At the beginning of this year I made a vow. If you’ve read my other columns here you’ll no doubt be aware of the fact that I’ve had trouble picking—and then sticking with—a specific Buddhist modality. There’s so much available, especially with the advent of teaching via Internet, that my attention has always been divided among the glut of Buddhist approaches that have flooded the West. I’ve snatched up every shiny object out there and fiddled with it only to become entranced by another sparkly thing close by. The sentence that best sums up my journey is probably “Ohhhh, look at that delightful thing . . . oh, SHIT what’s that over there?!”
So I’m a bad Buddhist. I’ve known that for a while. Yet I’ve never had any issues with the basic underpinnings of the philosophy. The first time I read about suffering, no-self, and impermanence, I was transformed. Those things and many other, finer details have always sublimely resounded with me.
Not so with actual practice. After years of swaying capriciously between meditative methods, I finally wore myself out. I was so disgusted with my constant vacillation that I decided to just nail it down. I was going to stand pat on one hand and play it to the end. Vipassana had always seemed to produce the best fruit for me so I vowed to do that in such a hardcore manner that I’d reach awakening lickety split-ish. It was time to get enlightened or die tryin’. Here are the five most uncomfortable things I discovered while doing so.
1. Where the hell is my free time?
The first thing I had to do after making this decision was carve out time in my daily life. It’s no different from a resolution to start jogging and get in shape, except I could keep eating Slim Jims and I didn’t have to buy new shoes. My vow to meditate—damn, twice a day?—required me to plop my body down rather than get it active. Nonetheless, it’s mental fitness and I had to find a way to cram it into a life that’s already packed with three jobs, a wife, and trivia night at the local brewery.
The time commitment was sudden and unwieldy. Following the fairly traditional format—sitting in the morning and the evening—totally messed up my personal hygiene routine. But I’d made the move to get enlightened or die tryin’—I needed to sit twice a day.
Related: Calming the Not Now Mind
My usual carefree 25 or 30 minutes wasn’t hardcore enough, either. I made up my mind to do 45 minutes in the morning and at least that much, maybe an hour, at night. That sent my schedule into a tailspin. Instead of rising half an hour early, I was setting the alarm almost an hour before my usual time. That’s because I needed at least five to ten minutes to lie in bed and moan. My wife was a huge fan of that. “I’m so glad you’ve decided to meditate with such diligence,” she’d say, while rolling away and cuddling a pillow. “There are various things on my nightstand I can throw at you if you don’t go get enlightened in the other room.” Then it was get up or get divorced.
I wait tables and bartend at two restaurants for a living, and will have to continue until some foolish Buddhist outlet hires me to relate these ridiculous stories full-time. I often work both day and night shift, which is a severe restriction on time as it is. Not much room for hobbies, is what I’m saying. Formal sitting practice truncated that even further. Ninety or so minutes a day for meditation doesn’t sound like much, but when you have to shoehorn it into an already crazy schedule, there isn’t a lot of extra time for learning origami and air guitar.
My free time eroded quickly. My sleep schedule, already touch and go, became a nebulous thing that I just got to when I could. Which brings up the fact that . . .
2. Everyday life gets more difficult.
There’s a modern misconception that meditation is a panacea for all of life’s various travails, that the calm, focus, and serenity you cultivate on the cushion will bleed into daily existence and your worries will fly away.
I’m not here to pop any poodle-shaped balloons a nice clown blew for you, but it just isn’t true. There’s no doubt—and I repeat, no doubt—that meditation is helpful. But the notion that the practice simply flips a switch from THIS SUCKS to FANTASTIC is seriously messed up.
Meditation definitely has immediate, noticeable benefits. But it also brings some side effects that popular interpretations may not have mentioned. For example, I just asked my desk lamp if “interpretation” was the right word to use there. And, more amazingly, I waited for a response.
That’s probably not normal, but the side effects I’m talking about are a bit grimmer than that. Any serious delving into how your mind works will bring about things you may not be ready to face. Buried things, deep in the muck of your consciousness, that can break out at any time.
I was sitting over 90 minutes a day when it really got uncomfortable. Morning sits often produced a nausea that made me dread the rest of the day. It faded over time, but launching yourself off the cushion with a positive sense of well-being is one thing. Crawling off it with disturbing rumblings in your belly is another. As I’ve mentioned before, this isn’t always cosmic-flavored cotton candy and fluffy kittens. This practice digs deep into your buried shit and heaves it out into sunlight.
Most of the time, I just had to go to work with that feeling. I slung drinks, talked to customers with my happy face, and pretended nothing was amiss. Which was wretched. I also became much more aware of all the negative aspects of my persona. As I began to see the connections with what popped up in my mind and the actions that followed, I realized I dealt with the world in a deeply flawed way. It was depressing. In the midst of all the nausea and mental turbulence I kept wondering if this was working.
Again, I have to reiterate: meditation is helpful. It leads to a better life. But it can also dip you into darkness. There’s a righteous light on the other side of that darkness but you have to stick with it. If you don’t, you could get stuck in the dusk and never see the dawn.
Which is awful, because . . .
3. Good luck explaining this.
I’m generally more interested in the modern, practical dharma movement as opposed to traditional Buddhism. Don’t get me wrong: I adore Buddhism as a whole, from its original roots to today’s adaptations. But I think that secular meditation, along with the underlying Buddhist methods for dissecting the self, may be a key to peace and understanding in the skeptical West.
Related: The Mindfulness of the Buddha
Historically, only monks and nuns (but mostly monks) have practiced meditation in Eastern countries. The laity have always supported them with devotions and donations in exchange for good karma and the hope for a better future life.
