Did you know that it is possible for a sailboat to plot a course and sail to a point against the wind?!
More on that later.
Nearly every mindfulness meditation practitioner that I know, including me, began meditating to get something. Of course, we did! For some, that thing was relief from anxiety. For others, it was getting a better hold on their anger. Others came to the practice to find relief from the symptoms of chronic medical conditions. Nearly all of us and many others who started this practice were looking for some kind of relief – for some kind of relaxation.
When I begin working with someone new, either in individual counseling or in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes, I typically start by leading them through simple awareness of body and breath practice. When talking about this experience afterward, I often hear how physically, cognitively, and emotionally relaxed they feel. At this point, I feel a bit as if I have unintentionally baited a trap for them, the trap of meditating to replicate that experience, of meditating to relax.
Make no mistake, relaxation is great! Nearly everyone can benefit from a bit of relaxation. The trap is only sprung if the person begins to believe that every meditation experience should produce that same relaxation or if they begin meditating with the intention to make themselves relax. You see, it often goes like this: A person sits or lies down to meditate and they think, “Oh man I need this! Bring on the relaxation.” Leading themselves or using a recorded meditation, they begin paying attention to their breath and their body, just like we did in person. Eventually, thoughts arise, “where’s the relaxation?” “How come I’m not relaxed yet?” “Am I doing this wrong?” “This meditation stuff is bunk and that Drew is just some kind of snake oil salesman!” You see where this is going, right? The simple expectation or pursuit of relaxation, whether we are aware of it or not, can actually become an obstacle to relaxing.
NEWS FLASH! If you point a sailboat directly into the wind, you won’t get very far and you might end up going in the opposite direction. Shocking, right? And yet, it is actually possible for sailboats to go from a downwind position to an upwind position. What’s the trick? Through good sailboat design and clever sailing skills sailors point their boats in the general direction of, but not straight at, their goal in a maneuver called, “tacking.” For example, they might start by steering the boat 45 degrees to the right (starboard for you sailors out there) of their goal. After a bit, they turn 90 degrees to the left (port) and steer the boat 45 degrees to the left of their goal. By zig-zagging like this, they eventually get to their upwind destination. The apparent paradox is that sailboats can travel from downwind to upwind, but sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind. Does your head hurt a bit?
Mindful Tacking? Mindfulness meditation can be a bit like sailing in this way. It is certainly possible to experience deep relaxation when meditating, but meditating with the intention of relaxing is a bit like trying to sail into the wind. Our expectations and our immediate reality don’t always match, certainly not at the beginning of a practice. This leads to more thinking, judgment, and more stress. Instead of relaxing, we become more agitated. So what is the mindfulness meditation equivalent of tacking? It’s simple, really. When we sit or lie down to meditate, we do so with the intention to observe the elements of the present moment as clearly and as deeply as possible, accepting things no matter how they are. The intention is not to relax. The intention is to observe and accept. Practicing this way, we are more likely to keep our attention on our direct experience (those things we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell), and less like to get caught up in our thoughts. When we eventually do get caught up in thinking, we notice it and come back to observing. When we do this over and over, we tend to relax.
So, the next time you are meditating and find that you are frustrated because, “it’s not working,” remember sailing. Remember zig-zags. Remember tacking. Don’t “point your boat” at relaxation. Pause and cultivate an intention to curiously and compassionately observe whatever happens to be present, trusting that as you do this, the peace will come…if not immediately, then over the longer course of your practice. Happy sailing.