In a recent Facebook post, my friend and fellow writer and meditation teacher Ethan Nichtern pointed out a popular trend these days depicting meditation as being all about relaxing. He even noted an ad that popped up in his feed calling meditation “like a super-charged power nap.” A meditation studio in my area often promotes meditation as a form of “chilling.”
I encounter this idea often in my own work as a meditation teacher. Students come to classes very high-strung, their bodies full of chronic tension and their minds racing with thoughts, and they want to learn to relax. I applaud their efforts, and I help them as best I can. This work is important and beneficial for a variety of reasons. Relaxing generally makes people happier, and happier people on principle make for a better world. Relaxation down-regulates the nervous system and helps people better manage stress; it supports better decision-making, and even helps people cope better with painful situations in life, like job stress or being ill or going through a divorce or losing a loved one.
So relaxing, in and of itself, is fantastic. But it’s fantastic in the same way that chips and salsa are fantastic at the beginning of a nice Mexican meal. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking chips and salsa—they are amazing! But chips and salsa are an appetizer, not a main course. If you keep showing up to the restaurant and you always order chips and salsa and then you dash, your experience of Mexican food is rather limited.
Relaxation is awesome and useful, even essential to meditation, but it's not the whole enchilada. In my experience, relaxation is like a key that unlocks the practice of meditation; what you do with that practice once you've unlocked it is the important thing. Eventually, once you’ve practiced using it enough, you might become less curious about the key, and more curious about what’s on the other side of the door it unlocks.
A Tibetan teacher once said: "Little relaxation, little meditation. Middling relaxation, middling meditation. Great relaxation, great meditation." So the more you can relax, the deeper into your meditation practice you can go. And the deeper into your practice you go, the more you can wake up to your true nature and to the reality of the world around you and all the ways the world needs your help. That’s where I think the real value of meditation reveals itself.
In extended workshops, where I’m able to offer more explanation and guide students to a deeper meditative experience than is possible in a typical meditation class, I often speak about “three levels” of meditation. What I call Level One is what Tibetan Buddhist students refer to as shamatha meditation, with some specific relaxation-inducing breathing techniques borrowed from my training as a yoga teacher. Level One has two main components: relaxation and attention, and this is what I typically teach in open-level meditation classes.
So it all starts with relaxation—it really does. Just like a Mexican meal might start with chips and salsa. But once you learn to relax, that’s when meditation gets really interesting. If chips and salsa are all you’re interested in, no problem. No judgments here. I’m a big fan of chips and salsa, and relaxation is the bomb. (But before you go, I just want to mention that there’s also a whole buffet of enchiladas, tacos, burritos, empanadas, and tostadas available....)
For the student who is committed to waking up, there are other levels of meditation waiting to be explored. But you have to have the appetite for them, and it helps to have someone to guide you through them. The menu in this restaurant is a strange one, with specials that change daily; it requires some interpretation and perhaps recommendations that are tailored for you.
It’s also possible to go to the other extreme, and turn your pursuit of meditation into a tasting menu. A small plate of this technique, a few bites of that one—and before you know it, you’ve got meditative indigestion. In culinary pursuits and in meditative ones, it’s helpful to have a solid grounding in one tradition, to know which practices lend themselves to a type of “fusion cuisine” and which ones don’t—when to mix it up, and when to stick with chips and salsa.
These are lessons that only come with time, and patience, and proper guidance, and getting your hands dirty in the kitchen of your own practice.