But we in the Occident expect a better life here and now. Monasticism has collided with non-monastic people to produce a new breed of practitioner: lay folks who meditate.
To outsiders, it’s still a screwy religion with roots in inscrutable cultures that probably aren’t suited to the cutthroat lifestyle we’ve cobbled together here. People may enjoy the occasional Zen Yoplait commercial, but they’re not usually into chanting in Tibetan or lighting incense in front of a statue. Which turns out not to be a fat guy, by the way. What gives?
Some people in the West have chosen to focus on the practical aspects of the path minus the more outrageous claims that are attached to the whole of Buddhism. It seems possible to practice without beliefs and see the truth of the teachings revealed by personal experience and tangible results.
Something like that’s a lot easier to explain than “Well, I was fed up with samsara, you know, so I dug into the dharma and realized I’m nothing but a pile of skandhas and my existence is marked by dukkha, annica, and anatta. Whoa. So I started doing Vipassana and I’m really busting up my kleshas. I think I’m close to becoming an anagami and then nirvana is just around the corner. Cool, eh?”
When I became a hardcore meditator, most of my friends wanted to know what was going on, why they didn’t see me as much. My reasons, even within the bounds of pragmatic dharma, still sounded as weird as the rules of cricket, and I could see their eyes go vague as I explained.
People don’t want to hear about religion. Ask any Jehovah’s Witness who’s had a door slammed in his face. People don’t even want to hear about something that sounds like religion, let alone anything to do with the limp-wristed, vegan, feel-good takeover of America. They want results, goddammit, and they don’t want to have to change anything in order to achieve them.
That’s something you might want to ease into because . . .
4. I had to give up some habits.
I’ve pounded plenty of party beverages in my life. Alcohol is more than just a social lubricant; it’s a crutch. It doesn’t matter if we use it to hobble into the next relationship or simply to stumble around until we get better on our own. There are plenty of bottles out there that help us fuzzy up the details until we’re better equipped to deal.
But becoming a hardcore meditator meant I had to give up some things, like the alcoholic crutches and narcotic wheelchairs available. There was no use dedicating myself to serious practice if I was still going to rely on these things to ease over the rough spots.
In addition, it seemed I’d have to abandon the idea that there’s a me underneath all this. What habit is harder to break than that? I’ve always lived with a weird hole in my middle, which I think a lot of people feel. I poured a million gallons of alcohol, drugs, and sex into that hole trying to plug it up and stop the ache. Buddhism showed me that hole was natural and the absence it signified wasn’t to be feared. Despite my recognition of that, and my acceptance of it at an intellectual level, I’ve still fought like a demon to keep it filled.
Meditation helps. Just sitting is a great way to see that feeling, to deal with it, and understand where it comes from. But that’s not a permanent fix, at least at my skill level. You constantly have to come back to your old habitual patterns, keep discarding them over and over.
Such as laziness. I, much like the Dude, am an inherently lazy man. When I get off shift, I like to lie around and watch King of the Hill. I don’t want to do work after I work. But I had to crank it up. You don’t get enlightenment if you only go to seven. You’ve got to hit eleven.
Wasting time is another big one. I used to see my life as large chunks of stuff happening with little bits of worthless time in between. Those minutes were to be discarded. They’re not important. They’re a way station until the next thing hits. Smartphones have turned this little notion into a nuclear arsenal of time-killing Armageddon. Texting, games, lesbian lemur ballerina videos on YouTube, and Facebook. So much Facebook. I had to teach myself to put the phone down and experience those minutes as they go by rather than trying to destroy them. Meditation and mindfulness don’t just happen on the cushion. They happen while you’re waiting for an oil change, too.
Mainly, though, it’s the resistance to individual change. Silent sitting meditation transforms you as a person. And your person does not want to be changed. It’s a habit so deep, so integral, that the very notion of even nudging it is abhorrent. It seems way too monumental to ever move. Just remember to lift with your legs and not your back, because there’s always . . .
5. The risk of burnout.
Like jumping into anything, committing yourself to hardcore meditation brings a risk of going too hard at first and then giving up. Before I started, I was doing about 20 minutes a day of light shamatha. Just following my breath and trying to chill the fuck out. I made the questionable decision to leap whole-hog into a detailed version of Vipassana that, like “Mad-Eye” Moody, demanded constant vigilance. I’m not sure if I could have gone half-hog, but that wasn’t really on the table. I had committed to rush headlong toward enlightenment and no one was going to talk me out of it.
In just a few weeks, I jacked my lackluster meditation practice way up. I went from a desultory sitting every couple of days to screaming face-first at liberation. I crawled out of bed every single morning to meditate before work. I slapped my tired ass on the cushion every night before bed. Sometimes I charged home between shifts with only an hour to spare, spent 45 minutes of that break meditating and then was late getting back to work. Just a little bit late, relax.
I didn’t last. Around the two-month mark I thought I was doing well. About three months in I wasn’t too sure of that. After four months, I was certain everything was wrong. And after six months I had to back down. It was too fast and too furious and I certainly wasn’t Vin Diesel enough to take it.
I held the misguided belief that my newfound dedication would somehow protect me, like my ill-conceived commitment would shield me from difficulty and usher me politely into enlightenment just because I was such a serious go-getter.
I didn’t get enlightened, but neither did I die tryin’. At times it seemed like death was the closer of the two. I emerged from my vow exhausted, frazzled, and in need of at least one big serious drink. After that drink I decided to calm down and renegotiate the terms of my dedication to prevent things like this in the future. And Buddha has been cool with that.
[This story was first published in 2015]
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