Mindfulness meditation is not relaxation

by Dr. Sarah Griesemer on February 12, 2012

By far, the concept that my clients struggle with the most when I am teaching meditation is that meditation is not relaxation.

“Is my mind supposed to go blank?”
“I’m supposed to push my thoughts away, right?”
“Why can’t I relax when I’m meditating! I hate it!”

There are some forms of meditation (concentration meditations, we call them) that are intended to help you relax. In these forms of meditation, you concentrate on something, usually an image or sentence. Maybe you imagine yourself at the beach. Or you repeat a mantra over and over in your head or aloud. The goal of these is to relax.

Mindfulness meditation is a form of insight meditation. In this tradition, we are focused on whatever is happening in the moment. Our goal is not to change what we find, but to experience ourselves and our lives in a new, kinder, more accepting, way.

A simple practice is to just sit down and notice your breath. The breath serves as our “home base” or “anchor” in the meditation. A place we can rest at. As we notice our breath, our busy busy minds drift. Perhaps you start instead noticing thoughts, or sounds around you. Very quickly we move away from our breath to other, more stimulating things. When we notice that we’ve drifted away from our breath we merely again return our attention to our breath. We use the breath as a resting place until we are again swept away.

You can see how this may not be relaxing. If there are thoughts or feelings that are troubling or that you normally avoid, this can be downright maddening. It might be intolerable. (If it is intolerable, discontinue the meditation. While some discomfort is normal, if you find yourself becoming overly agitated it may be time to take a break and talk to someone about how to change the practice.) This is when the work of the meditation begins. Our work is learning about ourselves. Learning more about the thoughts and feelings we avoid and why we avoid them. Learning to accept those parts of ourselves that we normally escape. Learning to find peace in the pain.

Meditation is work.

It’s hard. It can be difficult, frustrating, scary, boring, and annoying. It can also be rewarding, rejuvenating, peaceful, and releasing. It is a “practice” because it is difficult and takes repeating to build this skill. It is “practice” because it leads us to a place of growth and mastery.

Take a moment.

Take a moment now and just notice your breath. Is it shallow or deep? Slow or fast? Do you exhale or inhale for longer? Take a moment to just study your breath as though you had never heard of breathing before. Allow yourself to wonder at this complex array of movements that you do everyday, continuously, without thinking about it, that gives you life. Take a moment now to just notice before you read on.

What did you find when you tuned in? Did you become anxious? Did you feel more relaxed? Did you judge your breathing as too slow or too fast? Did your critical mind start picking apart how you breath and trying to make it “better”? Did you get lazy and want to sleep? Did you quickly think “okay, that’s enough, this is dumb” or “okay, now what?”? Meditation is as much noticing your body as your reactions to yourself and your circumstances. Beginning to understand your patterns and reactions is an important step in both self-compassion and change.

Make this “check-in” part of your day. Pick a time this week you will check in and set your phone alarm to remind you. See what you’ve noticed when the week is out.

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