – a brief vacation or respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life, a relaxing or refreshing activity, or even a time set aside to connect with a community of fellow meditators. Following each meditation session there may be a lingering feeling of relaxation, the sense of being a bit more grounded, and a bit less reactive to challenging events. The same may be true, however, for a number of activities, like taking a nap or a bubble bath, sitting with a good book, or having a glass of wine with a friend. With so many demands on our time, why choose to sit in meditation?
When things go wrong, our “fight-or-flight” response takes hold. For our distant ancestors who lived in primitive conditions, surrounded by wild beasts, far from the top of the food chain, the activation of stress hormones that allowed them to spring reflexively into action to save themselves was crucial to human survival. In our complicated and complex modern world we typically do not encounter tigers or other predators with teeth and claws, but instead are bombarded daily with challenges from social, psychological, financial, electronic, environmental, political, and so many other domains. Because our brains have not evolved to keep pace with such radical change, we tend to perceive and react to all kinds of challenges as if they were tigers – our bodies tense, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, our attention narrows, and we experience intense urges to either attack or run away from the situation. When we become caught up in the fight-or-flight response in contexts where it is not called for, our behavior is likely to be counter-productive to effectively responding to the actual situation at hand.
A meditation practice is to mindfulness what regular exercise is to fitness. One meditation session, like a single trip to the gym, is not going to produce significant or sustained results. Hopefully, in addition to the possibility of some short term positive feelings, the single session will allow us to experience the deeper satisfaction of knowing that we have done something that is contributing to our overall health and wellbeing, and a boost of confidence that despite the inconvenience or discomfort, “I can do this!” If this sense of deeper satisfaction and confidence boost result in another meditation or exercise session, we may be on track to realizing some tangible benefits. Just as working our muscles, over time, will result in greater endurance and strength, meditation practice, over time, cultivates the quality of presence we call mindfulness.
Mindfulness, the ability to remain rooted in the present moment, able to take in information from the external environment, and experience sensory changes as sensory changes and not as indicators of imminent physical danger, allows for improved assessment of, and response to things that go wrong. In most cases, the outcome will be improved by pausing, gaining greater perspective on the situation, considering options, and choosing a response most likely to navigate the challenge successfully. Failure to respond mindfully may even lead to secondary problems, as when we react aggressively (“fight”) and are then faced with consequences our own bad behavior, or when avoid dealing with (“flight”) smaller problems that then grow into bigger problems. Mindfulness may also prevent the sorts of problems that we frequently associate with “mindlessness”, as when we caught up in distractions that result in losing or forgetting our belongings, missing turns, or saying things without thinking rather than pausing, considering our current circumstances, and responding thoughtfully.
Things will go wrong. If you start, or recommit to a regular meditation practice today, maybe they won’t go wrong as often, and when they do go wrong, you may be better able to get back on track sooner.