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Why Meditation Doesn’t Calm Your Mind or Relax You

Let’s discuss why meditation doesn’t calm your mind or relax you.

This is a crucial topic in the meditation world. It seems that newbies equate meditation with cooling off, with relaxing, as though it were a kind of mobile jacuzzi for the mind.

The bottom line is that sitting and trying to be relaxed isn’t meditation. You’ve been misled. And you’re bound to conclude you’re faulty or “can’t meditate” if meditation doesn’t calm your mind.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. At the end, we’ll discuss how to skillfully work with calm and relaxation in meditation such that we really will see the benefits of meditation.

FYI: in my training I’ve been taught to see mindfulness as a set of three skills that underlie all forms of meditation. Because of this, I use the words mindfulness and meditation quite interchangably. Bear this in mind as you read.

Why We Desire Calm and Relaxation

There is a legitimate desire behind the obsession with reaching calm and relaxation through meditation.

We live over-stimulated lives, with few periods of silence or empty time. We soon burn out if we’re constantly on the go, and we all need a way to disconnect from our obligations for a while. So we naturally pit our hopes on anything that promises this to us.

Many people start out meditating because they have hectic schedules and find themselves lost in their mind all day long. It apparently offers a way for us to rest up, shut off our thoughts, and cool off the body and mind. We intuit that meditation will bring us some relief.

We tend to speak about meditation in this way too, as though it were an escape, a kind of cave in which to retreat for a while.

I started meditating for a similar reason. I chose meditations that would (apparently) soothe me. My goal was to feel good and not experience distracting thoughts.

12 Reasons Why Meditation Doesn’t Relax You or Calm Your Mind

So though this desire has legitimate roots, many problems come when we start equating meditation with relaxation. Let me list off just a selection of them:

  • fundamentally, we don’t have control over our thoughts. They’re impersonal, fleeting, nebulous mental events. We can’t force them to calm down,
  • if we meditate to relax, our basic attitude is usually one of aversion: we’re trying to escape from our over-stimulated state,
  • meditation can produce many short-term emotional effects, pleasant and unpleasant, and we have little control over which appear on any given day,
  • even if we do calm the mind, we can easily fail to build the core skills of mindfulness,
  • if we don’t calm the mind, we conclude that we failed to meditate correctly or we can’t do it,
  • there’s a fine line between relaxation and being unconscious, sleepy, and unaware,
  • the deepest meditation has little to do with feeling relaxed,
  • we aren’t being clear on what meditation is and isn’t,
  • we can get addicted to the pleasant aspects of meditation and develop an aversion to the uncomfortable ones,
  • we don’t learn how to bring meditation into our lives,
  • leading authorities on the subject rarely encourage us to aim for relaxation,
  • real peace comes when we see beyond the mind.
reasons why meditation isn't about calm and relax

So if it’s so problematic, why do we tend to fall into this trap? Why do apps exist that basically get us to fall asleep through some “meditative” process? My hunch is that we’ve mistakenly equated meditation with relaxation.

Learn about the biggest meditation myths with my YouTube video.

Why Do We Associate Meditation With Calming The Mind?

I believe the archetypal image of meditation has played a big role in our perception of it. We see images of people sitting cross legged with their eyes closed, looking spiritual and centred, and conclude that they must be in some dreamy, relaxed state. Like this:

I also think it comes from the simple fact that we often meditate in silence. Let’s face it, most of us can’t sit still in a quiet room. We’re not used to it, and soon whip out our phone to entertain ourselves. So when we allow ourselves to sit with our eyes closed with no stimulation, it’s normal that we feel relaxed. But it doesn’t mean we’re meditating, or that the meditation itself has any bearing on our calm state.

I believe modern yoga has also contributed to this. At the end of many yoga classes, the instructor guides participants through a relaxation exercise, where the goal is to let the body settle after the yoga session. This is often called meditation.

And we also don’t listen to the masters enough. They won’t tell you that meditation relaxes you. Instead, they’ll tell you many other, amazing things that are tricky to relate to. And we should trust their judgement on the subject.

Is It a Calm Mind or Not?

Another critical issue when it comes to calming your mind is that your mind might not really be calm. Say what now? Let me explain.

When we begin in spiritual practice, our attention is unstable and cloudy. We can only detect the most salient aspects of our experience. The subtler stuff goes unnoticed.

So when we do a meditation and conclude our mind is calm and we feel peaceful, we’re likely missing undercurrents of thought and emotion. We’re not 100% free of thought and emotion, and nor should we be. It’s worth looking more closely at what’s going on inside to detect any hidden material.

What’s more, calmness and relaxation can easily become drowsiness, which is the polar opposite of what we want in meditation. When it comes to meditative growth, there’s little value in being in a state of semi-sleep.

We Can Relax AND Work Skillfully

Though I’ve been harsh regarding the use of meditation to calm your mind, the endeavours of relaxation and mindfulness can co-exist. There is a legitimate way to work with relaxation such that you’re meditating while relaxed.

I’ve written at length about what mindfulness really is, but to summarise, it’s about the quality of our attention, not what we’re paying attention to. As such, we can meditate while experiencing or doing anything. The important part isn’t what we experience, but how we experience it.

Mindfulness is concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity all working in tandem.

Shinzen Young

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

John Kabat-Zinn

We can apply this principle to calm and relaxation. The key isn’t whether or not we experience them, but how we experience them: we want to work with them skillfully, deliberately applying mindfulness to them. By doing so we train ourselves in the core skills of meditation while enjoying the calm and relaxation.

The Steps to Relax AND Meditate

You can work with directly with relaxation by making it your object of focus. Let’s use Unified Mindfulness (check out the article in the link for the UM fundamentals).

First, relaxation can show up:

  • in the body, in the feeling of loose muscles, lack of tension and light sleepiness (Feel)
  • in the mind, as lack of thought, a calm mind (See and Hear),
  • in our emotions as an absence of emotion (Feel), and
  • in the environment, as visual and auditory absence or stillness (See and Hear).

You acknowledge what you’re experiencing and decide whether it’s See, Hear or Feel, mentally label it as such, then try to maintain your attention on it. As you focus on it, you investigate and clarify it and you let the relaxation come and go as it pleases, with no resistance. This is the three-step Acknowledge–Label–Savour cycle applied to Rest.

You can also run these cycles on the positive emotions that this restful experience triggers. That way you’re getting extra mileage out of your practice.

You might wonder what’s the difference between this and ordinary relaxation meditation. There are many differences:

  • the goal here isn’t to feel relaxed per se, but to experience any relaxation in an optimal way,
  • you’re not repressing non-restful activity inside and outside; you’re simply directing your attention away from it,
  • you aren’t developing a craving for relaxation and an aversion to being overstimulated,
  • you’re learning the three core skills of mindfulness,
  • you’re practicing equanimity, which is the opposite to aversion,
  • you learn to detect and appreciate relaxation in its different modes.

My Advice for Meditation

My overarching advice with meditation is to be willing to work with anything you experience, not just the pleasant stuff. By doing so, we transform our relationship to unpleasant material. And the key to this is to have equanimity, or non-resistance, with whatever is coming up.

And know that the mind does fundamentally change as we meditate. First we begin to separate from our thoughts and are able to see them rather than getting caught in them. After more practice, thoughts can cease altogether, and feelings of bliss and rapture overcome us.

But those who reach those heights train hard to get there. They don’t sit and try to relax: they sweat to sharpen their attention skills. If we consistently train the various attention skills, eventually the mind learns to settle, and we start to see beyond it.

water surface from underneath, representing conscious and subconscious