Meditation isn’t about being “in your head”

I’ve heard a few different people express a similar thought with regards to meditation, along the lines of: “I spent a lot of time in my head already, and this is a problem for me. Why would I want to meditate, if that means spending more time alone with my thoughts?”

I think there’s some confusion about the focus/purpose of meditation here, but that there’s also something in this concern worth listening to. In many ways, the kind of person who “spends a lot of time in their head”, is exactly the kind of person who could benefit from meditation, because (at least as I understand it) one of the main things you’re doing with meditation is trying to change the way you relate to your thoughts and feelings, so they have less control over you. I think when people say they spend a lot of time in their heads, they’re describing something like being frequently caught up in analysis, long stories or trains of thought, and perhaps also being very affected by their thoughts emotionally. And though I can totally see why the idea of sitting and paying attention to your thoughts might seem unappealing if that’s your experience, I think one of the main things meditation is trying to help with is actually this kind of problem. I’m definitely ‘one of these people’ myself, and I find meditation helpful precisely because of this, because it helps me to detach from my thoughts and be less affected by them.

That said, though I think this kind of person stands to benefit a lot from meditation, their resistance to it might point to a genuine risk. Especially initially, sitting and paying attention – to your breath, your body, your thoughts, whatever – is really hard if you’re easily caught up in narratives and analysis. Doing this, at least initially, might be really unpleasant. And without proper guidance and support, if you’re easily caught up in thoughts and narratives, you might be more at risk of having negative experiences with meditation. You might find you sit and simply find yourself getting more and more frustrated with yourself, or suddenly noticing more and more negative emotions.

I guess part of what I’m expressing is that I think precisely those people who stand to benefit most from some kind of meditation practice – from learning to pay non-judgemental attention to their experience – might also be those people for which the practice could end up being very unhelpful, if not treated carefully. It’s easy to misunderstand what meditation is about, to think that it’s supposed to be relaxing. Sometimes it might be, but much of the time it’s not. And I don’t want people who find they struggle with it to think that this necessarily means meditation isn’t going to benefit them.

This post does a really good job of explaining how meditation might be worth doing even if it feels unpleasant to you, in the same way exercise is good for you even if it often doesn’t feel great. I’m tempted to go even further and suggest that if you find meditation unpleasant, it might be especially likely to benefit you. But of course, I also want to caveat that there are lots of complex factors that go into how helpful something like meditation is, I might be over-generalising from my experience, and often it’s not helpful to push yourself to do things that don’t feel good.

 

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