There are many obstacles and pitfalls when it comes to engaging in a daily practice of meditation, and one that I’ve noticed being a persistent one recently is when meditation feels like a chore, one more item on the task checklist to cross off and get out the way.
But meditation shouldn’t be a chore – and when it starts to feel like one, as it has for a while now, I know that I’ve lost sight of my intentions that ground the meditation; these are the intentions that help in many aspects of the practice, such as commitment to it, enjoyment of it, and its effectiveness.
When meditation becomes just another task to complete, it can take on a quality of tedium, and I’ll sometimes find myself going to sit begrudgingly. If I forget the why behind the meditation, besides a general sense of believing I should meditate and must maintain it as a daily habit, then I will be less likely to find the mental effort required to engage in the practice, as well as be more likely to have a very brief meditation.
My mindset has been that so long as I meditation each day, no matter how long the meditation is, then the practice is going well. I don’t disregard the value of having a disciplined attitude towards meditation or the ability to be relaxed and easy-going when it comes to the duration of meditation or how distracted one is during a particular sitting. However, discipline and self-kindness do not exclude the potential of the taskification of meditation to impede the quality of the practice.
When it comes to mindfulness, in particular, with mindful breathing and more expanded mindfulness of everything experienced, there comes a point after sustained attention where the experience turns into pure sensation, where sensations unfold of their own accord, and there is an almost aesthetic experience of watching the unfolding and noticing the quality of each sensation individually and of all sensations together. It is similar to listening to music or looking at a painting, except the musical notes and artistic images are, in the case of meditation, the felt immediacy of the qualities of experience.
As when listening to one piece of music or looking at one painting, there is unity in the experience. This is a unity of sensation or wholeness of experience, where boundaries between sensations relating to me and those relating to the world dissolve. A noise in the outside world is as much a component of the ever-evolving picture – this field of varied feltness – as a bodily feeling of warmth or coldness, or an internal feeling of joy or discomfort. With this kind of shift in perspective, there is only sensation, without belongingness; sensations do not belong to ‘me’ or ‘not me’, ‘inside’ or ‘outside’. There is a rich, immediate, alive sensorium, and a fusion of awareness with the sensorium – this tapestry of experience.
I often find that there is an enjoyment and pleasure in this world of pure sensation; again, it is almost aesthetic, somewhat like being in nature and engrossed by the surroundings, but unmistakably different since there is greater awareness of all the sensations and feelings going on that are related to the mind and body. These include arising thoughts and feelings, as well as noticing physical sensations like pressure in certain areas of the body (i.e. due to sitting), itches, tingling, temperature, the heartbeat, the tongue and inside of the mouth, how the breath feels going through the nostrils, how the body changes when inhaling and exhaling.
Every sensation can take on the quality of different sounds, textures, or vibrations (when I say ‘vibration’, I don’t mean the woo-woo, New Age idea of tapping into my ‘vibrational frequency’ or ‘vibrational energy’ but the visceral feeling, in meditation, of sensations having a buzz, hum, or electric-like quality to them). Reminding myself of the enjoyment of this aliveness of experience can actually make me look forward to meditation and better immerse myself in the practice, as this kind of experience is unique and unlike what I normally experience, although by more regularly engaging with this feeling during meditation, it will be easier to experience greater aliveness during other moments in daily life.
But there are many other intentions I have when it comes to meditation, which help to reverse my feeling of sitting with eyes closed being a chore, turning this more into a state of mind to look forward to. These intentions include a wish to cultivate the following: awareness of my internal state, present-mindedness, joy, compassion, kindness, the ability to cope with the stresses and challenges of life, better sleep, and improved mental well-being. When I see meditation as a form of mental training, with positive ripple effects in daily life (e.g. feeling more aware of and appreciative of immediate experience), then meditation becomes no longer some annoying duty but a time for restoration.
In terms of the Buddhist context that undergirds meditation, I too recognise the value in using meditation to see more clearly into reality, or what Buddhists call the three marks of existence: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (aniccā), and non-self (anattā). When cultivating mindfulness (picking an object of attention, such as the breath, and bringing attention back to that object when distracted) and concentration (holding attention steady on that chosen object), it becomes easier to realise these three marks of existence. In meditation, it becomes possible to experience and not just think abstractly about the unavoidability of suffering (dukkha), how everything is in flux (aniccā), and how there is no essential self underlying one’s experiences (anattā).
For me, it’s important to remind myself that meditating to gain these insights is not just valuable in a philosophical sense but also as a way to further enhance well-being. Understanding that nothing brings lasting or complete satisfaction, that things inevitably change, and that the ego I feel I need to protect is an illusion can help massively in lifting some psychological burdens. When meditation is thus framed as a powerful tool with a range of benefits, it no longer feels like a chore in my mind.