That’s a large and complicated question, one that I plan to write an entire post about. But there’s one particular piece of that puzzle that I want to write about today, one that I think gets under-addressed in writing about meditation.
It helps to remember that meditation is a pleasure.
Meditation isn’t just a mental health self-care technique. It isn’t just a philosophical discipline that helps me stay present in my life. Meditation is a pleasure. It’s a hard pleasure to describe, there isn’t very good language to express the experience — but I’m going to give it a shot.
My mind is jangled much of the time. At the best of times, my mind is an omnipresent chatterbox, a nearly-constant running commentary and analysis, speculating and planning and opining and imagining and writing to-do lists and coming up with ideas. At the worst of times, my mind is an omnipresent critic, judging and carping and worrying and nitpicking and coming up with worst-case scenarios. Whatever I’m doing or thinking, there’s almost always an observer, an internal project manager evaluating whether this is really the best use of my time and energy. My mind is almost always moving forward, towards something or away from something. And it almost never shuts up.
It is a pleasure to take a break from all that. It is a pleasure to really, really rest. It is a pleasure to stay fully present with the experience of rest, to let the experience of rest and stillness sink deeply into my brain and my bones. It is a pleasure to let go. It is a pleasure to do nothing — and to do a form of “nothing” that I can be guilt-free about, a form of “nothing” that counts as productive self-care. It is a pleasure to do a form of “nothing” that is, paradoxically but non-trivially, an activity. It is a pleasure to simply be still. It is a pleasure to simply be aware of the fact that I am conscious, and alive. It is a pleasure to simply be.
When I’m meditating, and I find myself getting distracted by my own brain — and when I then return my focus to my knee or my ears or whatever part of my body I’m focusing on — the thought that’s been filtering into me as I settle back in is, “I am my body.” It’s almost becoming a secular mantra. I am my body. I am my knee, my belly, my fingers, my neck, every bit as much as I am my plans and ideas and fears and goals. In fact, my knee and my belly and my fingers and my neck are part and parcel of my plans and ideas and fears and goals: they’re not separate from them, they inform them and shape them, and are informed and shaped by them. They are intertwined, part of the same physical being.
That is an intensely sensual pleasure. Repeatedly reminding myself of my body — repeatedly reminding myself that I am my body — and repeatedly returning my focus to my body, continuing to be aware of it and to heighten my awareness of it, without feeling any obligation to do anything else but experience it… that is a profound sensual pleasure.
And there’s a state I get into when I meditate — not always, but sometimes, often enough — that I can only describe as “bliss.” It’s not an elated, ecstatic bliss — it’s more of a calm, quiet bliss — but it’s still bliss. It’s the bliss of… is “acceptance” the word? That’s not quite it: that implies complacency and letting go of the fight to change the world, and that is not it at all. (In fact, I’ve found that meditation gives me more energy to fight the bad, and gives my political anger a laser-like focus.) It’s not acceptance — but it’s something like acceptance. A temporary acceptance, maybe. Meditation is a space where, for roughly twenty minutes each day (sometimes more, sometimes less), I let myself stop fighting, stop trying to change things. I let the world be what it is; I let myself be what I am. And that feels — well, blissful. Almost by definition.
I’ll be honest: It isn’t always a pleasure. There are times when meditation is frustrating; when the chattering in my brain is unusually loud and persistent, and noticing the chatter so I can draw my focus away from it is unusually difficult. If I spend way more time in the “notice the distractions” part of meditating than I do in the “be aware of whatever I’m focusing my awareness on” part — it’s useful, it’s necessary, it’s good practice, but it’s not as much fun.
And if I’m working to stay present with my experience — and my present experience is anxious or restless or irritable or depressed — it can be very hard to stay with that, and not try to fix it, and to just let it be. It is one of the most valuable aspects of meditation — as I’ve written before, being willing to just sit with my depression is often very effective in alleviating it. But it’s not always easy or fun. I think this is part of why I sometimes resist meditating when my depression is bad, even though I know that it makes me feel better. To the degree that my depression serves a function (as opposed to just being a horrible brain fail), that function is to shut down emotions, to keep myself from feeling things that my brain thinks I can’t handle. When that’s happening, the very things that make me feel better — meditation, exercise, time outside, sex and masturbation, etc. — tend to be things that get me to feel whatever it is I’m feeling. And that can make those things hard to deal with. (At first, anyway.)
It isn’t always a pleasure. But it often is. And remembering this is a big part of what helps me keep doing it.