“I’m so bad at meditating,” is a sentence I’ve uttered countless times—until Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard called me out on it last week.
Ricard, the author of Happiness and Altruism, is known for his famous TED talk on “the habits of happiness” and is often referred to as “the happiest man in the world.” (In person, he really does radiate warmth and contentment.) He was in New York City to speak at an event organized by trendy meditation group The Path (which raised an impressive $20,000 towards clean water for a school in Nepal), and he started by addressing the idea, which, apparently, is a common sentiment.
“It’s giving up the race before crossing the starting line,” he said, building on the running metaphor as he brought up marathon training. If you’re a couch potato and want to run 26.2, he reasoned, you don’t just go out and expect to nail a 10-minute mile the whole way on day one. You put in countless hours building up endurance, you push yourself through painful long runs as you add mileage, you learn about proper form, you do drills to build speed. Until, finally, your body and mind are conditioned for running long distances. Until you’ve learned, and possibly mastered, a new skill.
“Why should it be different for compassion? Unless we train, it’s dormant,” Ricard said. “With meditation, you’re training your mind.”
We expect to put in hard work and time to learn other skills, he continued, like playing an instrument, but when we sit down on a meditation pillow and our thoughts wander and we feel antsy and uncomfortable, we assume the practice just isn’t going to work for us. (Guilty.)
And Ricard brought a ton of hard evidence to back up his point, too, showcasing the results of multiple research studies that showed the differences in brain activity between trained meditators with years of regular practice compared to novices. (By the way, he has a PhD in molecular genetics and was a biochemist before becoming a monk.) Sure, you could argue that there’s no way to know if what led those people to put in so much time meditating was that they were born with a natural ability to sit still, but regardless the studies suggest that “what matters is…how much do they train? That is the most important,” he said.
What does this have to do with happiness? Well, as a Buddhist, Ricard is a fan of loving-kindness meditation, where the practice is about projecting love and happiness on ourselves and others, until you’re so good at it that it comes naturally (and therefore helps cultivate an altruistic global consciousness).
So maybe, if I actually put in the time to learn, the prospect of sitting in stillness (and sitting with everything else challenging in life) would inspire a little more ease and even joy from the get-go. —Lisa Elaine Held
(Photos: Siyaka Taylor-Lewis for The Path)