Updated: Nov 11, 2020
A fear of stillness
A few years ago I was asked to help out with a study looking at the impact of meditating with a partner. Students at the university signed up for the study and were asked to complete a six-week meditation course together with their roommate. The study wanted to see if they were more likely to practice if they had a buddy. Unfortunately, as is the case in a lot of these types of studies, the students were more interested in the extra credit and free gifts they were getting as compensation than the meditation part. As a result, this was one of the more difficult classes I’ve taught because they weren’t terribly interested in learning how to meditate.
Part of their disinterest was they just didn’t see the point. As I explained to them the value of being able to sit quietly and “do nothing” their eyes grew wide and they looked visibly fearful. “Why would we want to do that?” they asked. These students not only were doing something every second of the day, they were also often multi-tasking, doing two or three things at the same time. Not filling every moment with activity felt wasteful to them and deeply uncomfortable.
By the end of the course, I was able to convince at least half of them of the therapeutic benefits of breath practice. Many of them had started using breathing practices to calm their nervous system before sleep, or when they felt stressed. A few had started to enjoy walking meditations when they were moving to and from class. If any of them started doing formal meditation practice, it was because they'd had one before and the course had renewed their interest in it. But that was only one or two of them.
Loneliness is a fear of yourself
In another class taught at a local yoga studio, this one full of meditators that actively enjoyed and practiced meditation, I posed a question and asked them to share why they practiced. I had wrongly assumed that most of them would list either stress or sleep as their reason for practicing. Some said to help with anxiety but I was pleasantly surprised to hear most say they were working to hone a deeper spiritual practice and to connect with their higher self. And to my even greater surprise, several of them talked about loneliness. They said that practicing meditation helped them feel less lonely. I'd never made the connection before, but it makes sense.
We often think of loneliness as the need for other people or a longing for connection and community. But we can also flip it around and look at loneliness as difficulty in being alone. The difference between loneliness and solitude, for example, is discomfort with oneself. If you are comfortable spending time alone, with your own thoughts, you’ll be less lonely and less afraid of being lonely.
What my students told me about meditation and loneliness was just that. A regular meditation practice helped them feel more comfortable with their own thoughts, in their own skin. It helped them feel less lonely because they were learning how to enjoy their own company. During meditation, they felt a connection to themselves and something greater than themselves. Rather than a cure for loneliness needing to come from outside of the self, they were able to cultivate peace from within, which is lasting, and empowering.
We need boredom
When I was a child growing up in a small, rural town I spent many hours alone. I liked having friends around, but it wasn’t always possible, and so I learned to enjoy playing alone. I spent most of my time outside, in the woods near my house. I talked to the trees, built fairy houses, told stories to myself. I don’t remember being lonely. I do occasionally remember complaining of boredom, which may have been a manifestation of loneliness. But I think that those years of entertaining myself, of being alone with my thoughts really gave me an appreciation for solitude.
Technology was in its infancy in my childhood, we had a TV, but no cable so only a few channels, and unlike today when you can watch almost any show you like at any moment, there just wasn’t anything to watch. Cartoons came on Saturday mornings, and that was about it. There weren’t any other screens. No video games, no internet. I read, I played physical games, I listened to music. Boredom and loneliness were not something to be feared and avoided, they were states that came and went, and they were often fuel for inspiration.
I wrote an essay last year about the importance of boredom. In that essay, I’m arguing that we’ve eradicated our own boredom by filling every little moment with some form of connection or entertainment, but it’s been to the detriment of our creative lives. I’d also like to argue here that it’s to the detriment of our intuition. It’s been my experience that intuition needs space to flourish. It needs peace and solitude.
That may just be me. I have a lot of difficulties thinking straight in a noisy environment. I’m not one of those folks that can have music and TV going at the same time or multiple pulls on my attention. I like to listen to music when I write, for example, but throw other stimuli into the mix and my brain turns to mush. That phrase “I can’t hear myself think” really applies to me. You might not feel that way. I know people who can juggle, successfully, several different attention streams.
But if my experience is anything like yours, you need time and space for your intuition to come through. During times in my life that I’ve been unhappy and my intuition was trying to alert me to changes that would help, I would use staying busy as a method to ignore it. For many years, I drowned out my intuition with addiction and work. I had reached a point in my life where things were so out of alignment that to stop and listen was upsetting.
But that’s why meditation broke me free of my addiction, and why it still remains one of the best practices I know to connect to my intuition. I had meditated for a few years before I decided to quit drinking, but the more I did, the harder it became to ignore the voice telling me that it was unhealthy. That it wasn’t what was in my highest and best interest. That it was holding me back.
I think there are a lot of truths that we know, our heart knows, but we don’t want to hear them. Maybe it’s that you don’t feel in alignment with your current work or your afraid of what your family might think of certain decisions you’d like to make. Maybe it’s that you’d like to break free from a culture or programming that you know is holding you back. But rather than listen, we stay safe, we stay comfortable. We use methods to keep ourselves in a place that inhibits our growth. We use tactics to drown out our intuition.
But practices that foster growth, like the ones I describe here on the blog, they are not always fun and exciting. Sometimes they are deeply uncomfortable. What scary truths did those college students fear they would find if they got quiet enough and looked inward? Would they find they didn’t want to be in college? That they were in relationships that weren’t good for them or engaging in activities that hurt them? Or would they just hear the clanging bell of “not good enough, not good enough, not good enough” that flowed through their minds and fed their drive? I don’t know.
What’s there when we get quiet can be really painful. What’s there when we really hear our own thoughts is sometimes shocking and can cause us grief. But we can’t ever really clear all of that noise out if we don’t turn our attention to it first. Our feelings of unworthiness aren’t our core essence. The problem is that we hear those thoughts and think they are the end, the truth.
There is an image of purification that a Buddhist monk taught me. He said that we can think of the mind like a dirty rag we find on the side of the road. With each meditation practice, we are washing it cleaner and cleaner. When we first begin, there is so much to wash away. We have to rid ourselves of so much conditioning. But over time the water begins to run clear, and the rag becomes clean. We can start to see our true nature. Those dark thoughts we are so afraid to face, they are not reality. The reality is that we are all capable of love.
If you're curious about meditation, but don't know where to start, or if you've had a practice before, and have lost your rhythm - you can download my free 31-day meditation challenge here!