Long story short: I read books instead.
(That’s not a stock photo, by the way, or a photo I took in a library. That’s a photo I took of some shelves in my house.)
The appeal of meditation
Meditation is a popular and ever-trendier thing in the West. I have to admit there is some appeal to the idea of a peaceful, accessible activity that increases one’s ability to handle life’s challenges with wisdom and equanimity. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to give up thinking that maybe it’s for me.
You could argue that I haven’t really tried it, but I have tried it, and after some thought I realized that reading, too, is a peaceful, accessible activity that increases one’s ability to handle life’s challenges with wisdom and equanimity, and that there’s no particular reason I shouldn’t prefer it.
Perhaps if you read about my experiences and reflections on the subject, you’ll agree.
Guided “meditation” in New Jersey
Years ago, I went to a session at the gym I was subscribed to (where mostly I used the stair climber—and the capsule coffee machine). We sat in folding metal chairs in one of the studios and listened with eyes closed to a large, scruffy man as he encouraged us to envision natural, beautiful, and calming scenery. Towards the end of the session, when we had gathered our strength, we imagined sending invisible pink beams of energy to those in our lives in need of healing.
I felt a little like the boy who refuses to admire the emperor’s clothes. Those others didn’t really believe in the invisible pink beams of energy, did they? Unlike the boy in the story, I decided discretion was the better part of valor and just played along. Placebo clothes can be socially damaging in addition to physically useless, but placebo energy beams? If anything, they might motivate real-world acts of kindness.
Meditation opportunities in Southeast Asia
Meditation is not an exotic import in this part of the world; it’s tradition. Here in Singapore—or in any of the surrounding countries—visitors can take part in beginning meditation retreats where outside influences are cut off, and you fall into the regular, quiet pattern of a monk or nun. You know, like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love.
I have never gone on a meditation retreat; somehow the opportunity cost is always too high. Vacations (holidays) are when I spend time with my spouse or my family or his family. Turning my back on them when I have time off work is hard to do.
Meditation for free
You don’t have to clear your calendar for days at a time to take meditation lessons, though, and you don’t even have to pay, necessarily. Seizing an opportunity that could hardly have been more convenient, I attended approximately three sessions of a nearby free meditation class led by a volunteer. The sessions differed from the one at my gym in that more silence was involved. We were given some idea to reflect on as we breathed in and out, or possibly some counting to do to keep our minds from filling up with other things, and then we were left to get on with it for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. There was a resonant bell involved, and a candle. Possibly also a flower. We sat on mats and cushions on the floor.
The sitting was hard. My leg fell asleep. Afterwards, I was told that if such a thing happened again during meditation, I should imagine breathing into my leg to ease the discomfort. I’m not sure what that was supposed to mean. The internet told me, more helpfully, that the tingly-ants feeling is due to a pinched nerve (and not, as I’d thought, to problems with blood flow). The internet, or rather, the American parts of the internet, then offered to sell me all kinds of meditation “equipment” which would, presumably, ensure a more comfortable sitting posture.
…but at what cost?
Yeah, leave it to Americans to create a market for fancy, comfortable products for an activity which consists of sitting in one place doing nothing—an activity intended to be practiced in the manner of a self-denying ascetic seeking detachment from life’s material gains and pains. Honestly, you’d think meditation would be a hobby that wouldn’t involve equipment, wouldn’t you? Probably there’s even an ap for it, too. Your smartphone can no doubt track how often and how long you meditate, supply an inspirational quote of the day, and play soothing music, atmospheric sound effects, or instructional videos, as needed. (No thanks.)
I made do with an unbelievably soft red microfiber bathmat that I bought for SG$10 plus an undignified small green injection-molded plastic stool depicting a monkey dangling over a pond. The stool is adorned with the rather enigmatic phrase “Moon River Spice”. This odd combination of cheap household items enabled me to kneel rather than sit. I considered ordering a purpose-made, hand-crafted wooden folding stool from overseas, but I was glad I hadn’t bothered to invest in any expensive stuff when I stopped going to the class.
It wasn’t relaxing for me. You’d think an introvert would be good at meditation, wouldn’t you? Perhaps I would be, on my own. In a group? Not so much. Meditation is an uncomfortably strange group activity. Worse, I felt like an intruder because the class was ongoing and the others in the group knew each other already. If it had been uncomfortable for everyone, the strangeness would have been a lot easier to stomach.
At the end of the sessions, we did “mindful movement”, which was kind of like stretching. That was WAY worse for me than sitting on the floor, tingly ants notwithstanding, because sadly I do NOT know how to move my arms and my legs at the same time, especially if I’m trying to copy someone who’s facing a direction 90 degrees from the one I’m facing, and I’m supposed to rotate so that actually she’s behind me and I can’t even see what she’s doing. Gah.
