When will this be over? It’s a question, or more of a feeling, that often comes up when I’m meditating. Despite my intentions to meditate and my own desire to do it for a certain time, there’s always resistance inside of me. Some days I have reached down and looked at my timer, giving in for a moment to the need to be somewhere else already. Other days I try to examine from where inside me that feeling is coming. When you try to sit with a restlessness and understand it, you’ll find that it’s hard to define. The shape of it shifts and dissipates. It’s like a mist: for a moment it appears to be an immovable object, but if you shine a light on it for long enough the cloud evaporates and is gone.
What happens in meditation is usually happening in life. So if a persistent restlessness seems to come up, again and again, each time you sit, it’s likely that this feeling is present in life off the cushion too. This is how it was for me – through most of my 20s I’ve been dissatisfied with things in a way that was hard to pinpoint. I could be having a good time with friends, but I’d be uneasy about the whole situation. I might be spending time with my family, but would be unable to shake the sense that I was missing out on something else.
To begin with, I couldn’t figure out what caused these feelings, or even that they might be related. It wasn’t some strong sense of unhappiness or depression, it was more like an undercurrent that tugged at me all the time. A kind of low-level pain that you choose to ignore until it flares up. To understand it you have to slow down, focus and pay attention. Meditation creates the space for you to focus and that’s why it can be so hard in the first place. When you sit on a cushion, as still as possible, with nothing but your mind and body, there is no way to escape that low-level pain. It surfaces quickly because you’re not distracting yourself with other things. A lot of don’t want to examine that pain because we’re so used to coping with it by ignoring it. So we tell ourselves that meditation isn’t for us. It’s too boring or we don’t seem to get anything from it. I did that for a long time until the undercurrent was no longer bearable. I needed to find some kind of solution. So I sat down and started breathing.
The difference between 1 and 2
Writing about meditation is comes with a few difficulties because ultimately it shouldn’t be theoretical, it’s experiential. With that in mind, it might be useful to take a moment and do a short exercise in breathing.
Pay attention to your breath right now. If it helps, count each inhalation all the way up to 10. Then start again. This often allows you to focus more intently on each breath as it arrives. When you count the first breath, the idea is to be that number 1. To feel what that first breath is like as the air fills your lungs. How does the chest expand? Does the right side feel fuller than the left? What about the abdomen, how does that push your belly out slightly as the lungs expand? Then exhale. Focus on the feeling the whole time. Count 2 as you bring in the next breath and see how, this time, the experience is different. No inhalation will feel the same and no number will be a similar experience. Between 1 and 2 there is a world of difference. Now exhale and count to 3 and you breathe in again. Do this all the way to 10 then come back and continue reading…
This is the basic exercise of many meditation traditions. Vipassana, Zazen, or modern mindfulness practices ask you to sit down and follow the breath as a starting point. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know it’s not as easy as it sounds. When you start, the mind wanders and keeping your attention in the moment is as much a challenge as counting up to 10 without losing your place. Which is crazy – we all feel like we can count to 10, but the moment you try to slow down and it becomes difficult. Even when you’ve been meditating for a long time, the mind wanders. Trying to focus on your breath, the most immediate sensation of the present moment that you can dial in to, can feel like an impossible task.
Joy is learning to breath
Think of a situation where you’ve had nothing to do. For example, you arrive at the dentist early and have to sit for 10 minutes in an empty waiting room. Or you’re alone on a train during your commute. What do you do in these moments? If you’re anything like me, the natural thing to do is to reach for something to entertain yourself. A magazine, or podcast or phone which you can scroll through. Just sitting there and being is generally out of the question. We don’t entertain it as a possibility. To sit there aimlessly and wait seems like the height of boredom.
We all have these moments in some form or another. They happen every day to some degree. When I began meditating, I noticed that these were the moments when my low-level pain would flare up if I didn’t do something. So I decided to try and do nothing, just to see what would happen. Of course, nothing happens. You just sit there with these sensations and then, eventually, the moment passes and the dentist calls your name or you arrive at your destination. The more I meditated, the more these moments became a chance to sit with my restlessness. To experience it. And the longer I was able to just be, the more at ease I became with these sensations. The perpetual disappointment with the present moment I experienced in my 20s was a product of my expectations – that this feeling of happiness should last longer than it does, or that this sense of discomfort will be here forever. Restlessness, boredom, unease – these things don’t last, despite how intense they feel at times. They are, like all sensations, fundamentally interesting. When you take the time to examine them, they can tell you a lot about yourself.
Each breath feels different from the one which came before. Each moment has a different quality than any that you’ve experienced before. By meditating I begin to see that this difference makes each moment, or each breath, worth experiencing in its own right. And so I began to answer my question – when will this be over? The answer is now and never. Each moment is unique, but the moment will keeping coming, like waves at the shore. Our gift is the chance to sit and listen to the never-ending tide.