Meditation and the Comfort Zone

Here’s a question: Does your meditation make your comfort zone more comfortable? Or less? Which do you prefer?

Let’s unpack this. The term “comfort zone” here means the states and activities to which you are most accustomed. They are generally states in which awareness is operating at a bare minimum, and the rest of our energy is flowing into patterned, automatic behaviours.

Oddly enough, this comfort zone isn’t always comfortable. It just feels “normal” — sometimes kind of pleasant, and sometimes unpleasant.

For example, if your “normal” is “getting things done,” it can feel pleasant (“All done!”) and it can feel unpleasant (“I don’t have time for this!”). Either way, though, it feels pretty normal.

So your comfort zone is the state you tend to default to when awareness is switched off.

What’s your comfort zone? Moving through your to-do list? Chatting with friends? Being entertained by TV or a book?

So, what does this have to do with meditation? Well, good and bad news. The good news is that meditation can be used to make your comfort zone more comfortable. If you’re okay with “normal”, meditation can be helpful to relieve stress, increase focus, get more ideas, etc. — all while staying in your comfort zone.

No, wait… that’s the bad news!

OK, so here’s another possibility: build a meditation practice that supports becoming fully present in whatever you’re experiencing, moment by moment. Not to prefer one state (like calm or bliss) over another (like frustration and depression). In this kind of meditation there is no notion whatsoever of achieving calm or insight or anything at all. And if such notions arise (they do!), they are simply more phenomena to be aware of. The end goal is to wake up to your actual experience.

This kind of meditation makes your “comfort zone” less comfortable, sometimes MUCH less comfortable. You may begin to become aware of anxiety, depression, anger, and other things that you had previously been able to ignore. You may begin to become aware of things outside your comfort zone that you might like to experience. Both very inconvenient. Both potentially uncomfortable.

What do you want from meditation? What matters to you? Pleasure? Feelings of security? Getting things done? And how do you use meditation now? To feel better? To feel more secure, more stable? To be more effective in your life?

There is no “right” answer to these questions. And the answers are far, far less important than the asking of them — asking over and over again. Because things change. You change. And asking is opening… opening to your moment to moment experience.

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Why Do You Practise?

Found in the novel Looking for Alaska by John Green. The book is unrelated to Sufism or spiritual practice, but this story popped up at a crucial time.

Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, “I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.”

Worst Reasons to Meditate

I just received a promotional mailing from a meditation course that included a cut-and-paste of an article on the benefits of meditation. Eight of the ten “reasons to meditate” cited directly conflicted with my own experience. The article’s called “Top Reasons to Meditate”, and begins thus:

Meditation is a unique form of art wherein an individual learns to focus and concentration levels. Most people consider meditation as the best method to transform one’s personality or change one self into a good human.

Aside from the muddled writing, the second sentence feeds right into a huge issue: the perception that meditation is going to “fix” you or somehow change you into something “good”. It is not. I know lots of meditators who’ve been practising for years and they’re still jerks.

— Enhance intelligence
According to a serious research conducted, it has been proved that people who meditate possess thicker gray matter as compared to those who don’t. This contributes to the intelligence of a person.

This first reason

The second reason given is:

— Happiness guaranteed
In a study, various MRI Scans were conducted on people who meditated for a long time. The results showed that these people possess enhanced activity in the left prefrontal coretex. They also displayed suppressed activity in the right prefrontal coretex. This is a state closely associated with enhanced positive emotions. This ultimately proves that people who mediate are happier.

Happiness guaranteed?? There is no guarantee of anything. Nothing. Guarantees do not exist in real life. And who is to say that the relationship between happy brain activity and meditation is causal?

— Personal Insight
Another benefit of getting deep into meditation includes an enhanced level of personal insight. You would be able to see your true self. This will be extremely beneficial for you when it comes to transforming your personality into someone who you actually are.

Problem is, that “true self” you’re going to be able to see doesn’t exist. But wait a minute… I’m going to use this to transform my personality into someone I actually am? Who was it before, and where will they go after the transformation?

