Why Meditation Isn't Bliss All The Time

Written by Paula Watkins, PhD

I’ll admit that I’ve certainly had my moments of utter bewilderment at the vulgarization of meditation in mass-marketing.

As meditation has with met high-capitalist culture, we’ve witnessed the loss of a certain elegance in how, historically, these techniques were once imparted. I’ll also admit that I’m more than willing to jump on the band-wagon.

I will happily "radiate bliss" and dress in white (and frequently tight) yoga clothes, assume lotus position, make a mudra and smile serenely in front of an ocean backdrop, if it brings more people to the great gift of mind-training techniques. I’m pragmatic and therefore willing to encounter a little personal and professional shame in the name of meditation.

The only qualm I have is that it’s all a bit misleading...

As any experienced meditator will tell you: it isn’t all bliss and bountiful light.

What’s lost in the silly commercial image is that meditation can be darn right unrealaxing, unblissful, and uncomfortable at times. It's hard enough living with a monkey-mind when you don’t pay it attention to it — just try to imagine what can happen when you plumb into its depths. Meditation is a means of relinquishing from the suffering of a chaotic and unstable mind, but it must be noted that along the path there are going to be some moments of discomfort and mayhem in the process.

People think intensive yoga and meditation retreats are all light, lovely and lucid. But in reality there can be some full-on ghastly moments. The crumbling of one’s habitual patterns and techniques for coping with life can be an overtly disorienting experience. On my own journey I’ve had some heart-opening as well as harrowing experiences.

Getting smacked in the face by a lifetime of mental mayhem can make one feel nauseous. It’s not uncommon to hear retreat-participants speak of tearful breakdowns, cold sweats, nightmares as well as moments of despair and loneliness. Sounds totally relaxing, right?

However it is also true today, that modern meditation is taught in a wide array of settings, and the techniques are often devoid of their original purpose and intent. Where a Buddhist might be interested in obtaining relief from suffering in the deepest sense, modern meditators in corporate-land may be content with a little less stress, improved concentration and enhanced self-awareness. But there's nothing wrong with that!

Many modern meditation movements effectively offer practices that emphasize relaxation and bliss. There are schools that market their bliss technique of meditation and indeed research suggests they — like all approaches to meditation — can induce a blissful state in the brain.

But research also suggests that this state doesn’t last forever. No material thing lasts forever. If the simplification of meditation into relaxation gets people started on this great path then I will not complain. I’ll even don my white yoga gear (I don’t actually have any white yoga gear...yet) and get my gimmick on if it helps.

But I’ll remain a committed yogi, scientist and therapist and be upfront about the whole process of a meditative journey —the peaks and valleys; all the bliss and the grueling bits.

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