I started to meditate by coincidence. As part of my Karate training, we’d sit in contemplation for a few minutes before and after each training session.
Even though I was only ten years old the calming, clarifying and refreshing effect intrigued me. There was an inner space that I could enter. It felt like a holiday from the woes of teenage life and most importantly from my self.
Then, a few years later, I was introduced to Transcendental Meditation, a simple mantra technique that I practiced for quite a few years. Gradually, I ventured into Tai Chi, Nei Gong, hypnosis, heart centred meditation and explored a plethora of different practices, from the obscure to the sublime.
Back then, meditation was still viewed as a fringe activity, usually engaged in by the mentally troubled. Today, society seems to have dropped its misplaced embarrassment and meditation is celebrating a renaissance.
Folks like Jon Kabat-Zin have been crucial in making mindfulness practices palatable – not only for Western society but even for the corporate world. Sony, Google, Ikea and Apple are all emptying their minds.
The hope is, that employees will cultivate higher levels of self and other awareness and become more sophisticated at making decisions and managing their emotions and relationships – the corner stones of emotional intelligence. Just like a better connected brain is a smarter and healthier brain, so is a better connected workforce.
All of this sounds great, and it is, but there are some caveats.
Supply vs. Demand
Mindfulness and meditation are en vogue and create and increasing demand for experts. The market responds with quantity but not always with quality. How do you tell the masters from the charlatans, the sane from the delusional, the self-marketing poseurs from those with substance?
My former instructor and infamous Tai Chi master Dan Docherty once said, that many of his fellow teachers talk a good talk, but don’t buy a round in the pub. I encounter this kind of anaemic hypocrisy way more often than I’d like to.
I was on my way to a pre-meeting for a programme with my team of fellow facilitators and our client, my flight was slightly delayed and a two of my colleagues had already arrived at the airport. We planned to share a car. They waited for 5-10 minutes but then got cold feet, and in fear of being late drove off without me – I received a text message saying “Sorry old friend.” The next day they empathically delivered sessions on high performing teams and on leaders being role models. Go figure.
Nobody’s perfect and often the good ones are those who are confident enough to openly accept their shortcomings. They may be egocentric, quirky, rude, withdrawn, obnoxious, hilarious, but in my experience they walk the talk and shy away from pathos, cliché and forced smiles. They are real, warts and all, and in the pub, they get their rounds in.
Here is an amusing example of the Dalai Lama, dismantling with true wisdom intelligent sounding pseudo-wisdom:
The much-advertised pleasant relaxing effect of meditation is just one side of the story. As over time the practitioner’s perception becomes increasingly subtle, previously hidden patterns, such as dysfunctional thoughts, relationships or habits spring to awareness. Most people handle these bumps just fine, but some don’t.
Then, in an attempt to deal with the issues, they respond with more meditation. This ‘doing more of the same’ approach rarely works and can exacerbate the problem. Meditation has the power to shine a light on problems, but once we see them, shining additional light on them won’t solve them. That’s where the actual work of making real life changes begins, and that’s where we may need additional support.
Meditation can be a retreat from the noise of life, a mental bubble bath. But to really serve us, the presence it cultivates needs to be brought into day-to-day life, with all its noise, smell, conflicts, defeats and moments of victory or despair.
Sometimes we may use meditation as a comfortable excuse to avoid challenging situations. However, only when we tackle those trials with as much presence as we can muster does our meditation practice “pay dividends”.
Mindfulness practices are not a quick way out, they are a slow way in. While they can help us to face everyday life with more consciousness, they don’t prevent us from getting our hands dirty.
In “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” Ervin Goffman compares us to actors, who step on a stage, to play a role; only in day-to-day life we act on a social stage, to avoid embarrassment. The backstage area is where we are unseen and drop our masks. Free at last, if only for a moment.
Often the roles we enact have been carefully predefined – a doctor talks and behaves in a certain way, so does the policeman, the model, the rock star, the politician. In our daily roles we slip into those acts all the time: the motivated employee, the caring mother, the confident businessman, the empathetic coach. We want others to believe in our farce, and make choices based on image-preservation, rather than actual necessities. This creates a tension between what needs to happen and what is actually happening. Eventually we pay the price for this shortfall.
Mindfulness is no exception here. We have a specific image of what someone, who is well versed in the matter ought to look like: even-tempered, soft-spoken, a mild smile, serene, maybe with an orange robe. Mindfulness becomes yet another act and we become concerned with projecting the right image.
The real stuff however, happens backstage.
When we “really” meditate our masks drop, the striving, the trying, the pretending dissipate, we become more real, more vulnerable and more accepting of what is – the beautiful and the embarrassing. Investing less energy into our masks frees up energy for that which actually serves us. That’s how meditation and mindfulness become deeply transforming. And even though the journey can be a bumpy ride, we then start to live a life that is increasingly congruent with what we actually want and what a given situation requires.
Perhaps, all there is to (un)learn on the spiritual path, mindfulness master Kayden still knows as she encounters rain for the first time. It almost seems too simple.
© Ragnar Speicher