— Solve Problems
With mediation it is possible for you to calm down during first few sessions. Novices usually think about the problems they face in their daily life. However, when the mind relaxes, one is able to find out solutions for even the most complicated problems that exist in his or her life.

When you start out you’ll do it wrong, but hey, your lousy efforts will still bring you benefits.

— Recover Lost Memories
When you start learning to meditate, it may take some time for your mind to calm down and adjust to the new activity. One can easily give into distractions when meditating. However, you would feel that during the initial period of adjustment, you would come to know about several long-lost memories.

Oh, GOODY. This will be better than TV.

— Minimize stress levels
According to a research performed at the University Of Massachusetts Medical School and research conducted by experts, meditation is capable of transforming brain waves in the autonomic nervous system and amygdala. This provides total control to an individual over fear and stress. Several other studies conducted in this respect have proved that people who spend quality time in meditating are calmer and more relaxed as compared to those who don’t.

TOTAL CONTROL??? If I have learned anything a tall from dharma practice, it is that there is NO SUCH THING as “total control” over anything. Not one tiny little thing, not even the next thought I will think.

— Minimize pain
Several studies have shown that meditation plays a great role in controlling chronic pain. Most of the hospitals use meditation as an integral part of program in order to help patients who have chronic pain.

See my previous comments on “control”. And what got us into this mess is the constant attempts to minimize pain. This is a classic example of “mind killing” — using a person’s delusions (the delusion that one can somehow assume control and avoid or minimize paid) in order to convince them to do what you want.

— Enlightenment
The traditional Buddhist meditation will ultimately allow you to reach the stage of enlightenment.

There is nowhere to go. Nothing to attain. Enlightenment, as so beautifully put by Te Shan, is “a post to tether donkeys”.

Bad News, Good News

“You can buy a ticket, but you can’t pick the destination.” — Ken McLeod

When beginners sit down to meditate, they generally hope for certain experiences: calm, clarity, a sense of well-being, even bliss. There are literally centuries of anecdotal evidence of this, and today we even have direct scientific evidence of the positive results of meditation. But what most people actually experience at first can be quite different from this.

Meditation is the practice of cultivating awareness. As Ken McLeod says, when you decide to become aware, you don’t get to pick what you become aware of. When we begin to notice how our minds actually work, we get the bad news: we are not nearly as consistent as we thought we were. We may see ourselves as kind and reasonable, but we notice thoughts that are cruel and capricious. We may see ourselves as strong and courageous, but we notice vulnerability and fear.

Meditation doesn’t cause these “new” thoughts and feelings to arise: it simply reveals what is already there. What’s there right now is the result of what we’ve done and experienced in the past. Of course we don’t have much influence over this — things are just unfolding according to past events and actions.

The value of meditation is not just the calm states it can sometimes produce (although those are very nice), but fact that it allows enough “space” in the mind for us to see how we’re causing needless suffering for ourselves and others. We do have influence over our future states of mind, because our future state of mind will be a result of what we choose to do from now on. If we stop letting our patterns run our life, things will change. And that’s good news.

“The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What’s going on is very important.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditate? Why on earth?

Lots of people write me saying that they don’t know anything about meditation, but would like to do it. Why on earth? Meditation is quite boring. You just sit there for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more. Usually you do nothing. Sometimes you do something, but it’s rarely interesting — paying attention to your breath, scanning your bodily sensations, and so forth. In some practices you have to do something really hard and complicated, like visualize a deity; these practices usually require a lot of repetition and consistent work over weeks or months to be effective, so they can become boring pretty quickly too (and in my experience you never get to a point where you feel you can say “I’m good at this, I can do this”). Other practices, such as Zen koans, require you to ask yourself questions which are actually unanswerable.

Meditation is actually the opposite of rewarding by the standards of any normal, sane person-on-the-street. The decision to initiate, and to sustain, a meditation practice is a very serious one. It is helpful to spend time contemplating your intention in doing so, not just at the beginning of a meditation practice, but every day.