The quiet mind: A study on why overselling meditation hurts everyone

Anyone familiar with conversations about meditation (at least in a western society like the United States) will know how common it is for the topic of “a quiet mind” or “a still mind” to come up. This is so prevalent in the discussion about meditation, in fact, that it has emerged as one of the primary objections to or criticisms of meditation by those who have reached for and failed to grasp such prized benefits which are often touted as a surefire reward of the practices.

And this is unfortunate, because for all the benefits that meditation or mindfulness might provide, a growing group of people are deeply inclined to dismiss or even refuse to engage in meditative practice because they have been sold strong or even outlandish misrepresentations of the practice. These claims are often made for no other reason than simply to win this potential meditator as an adherent to regular practice.

This is a primary shortcoming of ethnocentricity, wherein a tribe attempts to convert non-practitioners to the tribe’s traditions, usually by attempting to oversell the group’s benefits and refute diverse (alternate) practices or perspectives at almost any cost. Having someone pick up meditation if it doesn’t serve them is bad for them, but it’s bad for those who derive genuine objective value from the practice. This fact doesn’t go away if the reason for their initially negative experience is due to judgment, misconception, resistance, or some other personal influence. This choice to present hyperbolic claims as though they are easy pickings for newcomers imposes too high of a “minimum expectation” for achievement in the group’s practices or values, and essentially cuts too many people off from the more subtle (but perhaps more attainable) benefits of the practice. With high distress levels worldwide, overlooking the simple, accessible benefits of novice practice is a foolish act of “jumping ahead”.

All this is to say, I think the idea of a quiet mind might be a misdirect, overstatement, or even outlandish promise of meditation’s benefits in the first place. I imagine this promise is driven as much from a desperate attempt to validate meditation in some big way as it is to get someone to “just try it out” so they can experience the very real, very beneficial, very needed (albeit less lavish) benefits. I’m not claiming a mind can’t be quieted, or that a soul can’t be stilled in a peaceful and healthy way. But these are the byproduct, not the goal. They’re the fruit, not the work. And many seasoned practitioners would argue that some nirvanic sense of bliss isn’t even the most abundant or valuable benefit meditation has to offer.

The truth is, most humans today are stressed, anxious, or depressed (if not a combination of all three). A subset of humans are at their breaking point. If the threshold for crossing that dangerous threshold is, let’s imagine, 50.1% presence of some combo of anxiety/depression/stress in their regular daily experience, then there are enough people at 48%, 49%, or even 50% who are moments away from having a potentially tragic experience. If anyone needs a miracle, it’s these people. But offering an empty promise doesn’t help — it risks immense damage. Feeding them “white lie false hopes just so they’ll try something that could help them out eventually is not only irresponsible, it’s unkind. I recognize the impulse for making the invitation or promise in the first place likely comes from an entirely loving, kind, or concerned place. This is what makes it an especially unfortunate engagement. If our aim is to help, it is our responsibility to inform ourselves about what helps, rather than help in ways that feel intuitive or rewarding even while they harm.

But more importantly, someone at or near their breaking point doesn’t need grand promises or lofty goals. They, in fact, likely stand to benefit much more from a regular, recurring conversation about ways they can make small and steady improvements to their situation rather than one big “whammy” solution. Put another way, if we stick with the facts, let them know what meditation is, how to get started, and draw their attention to the smaller, more immediately available, but more evidence-based benefits proven to come out of consistent practice, we stand a chance of giving them a rope they can grab onto rather than a pole they can’t even get their arms around, so to speak.

We all want to climb out of our own proverbial holes, and we all want to know there’s help there, if and when we get in a pickle — in that order. Leading someone desperate, who is feeling debilitating anxiety, to believe that they can eliminate their anxiety almost completely with a few simple meditations (or a lifetime of it) is not backed by evidence, nor is it kind.

Alternatively, letting someone who is struggling with anxiety know that meditation has been shown to reduce stress hormones, positively effect blood pressure, improve outlook, and potentially help sleep patterns — being careful to communicate that these improvements usually begin small and compound over time — gives them a reasonable expectation that if they invest in healthier patterns, they may find a small amount of relief from the practice immediately, with further relief increasing over time. It may only move them from a 49% stress load to a 47% stress load in the short term, but that small walk back from the edge of catastrophe could make all the difference for their long-term pathway to wellness.

Do you expect to be “cured” by meditation? That, my friend, does not seem to be the point of meditation. The major primary benefit I’ve found from meditation is the opportunity to ask if I’m broken in the first place.

“A quiet mind” is an idea rooted in the claim that the mind is broken. Perhaps it simply has never felt heard. Will you accept the invitation to change that dynamic with yourself, for yourself?

Sit with yourself in meditation today, and see if your mind doesn’t become easier to sit with, or quieter from a deeper sense of satisfaction from finally being listened to and heard.

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When Ron isn't cooking up new content for Sky Tripping he's spending his time with family while touring the world, practicing mindfulness, and attempting to create the tastiest smoked foods you've ever met. You can make Ron's day by leaving a comment below.

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