If you ran a marathon without any preparation or training, what would happen? You’d injure yourself. Does that mean running is bad for you? Should you steer clear unless you have been recommended to take it up by a doctor?
Of course not – running is good for the vast majority of people. But as with any new practice, beginners should start gently – little and often – rather than diving in to the deep end unprepared. And if they want to get really serious about it, it’s a good idea to get some training from an expert who can help them with their technique, and prevent any issues the new activity might bring up from becoming serious injuries.
The same is true for a great many things in life, meditation included.
Recent public debate about mindfulness has centred on it being portrayed in the media as a panacea. And the obvious reaction is, “don’t be silly – nothing’s a panacea.” Quite right. Just like aerobic exercise, drinking plenty of water, and eating a healthy diet are not panaceas. People drop dead while exercising. Drinking too much water can kill you. And don’t get me started on the drink-nothing-but-starfish-poop-for-a-month detox diets! But this doesn’t mean that exercise, hydration and a healthy diet aren’t good for you.
I think there’s a little bit of confusion in the public debate about what mindfulness actually is. It’s ancient and nuanced and difficult to translate neatly from Pali or Sanskrit. But in order to introduce it to new audiences, it has to be simplified, and this opens the door to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Take present moment awareness, for example. People have understood this to mean suppressing thought in favour of simply experiencing, or blindly accepting the status quo. But present moment awareness is exactly that: awareness of everything going on in the present moment. Including thoughts. Including feelings. Including context, and others’ behaviours and moods and motives.
And awareness opens the door to choice. Do I want to be thinking about this? Yes? Great, I’ll keep going. Am I comfortable with this status quo? No? Ok, what can I do that will maximise the chances of improving it? Awareness is always the first step in changing or improving anything. Without it, we are blind automatons. Who’s more likely to change things for the better – someone who is acting on autopilot, distracted by whatever rumination they’re currently stuck in, or someone who is aware of themselves and others, as much as possible?
So should you meditate? Well, if you want to, then yes. Try it out. Start gently. You’re doing something new, so you’ll have to adjust, and that may be slightly uncomfortable at times, just like being sore after your first few runs. But trust what you feel – if you feel like it’s helping you, or if you find that relationships with those around you seem to improve, then keep going.