A common misconception is that meditation is used as a gateway to relaxation. This is only halfway true. In the long-run, yes, a regular meditation practice is likely to yield relaxation. In the short-run, however, meditation is anything but relaxing. The problem is when people expect meditation to bring them immediate nirvana. They end up frustrated and often quit prematurely.
Meditation—the common “mindfulness” variety, anyways—is about keeping your attention focused on a single object, often the sensation of the breath. When your attention strays, you non-judgmentally note where it has gone, and then gently bring it back to the breath.
This practice sounds nice and relaxing. But in reality, it’s really hard. It is universal to the human condition that your mind is going to wander a lot and probably wander to places you don’t want it to go. This is not a relaxing experience. Especially because the more you try to force the mind back to the breath the harder focusing on the breath becomes. The more you try not to think certain thoughts or feel certain emotions the stronger those thoughts and feelings become. In other words, in just 5 to 45 minutes of silence you learn how crazy, restless, and negative your mind is—and how little control you have over it. (Yikes.)
This is where most people quit. But if you don’t quit at this point and you stick to the practice a few important things may start to happen all on their own.
Instead of being frustrated and scared by your crazy, restless, negative mind you realize it generates the same thoughts and feelings in somewhat predictable patterns. Over time, you start to feel like you’re watching these thoughts and feelings from afar. Instead of being the thoughts and feelings you are observing them. This is liberating.
You also give up (or at least in my case, have very brief moments of giving up) trying to force your mind to do anything. Sure enough, in those very moments of non-trying, you tend to settle into a focused state! This, too, is a huge insight. Trying works really well until it doesn’t. Sometimes trying is the very thing that is getting in your way.
And herein lies the rub: in any given period of practice, especially early on, realizing you have no control over your thoughts and feelings and that trying to control them or resist them only makes things worse is discombobulating at best and terrifying at worse. But if you keep returning to the practice those same exact insights can be quite freeing. You learn that you are not your thoughts and feelings, and that you can let them move through you without reacting to them; that you can choose which ones to engage in and which ones to let go. You also learn that there are instances where letting go, where not trying, is, paradoxically, the very thing that will get you the result you want.
Even after months (and perhaps even years), there are times when this can all still be pretty terrifying. And yet, in a strange way, it becomes equally relaxing too.