A Buddhist teacher I respect a great deal once proclaimed a warning about meditation: Don't do it unless you're willing to change. If you're one of the two gazillion people aiming to launch a meditation practice in this new year, please heed that warning. But here is the good news about that warning: You will change for the better.
It's that time of year when self-reflection is at an all-time high, so I shouldn't be surprised at my wall. It's covered in all the various activity I'm engaged in, written out on yellow paper. Ranging from various formats of teaching meditation to writing books on meditation to writing articles on meditation to this one big piece of paper that reads, "The Institute for Compassionate Leadership."
Looking at the wall, the over-arching notion of what I do is clear: I aim to make meditation accessible. Stepping back from the wall I find myself asking, "Why?" The answer is simple: It helps people. Specifically, it helps them connect to who they are. It empowers them to let down their walls. It lets them open their heart. Meditation transforms you if you let it. As it opens your heart, it makes you want to help the world.
That takes us to the piece of paper that names the nonprofit I founded two years ago. At the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, we take people from very diverse backgrounds who know they want to help the world and give them the daily meditation practice so they can become more self-aware. They begin to notice when they aren't communicating effectively or listening enough or how they hold certain prejudices. They see their impact on the world and are more discerning in their behavior.
When we combine that work with in-depth community organizing training and send our participants to go work in their communities they do so from a place of genuine compassion, not with the privileged mindset of "I'm so good to be doing this, let me help all you little people." They realize that we all suffer, and want to help in whatever way makes sense given the circumstances they encounter. They do not go through the world with a lens of sympathy; they view it with empathy.
At the end of six months training at the Institute, we help them network to find that social change job or launch that beneficial venture they know will help society. It has been so inspiring to see that through the mindfulness, community organizing, and practical leadership training, new contributors to the movement of people doing good in the world are going out and doing just that. We just graduated our second class and they will go on to do work in gender and LGBTQ equality, reimagining how we view mental health, and mentoring young people who need it most. But the path began for them, as it did for me, as it does for so many, with mindfulness practice.
If you are beginning a meditation practice, you will, at some point, hit the wall where you want to quit. People don't stop meditating because they start to change for the better. They stop meditating because they don't see rapid enough change. We're so used to instant gratification in America. Meditation is not that.
Meditation is a gradual shift. You have to put in the work of sitting on your butt on a daily basis, coming back to the breath over and over again, and only then do you start to see subtle results. You might notice that you were less reactive when that jerk at work was showing off. Or you were more present with your partner over dinner. Or you were more patient with that person in front of you in line at the supermarket. It's those moments when you say, "Ah ha! I might be kinder/more present/more patient because of this thing I'm doing."
If we want to make this shift internally, it will be slow and steady. These days some people are trying to market meditation as "effortless." It's not. Sorry. It's a lot of time and energy spent coming back to the present moment. We're so used to being distracted that it actually takes a great deal of effort to come back to right now.
But if you want to change for the better, you ought to do it. You ought to let the practice soften the walls around your heart and allow your compassion to flow more seamlessly into the world. And, like those participants at the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, it can inspire you to do great things that will positively effect society.
So please don't start meditating, unless you're willing to change. Don't do it, unless you want your own open heart to start to move society in a positive direction.