My new acquaintance had just finished telling me about his consistent practice of meditating twice a day for more than a few years.
“I hate it,” he said, with a smile that seemed forced.
The raw honesty filled me with delight. This guy had no interest in being the spokesperson for meditation. He just recognized how much it had done for him, and made the decision to stick with it.
Our societal conversations about meditation tend to focus on the far-reaching benefits – not so much on riding the struggle bus to get there. It’s easy to think everyone with a meditation practice is channeling pure bliss before they take on the world with the grace of Buddha.
That certainly hasn’t been the case for most of my practice. More often it looked like pulling out the meditation cushion with a sense of duty, grasping for stillness amidst the barrage of thoughts, and walking away slightly relaxed with a touch of emptiness. No transits to the fifth dimension.
Types of Meditation Suck
In my experience, there are two types of meditation suck. Beginner suck and intermediate suck. And maybe there’s a suck after that, but I haven’t experienced it yet.
The beginner suck is the struggle that accompanies all new habits. Our brain freaks out because we start going left at the fork in the neural highway – an unfamiliar path! Starting small is key to overcoming this one.
The intermediate suck is something different that comes after months – or even years – of consistent meditation practice.
For me, it was a feeling of apathy that slowly crept in. Meditation started to feel more like it was on a list of chores rather than a sacred ritual. Some days, the twenty minutes on my cushion felt like an hour of waiting in line. For something I didn’t even want to go to.
I started to question what I was missing. I was seeing the subtle, yet powerful benefits in my life, but what about the magical meditation sessions with light and love surging through me? It seemed like everyone was talking about “coming home to themselves”, while I was eagerly knocking on the door with no answer. I concluded my heart chakra must be blocked.
Embracing the suck
Mental muscles are like physical muscles, and by stressing them to their limit (safely), we build up the capacity to endure. When repetition becomes boring, upping the ante can breathe new life into any practice.
My first experience in flexing my meditation muscle was at a Zen dojo during sesshin. Without speaking on behalf of the Rinzai Zen lineage, I’m pretty sure sesshin is meant to be a suckfest. It was the first time I had been challenged to sit for over an hour without moving, and I did it multiple times over those three days. During my final round of meditation on the last morning, after pulling an all-nighter, I was energetically wasted. It took every ounce of will in me to occasionally lift my eyelids to prevent falling asleep and tipping over.
After that, sitting for 30 minutes was a treat.
My second marathon event was attending a 10-day Vipassana course where I literally sat for 8+ hours per day, for 10 days. In one session, it felt like my lower back caught on fire. At another point, I could swear my sit bones were starting to bleed from the pressure of holding my body upright.
OK, that was a bit melodramatic. But after that experience, sitting for an hour just once a day was a treat.
Suffering certainly isn’t the only way to start enjoying our meditation practice again. But if 20-30 minutes on the cushion is starting to feel mechanical, an immersive experience might be just what the guru ordered.
Looking back, these two experiences brought a deeper sense of satisfaction to my meditation practice. Because I had allowed my body to be deeply uncomfortable in a seated pose, rarely did I experience restlessness from sitting still for 30-60 minutes. Concentration also became easier, or perhaps more familiar, after attempting it for hours on end.
Now, the stillness is deeper. There are actually days where I can savor the experience of letting go and locking in on my breath for a short period of time. While I may not see a bright green light emanating from my heart chakra, these slivers of bliss are plenty enough to keep me motivated.
With a lot of the suck gone, it feels like my meditation practice is just beginning. And it’s much easier to look forward to now.