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Enjoying meditation

Enjoyment in meditation is a somewhat vexed question. People often assume that it's the point of the exercise. Aren't you meant to experience transcendent bliss? Or at least relax? And teachers of meditation and mindfulness often set such people straight: meditation is not about feeling good. If anything it's about being open to feeling bad. But in fact such teachers probably know that meditation can feel very good indeed, and that that's no bad thing. So what is going on?

Meditation most certainly can lead to bliss, and it's a deep part of the meditative tradition - the oldest Buddhist texts won't shut up about it. But it's not bliss for it's own sake; it's something that arises on the path to seeing things more clearly, which in turns leads to suffering less. Those ancient Buddhist monks felt very good indeed when they meditated, but their ultimate aim was to see that everything is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty of self, and thus to achieve nirvana.

The traditional method for producing this bliss is very simple: focus on one thing, such as the breath, and keep coming back to it whenever the mind wanders. Keep on doing this (for many hours a day, for days or weeks on end) and your mind will get very quiet, and very focussed on the breath (or whatever else you're focusing on) And at some point, bliss will arise. Who knows why this is: it's extremely odd that focussing on one thing would cause a state of bliss. But apparently it does.

Knowing about this is of limited value to the average meditator, by which I mean the person who lives an ordinary life, with a job and perhaps a family, and meditates for between 10 minutes and an hour each day. They might experience bliss if they go on a meditation retreat lasting 10 days or more, but otherwise, it's probably not going to happen. And, instead, the desire to feel good in meditation can become an obstacle: the only thing worse that sitting in meditation and feeling tense, distracted, and irritable, is doing that while thinking that you should be feeling good.

So it's helpful to de-emphasise enjoyment: meditation is frequently not that pleasant (though it's good for you) and yearning after pleasantness won't make it any better. Working out at the gym would be even harder to do if you'd hoped to feel ecstatic while you did it.

There are deeper reasons why meditation teachers might not talk about bliss, or might even say that unpleasantness is more important than bliss. For one, Buddhism teaches that craving is the root of all suffering, and some Buddhist traditions have worried that bliss stokes craving: we want to feel bliss, we chase after it, we get addicted to it, and that just takes us further from uprooting craving and freeing ourselves from suffering. And, relatedly, if the goal is to be free from craving, then that means seeing all experiences equally - being just as content with pain as with pleasure. Some Buddhist traditions have emphasised this equanimity very strongly, and among them are those that spawned the secular mindfulness movement. The creators of secular mindfulness learned from their Buddhist teachers that the aim is to view all experiences equally, without preferring some to others, rather than hankering after bliss.

And this turns out to be just the ticket, when it comes to using meditation for psychological (rather than spiritual) ends. Which is part of why secular mindfulness has spread so far and wide. Many psychologists believe that one of the core processes that drives much mental distress is experiential avoidance - our inclination to avoid whatever is painful, even if doing so harms us in the long term. Going to the gym is tiresome, so I don't go. Going on a date is scary, so I don't go. Having that important conversation with a friend feels awkward, so I keep quiet. And aggregated across the whole of my life, many moments of avoidance might lead me into anxiety, depression, or other forms of suffering. Whereas if I can learn to accept painful experiences, to move towards them when it's in my best interests, to let them be as they are without trying to change them, then over the long term, in the aggregate, I might find that I suffer less.

Arguably this is at the core of all psychotherapies - what, after all, is Freud's repression other than experiential avoidance? But it's especially emphasised in secular mindfulness, in therapies that draw upon it (the "third wave" cognitive behavioural therapies), and in much contemporary Buddhist teaching. Bliss isn't what you need, they say, and anyway it's not going to happen. What would be more helpful is to get comfortable with what's unpleasant, seeing as there's so much of it about.

But does that have to be our focus? Is there no room for pleasure in meditation? Well, no, it doesn't, and, yes, there is. Because pleasure is both useful in meditation and potentially available to us ordinary, everyday meditators.

First, you are much more likely to keep on meditating if it's pleasant. It can be hard to keep on meditating, day after day, being mindful of your distraction, non-judgemental of your tension, and accepting of your boredom, even if you believe it's good for you. Second, the pleasure of meditation doesn't have to stay in the meditation: a little bit of relaxation in meditation improves your day a little; a state of transcendent bliss will improve your day a lot. And third, enjoyment helps your meditation. A happy mind tends to be a clear and stable mind.

So how can you make your meditation a little bit more pleasant? The method is pretty simple and, unlike the "focus on one thing until you explode with bliss" method, it can work for anyone, from the most pro-level meditator to the novice. You just explore the sensations of your body, find some that feel pleasant, and focus on them. Focus on them, and enjoy them. Maybe the pleasantness is very slight indeed - subtle enough that you wouldn't usually notice it. But if any part of you is at all comfortable, focus there, and tune into that sense of comfort, as though it were a frequency that you could pick out among the cacophony of other sensations.

Maybe your feet are the right temperature - not too hot and not too cold. Maybe your hands are relaxed. Maybe you can notice that it's subtly pleasant to breathe: it feels good to take in the air that you need, and it feels relaxing to let it out again. Just keep on tuning into the frequency of pleasantness, and see if it grows. Of course, it might not. And you might not be able to find anything at all pleasant in the first place. That's okay. Meditation is always hit-and-miss: nothing works for everyone, and nothing works for anyone all the time. Just keep trying now and again, and see how you go.

And this method dovetails nicely, once again, with psychology. Because while psychologists recommend overcoming experiential avoidance, they also point out a pervasive, evolved negativity bias in the human mind, which is to say that human beings evolved to focus on what's dangerous and upleasant, because that's the stuff that can kill you. A caveperson who spent their time (for example) sitting enjoying the pleasant sensations of breathing wouldn't last very long, whereas one who dwelt obsessively on anything and everything that might go wrong would live a lot longer. So the question arises: can we train ourselves out of our negativity bias, even a little bit? If we practise, in meditation and out of it, noticing and appreciating what is pleasant, could we become a little more positive in our orientation? So if we learn to enjoy meditation, perhaps we can also learn to enjoy life.


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