So. To sum up. After engaging in an unintuitive, somewhat inauthentically mystical activity conducted in a dim room full of strangers in a painful position on the floor, I made awkward use of non-existent gross-motor skills. Does any of that sound likely to leave me in a peaceful state of mind? I was way better off with the invisible pink energy beams, TBH.
“You’re not being fair at all!”
You’re right; I’m not. Hang on, though. I haven’t said that those people were unkind or misguided, nor that any and every meditation class would be equally unpleasant. Nor even that it would be unthinkable to try visiting the very same class again with a more open attitude towards meditation, meeting new people, and using my arms and legs at the same time. Learning new things is typically difficult and uncomfortable. I get it. I’m sure I could learn to cope if I had to. But I don’t.
Why should I?
What am I supposedly missing out on?
People who practice meditation claim it has a variety of physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. And, judging from scientific studies as well as anecdotal evidence, at least some of those benefits are real.
However, I think many people who have benefited from meditation probably benefited in part because they lacked a rather sedentary habit that I already have—that I’ve had for my whole life—and that, of course, is reading.
Reading as an alternative to meditation
I read a lot. When I read, I can sit still for a long time. My mind is focused away from topics of daily stress, and I feel absorbed and relaxed. Through both fiction and nonfiction, I can gain an increased appreciation for others’ feelings as well as my own. I can see and draw connections in important or interesting ways. What I learn about people can help me handle situations in the real world. I could go on and on about the results and benefits of reading.
The point is, I think it’s fair to say that I am achieving many (or possibly even most) of the secular goals of meditation already, without needing to engage in an activity that feels foreign to me.
And if anything, I need to move around more, not sit still more! I can already sit still like a boss. I am, like, the queen of sitting still. Just not on the floor.
Proponents of meditation will surely say I have missed the point. The goal of meditation is not to sit still, it’s to empty the mind, whereas the goal or at least one practically inevitable result of reading is to put more things into it. Agreed. However, I would much rather improve my mind by putting things into it than improve my mind by taking things out, even assuming it is equally easy to do either, which it’s not. I know how difficult meditation is because I’ve seen how my mind fills itself with thoughts as fast as I can dismiss them. I know how difficult reading is because I’ve taught it to four-year-olds.
There’s no question that meditation is hard. Reading is hard in some ways, too; I admit it. However, I believe reading is possibly the most worthwhile skill it is possible for a human being to learn, whereas no one has convinced me that the skill of temporarily emptying the mind is inherently more useful than, say, the skill of temporarily sticking your feet behind your head. I see that it takes practice, and I’m impressed if you can manage it—I can even see how it would be a plus in certain very specific kinds of situations—but I don’t feel the need to reach for that particular achievement in life. (Can you tell I’m not into yoga either?)
Most of the time, I don’t want my feet behind my head. And most of the time, I don’t want my mind empty of thoughts.
One common goal of many people’s chosen activities is to have well-governed thoughts (rather than zero of them). Doing certain activities puts us in a state of “flow” where everything just feels right. Reading is one such immersive activity for me.
Similarly, my husband loves computer programming. A computer does not naturally do what you want it to do; it only does what you tell it to do. Therefore, when you write a program, you have to be clear in your head what you want to say, and you have to say it perfectly, or your program will fail. New programs typically fail over and over again, in ever more subtle ways. After you have fixed a lot of broken programs, you are invariably better at thinking about certain kinds of problems, and you are arguably also better at thinking in general. Therefore, learning how to tell a piece of hardware to do what you want by means of a piece of software can be seen as invaluable training for clear thinking.
Invaluable, however, is not the same as necessary. Programming may be invaluable. Reading may be invaluable. Meditation may be invaluable. But neither programming, nor reading, nor meditation can be all things to all people. Everybody’s different.
We tend to recommend activities that we like to others because we want them to benefit from them as we have done, and we earnestly believe that they would. Nevertheless, it would not be reasonable for me to insist that to be healthy and happy, you have to drop whatever you’re doing and read as much as I do. Nor should you feel that my life is somehow appallingly lacking because I do not meditate.
I’m not missing out on the benefits that others seem to derive from meditation. Reading provides me with many of the same ones, in a form I find intuitive and more palatable overall.
Nor do I feel I must follow every trend, give everything my best effort, or even try to understand just exactly why meditation meets others’ physical, emotional, or spiritual needs.
Upon reflection, therefore, I’ve chosen to let go of the idea that “since everyone keeps talking about it, someday I should give meditation a real try—even if I don’t feel very inclined to.”
And it’s true what they say: letting go is liberating.
Perhaps I learned something as a would-be meditator after all.