I was lured to meditation classes by the promise of improved productivity, surviving on even less sleep, and—assuming I really stick to regular practice–transforming into a creative genius. In order to carve out two 20-minute blocks each day in my already heavily-scheduled calendar, I expected to see some pay-off.
And I did—minus the genius part at least. I’ve been practicing Vedic meditation, a mantra method, for over two years, and in the past 30-something months have seen some incredible changes. When I meditate regularly, I’m noticeably more motivated, I bounce back from late nights and early mornings, and am less distracted by all the shiny things that could normally take my focus away from work. I’d been feeling perpetually tired and burned out for months before I discovered meditation, but that started to ease.
Then, being able to function well on less sleep and finish tasks more efficiently allowed me to begin cramming even more into my day. I began freelancing, built a blog, started working on a side business, moved to New York, finished a creative writing short course, then a Buddhism course, and then enrolled in a MBA course, all within the same two-year period. I became more obsessive with goal-setting than ever before, and eventually the familiar signs of burnout began to reappear. I know I’m not the only person who operates this way—improved productivity is the promise that first attracts many ambitious 20-somethings (my friends included) to the practice.
After taking that short course on Buddhism and modern psychology, I started thinking more deeply about the real purpose of meditation; to move towards mindfulness and process orientation, rather than the goal-oriented way many of us (me!) exist. So it turns out I’ve been doing it all wrong.
My Vedic meditation teacher, Matt Ringrose, explains it better: “To just set more demanding goals at work after beginning meditation, you could say is missing the point. Ultimately meditation is about moving us away from goal orientation and into process orientation. That’s where the joy lies.”
Stay with me folks, it gets simpler.
As the name suggests, people who are process-oriented are motivated by the process of a task—they love the planning and the development, and draw satisfaction from the actual act of completing the work. They’re present and mindful throughout all steps, and while finishing the work is satisfying too, it’s secondary.
Conversely, goal-oriented folks are motivated by a finished product, which inspires them to work quickly in order to get something done, a trait that doesn’t always bode well for the quality of the work. To be goal-oriented is therefore the complete opposite of being mindful and present, which is key to the practice of meditation. So when you’re meditating with the hope of Getting More Done, you’re missing the point. “When we are present joy can arise,” Ringrose explained. “It can never arise through speculative thinking which is what we spend so much time doing. That’s central to the ‘spiritual’ benefits that come from meditation.”
If the promise of fitting more into your day is what gets you in the door, then great. As meditation guru Gabrielle Bernstein told me, “If the idea of productivity is getting someone on the meditation cushion then it’s perfect! They may think they’re meditating to get more done but they’ll reap all the benefits and hopefully get hooked.”
However if, like me, you’ve been practicing for years and just keep adding more onto your plate, it might be time to readjust your schedule, let go of the goal-obsession, and enjoy the process. That doesn’t mean you should stop meditating though, there are plenty of other benefits: “It boosts your immune system, lowers your stress levels, and reorganizes your nervous system,” Bernstein explained. So even if you’re not pulling 15-hour work days any more, it’s still worth keeping meditation on that crazy to-do list of yours.