A Buddhist teacher I respect a great deal once proclaimed a warning about meditation: don’t do it unless you’re willing to change.
It’s that time of year where people start meditating, because they want to change themselves for the better. They want to become better, calmer, or more productive. If you’re one of the two gazillion people aiming to launch a meditation practice in this new year, this warning may sound appealing. Take it from me: meditation will change you – but not in the way you may originally have suspected.
For the last two months of 2016 I took to a cabin in the woods to re-evaluate, meditate, and look ahead to 2017. I woke up not too long ago with my wall covered in all the various activity I’m engaged in, written out on yellow paper. The paper bares my horrible handwriting, and also a common theme. There were pieces that listed different ways I teach meditation. Others mentioned the various books I’ve written/am writing on meditation. Others have the name of various websites and magazines where I write articles on meditation. Then there was this one big piece of paper that read, “The Institute for Compassionate Leadership.”
Looking at the wall, the over-arching notion of what I do became clear: my work revolves around trying to make meditation accessible to all sorts of people. Stepping back from the wall I found myself asking, “Why?” The answer is simple: it helps people. Specifically, it helps them connect to who they are. It empowers them to let down their walls. It lets them open their heart. Meditation will transform you if you let it. The bonus that no one signs up for in the New Year resolution is that as it opens your heart it makes you want to help the world.
That takes us to the piece of paper that names the non-profit I founded three years ago. At the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, we take people from diverse backgrounds who know they want to help the world and give them a daily meditation practice so they become more self-aware. One of the Tibetan words for meditation is gom. This word can also be translated as “become familiar with” or “familiarity.” In other words, when you sit down to meditate what you are actually doing is becoming more familiar with who you truly are.
After months of meditation, Institute participants begin to notice what personal and professional goals keep coming up that they may have been ignoring as a result of fear. They discover when they aren’t communicating effectively or listening enough or how they hold certain prejudices. They see their impact on the world and are then more discerning in their behavior.
The Institute does more than meditation though; we combine that work with in-depth community organizing training and send our participants to go work in their communities. When they begin to approach their workplace or volunteer opportunities through these lenses they do so from a place of genuine compassion, not with the privileged mindset of “I’m so good to be doing this, let me help all you little people.” They realize that we all suffer, and want to help in whatever way makes sense given the circumstances they encounter. They do not go through the world with a lens of sympathy; they view it with empathy.
At the end of six months of training at the Institute we get them a mentor and help them network to find that social change job or launch that beneficial venture they know will help society. It has been so inspiring to see that through the mindfulness, community organizing, and practical leadership training, new contributors to the movement of people doing good in the world are going out and doing just that. In December we graduated our second class and they will go on to do work in gender and LGBTQ equality, reimagining how we view mental health, and mentoring young people who need it most. But the path began for them, as it did for me, as it does for so many, with mindfulness practice.
If you are beginning a meditation practice you will, at some point, hit the wall where you want to quit. People don’t stop meditating because they start to change for the better. They stop meditating because they don’t see rapid enough change. We’re so used to instant gratification in America. Meditation is not that.
Meditation is a gradual shift. You have to put in the work of sitting on your butt on a daily basis, coming back to the breath over and over again, and only then do you start to see subtle results. You might notice that you were less reactive when that jerk at work was showing off. Or you were more present with your partner over dinner. Or you were more patient with that person in front of you in line at the supermarket. It’s those moments when you say, “Ah ha! I might be kinder/more productive/calmer because of this thing I’m doing.”
If we want to make a shift internally, it has to be slow and steady. These days some people are trying to market launching a meditation as “effortless.” It’s not. Sorry. It’s a lot of time and energy where you just keep coming back to the present moment. After decades of habituation, pledging our mental allegiance to distraction, it actually takes a great deal of effort to come back to what is going on right now.
But if you want to change for the better, you ought to do it. You ought to let the practice soften the walls around your heart and allow your compassion to flow more seamlessly into the world. It’s worth the effort. And, like those participants at the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, it can inspire you to do great things – things that will greatly benefit society. So please don’t start meditating, unless you’re willing to change. Don’t do it, unless you want your own open heart to start to effect society overall. If you do it, commit wholeheartedly and please join the ranks of those working to change the world for the better.