The Problem with Meditating to Become More Productive


“Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there,’ or being in the present but wanting to be in the future.” ~Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

I started learning yoga and meditation when I was eighteen years old, in the late nineties, in the car garage of one of the few yoga teachers in Puerto Rico. I took to it like a duck to water.

By the time I was twenty-five, I had spent months on Buddhist silent retreats, living in ashrams in the USA, India, and Burma.

Meditative practices and retreats provided me with great moments of insight and healing and allowed me to have profound realizations about the goodness of my nature, my connectedness to others, and life itself.

They gave me access to states of wisdom, deep compassion, and loving kindness and brought me back again and again to the sacredness of the present moment. They also helped me heal from a painful eating disorder I suffered from at the time.

I fell in love with the Buddha’s teachings. I went on a pilgrimage a couple of times through India, visiting the historical sites related to the Buddha. I also went ahead and visited Myanmar and Thailand, where I meditated in temples and met truly remarkable teachers and practitioners.

Something about the connection between mind and body that I discovered through insight practices, the astounding beneficial effects of concentration practices in calming the mind and getting some detachment from painful and intrusive thoughts, and the healing effects of loving-kindness practices had me fascinated with the teachings.

I then went on to get a master’s degree in Buddhist studies so that I could learn some of the ancient languages and go more in depth into the history and principles of Buddhism.

Yet, these experiences often took place in the midst of a frenzied lifestyle. I was, at times, working as a waitress, saving money so that I could go on one more retreat, or having various jobs on the side to finance my studies and travels.

It was often the case that as soon as I stood up from my cushion or left the retreats, I would be in the “getting things done” mode, going back into an agitated routine—as if the practices were there to make me more productive and to catapult me into a high-performance state, as if the peace was there to help me accomplish even more.

I remember my university days when, for weeks on end, I decided I wanted to meditate for three hours a day. I would rush through my day, turn down social invitations, and maximize the use of my time so that I could get my precious 180 minutes of silence.

I hope not so many people can relate to this, but I remember times when I would get home, drop the keys on the table, put on my meditation alarm clock, sit for sixty minutes, and hop up just in time for my next appointment. Needless to say, there were many days when those three meditation hours were not the most peaceful hours of my day.

Granted, I was young and a bit extreme, but this was before the advent of the smartphone. Thereafter, I would sprint from meditation to check all my messages and notifications, lacking the self-discipline or awareness to give myself space and time to integrate things. This habit went on well into my adult years.

Eventually, it started to be the other way around. The productive and achieving attitude I had outside of meditation periods started to infiltrate my spiritual practice, and I became determined and hurried to “reach the ultimate spiritual goal.” (Not quite sure what that was at the time—maybe becoming enlightened, or fully healed, or at least in a permanent state of equipoise… reaching nirvana if you would have allowed me to dream big.)

This really did NOT work very well. It was like trying to go down the river by swimming against the current. Not only was this not effective, but it actually became harmful—grinding my being into a stressful, achieving state for hours on end, guided by a sort of FOMO on enlightenment. I would finish some meditations agitated on good days and very overwhelmed on bad ones.

As it turns out, there are many good reasons why many spiritual teachers emphasize the importance of letting go of spiritual agendas in one’s practice and engaging with the present moment as it is without aiming for a future moment.

It is not like I did not know this. I had undertaken graduate studies on Buddhism and had heard more spiritual talks than my brain could ever remember. But I found there are very good reasons as to why workaholism is considered a serious addiction that is rampant in industrialized modern societies, with some estimates suggesting that 25–30% of the population suffers from it to some degree.

Talking with the spiritual buddies I practically grew up with, I realized that, in productivity-focused cultures like ours, creating a serene lifestyle where meditation can take place easefully can be even more daunting than establishing a regular meditation practice.

Interestingly, workaholism doesn’t just refer to profitable activities relating to one’s livelihood. I have spoken to plenty of colleagues as well as clients who report a big drive to get things done.

I have heard it called “activity addiction,” and a friend recently described her exhaustion predicament as having a “spiritual burnout.” She was meditating regularly and doing her self-growth activities, listening to inspiring podcasts, and participating in profound spiritual workshops, and she found herself exhausted and confused by all the excessive input.

These are not just personal dilemmas. If we mix a cocktail of modern economies, digital overload, FOMO-inducing social media, and the need for positive actions to mitigate some of the major social challenges of our times, even some of the most Zen among us might end up with some degree of an overloaded nervous system that finds it difficult to slow down and let go of activity.

A friend once said that he used to meditate in order to live a peaceful life. And after many years of practice, he now lives a peaceful life in order to meditate.

I now know that to maintain the calmness and ease of my treasured spiritual practices, I also need to live in a way that allows space for peace  to arise. It might seem like an obvious statement, but what happens in all those hours off of the cushion (at least twenty-three of them for most of us) has a major influence on the fruits of our meditation practice.

Even though meditation can assist us in living healthy and active lifestyles, the common emphasis on increased productivity as a benefit might lead some of us to believe that meditation is an activity that we need to check off our to-do list in order to get more done.

And even if we have the right attitude and understanding of meditation, when the hectic habit of constant activity predominates in our days, letting go of it and allowing for presence and insight might be a challenging process.

My sense is that the direction of presence and stillness is where our being naturally seeks to go, as if it were our neurological mandate to turn to them. Or perhaps it is the other way around—presence and stillness organically seek to go in our direction, as if it were their mandate to manifest themselves in us.

In that sense, meditation is not something that only happens when we focus our attention in formal meditation. That balance of the fine art of doing and not-doing, of effort and effortlessness, of striving and letting go, and of meditating in stillness and living a serene, genuine life has now become a more refined compass for my meditation practice.

I still meditate daily (mostly), but I now make sure that I include a good bit of puttering around and slowing down into the rhythms of life.

And, if I am honest, I would have to confess to missing my evening meditations once in a while for a good Netflix indulgence. I am not quite sure whether this will lead to a delay in me getting fully liberated, but it sure helps me to eventually close my eyes with more joy when I approach more formal practices.

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