Why do I meditate?
Warning. I am by no means a meditation guru. I’ve never sat for a retreat, I’ve never even meditated for more than ~30 min. at a time, however, the benefits of regular meditation are so strong, that I keep wanting to put my thoughts down so that I’d be able to refer people to them when they ask why I do it.
Assume that nothing I write here will be original, unique, or otherwise insightful. If you’re expecting a breakthrough while reading this, I will surely disappoint. However, I hope that this text will serve as another drop in the ocean of information about mindfulness meditation, its benefits and reasons to stick with it.
There’s another hidden agenda in me writing this. I would like to be able to refer back to this post if I stop meditating and see if what I wrote could inspire me to start again.
I’ll start my thoughts with a quote from the ending of Day 23 episode of Sam Harris’s meditation app called Waking Up.
[Daily meditation] is an increasingly common but still fairly esoteric thing to be doing with your time. But it is a really remarkable way of framing the rest of what you’re doing with your time, because whatever you do for the rest of the day, it will still be a matter of consciousness and it’s contents living as you through the day. There will just be seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, reacting, judging, all of these processes that greet you when you’re simply trying to pay attention. This is your life. But it’s only in this deliberate moments of training attention, that we gain this extra capacity to be clearly aware of what’s arising, and aware of our reactions to it. And to relinquish those, for a time.
And more and more if you can allow this way of being to interrupt your habits of judging and reacting, and pushing and pulling in each moment, you can begin to notice a truly profound sense of relief. You can “give up the war” for moments at a time. That capacity as it grows, really begins to matter. It can come a kind of super power. It can become something that changes what you’re able to do in each moment, the things you’re able to say or not say. And this is good, for relationship. for careers, of the way we feel in the privacy of our own minds.
This becomes a way to navigate in this landscape of possible experiences. And without it we’re just blown around by the winds of our own reactivity.
Each thought becomes what we are, and what we do, and how we feel.
That is, until we’re mindful of it. [Emphasis mine]
I was really blown away by this end-of-meditation lesson that Sam tends to tack on his guided daily meditations. The concepts of being blown every which way by the winds of our own reactivity have connected very strongly with the reasons why I keep doing meditation.
Winds of our own reactivity
What’s immediately obvious from the first time you try to sit down and focus on your breath, is that you just cannot “will yourself” to shut off all thoughts that arise in your mind, and your reactions to them. It’s really really hard. So hard in fact, that many many people give up meditation altogether, thinking they are doing it wrong, that they are not good at it, that it’s not for them.
This is really unfortunate, because, it is precisely that “noticing” that one cannot just focus on her breath for 3 seconds without thinking about something irrelevant, is the main thing one gains from daily meditation.
That “noticing muscle” of “I was focusing on my breath, but now I’m thinking about cat food” exist in all of us, but it’s rarely trained on purpose, and mindfulness is the best gym we have to train this noticing muscle.
What’s even more unfortunate, that despite there being plethora of meditation guides, gurus, books, classes, retreats etc’, people who are new, think that meditation is about turning off your thoughts. When in fact it’s a way of training how one reacts to their own thoughts, and wether or not they can notice the rise of a thought, and not react to it.
The main discovery I’ve had after meditating for a while, is that there’s no control I have over the thoughts that pop into my head. This mere fact, that thoughts arise without a directing hand, could be detrimental to ones mindfulness practice, until one turns it around, and uses it as a tool.
The makings of this tool are simple, if you are not in charge of the types of thoughts that pop into your mind while you’re trying to focus on your breath for 3 seconds, then you’re definitely not in charge of the thoughts that pop into your head when you’re in a heated comments section discussion with someone who annoys you by holding a different opinion than yours.
Additionally, if you’re not in charge of thoughts that pop into your mind, then you can give yourself a sort of distance between a thought and your reaction to it. When this distance exists, it’s easy to say ‘so what’ and not react to it, and in a sense, let it go.
This exact moment, is easily achievable by just reflecting on the thought itself. Try asking yourself “I wonder why I thought about this particular thing” and “how did it arise” and it would be the fastest way of letting go of that thought.
Effects of self retrospection on reactivity, anger and suffering
This self retrospection combined with the noticing muscle I’ve mentioned before, are the tools that continue being at your disposal through the rest of your day if you meditated in the morning.
They allow one to not let random thoughts to cloud their judgement, to second guess reactions to things like “someone cut me off on the drive to work” or “someone said something that I perceived as hurtful”
Additionally, this distancing can help one suffer less.
Suffering sits at a basis of what we are.
My newborn daughter (2 mo old at the time of writing this) will have spent most of today in blissful sleep, and will no doubt have bouts of smiles and amazingly fascinating discovery of patterns and feelings. However, a lot of her waking time will have been spent crying and fussing and making sad faces.
It fascinated me, that this amazing creature, that comes to the world without any emotional baggage, without the burden of thought and judgement or any self awareness, can still suffer as much in the early stages of life.
I’m not really sure where I was going with this example, however, I want to highlight that she suffers, without self awareness. Without this concept of self. To her, there’s just suffering or joy. There’s no feeling of “I suffer because of my incompetence, or because I’m being judged unfairly”
When she starts building this concept of “self” the suffering would still exist as a baseline in her experience. Even if I manage to provide to her a lifetime of joy, success, self fulfillment, access to everything she desires, suffering will not be gone from her life. She will without a doubt feel under-appreciated for certain things, misunderstood, angry and otherwise sad.
She then will do what we all do, take these “thoughts” and “feelings” and weave them into this ball of yarn we call “self” and will let her thoughts and feelings to become a part of herself.
This exact thing, is what mindfulness meditation is a vaccine of. When you observe that thoughts arise without your volition, without even your ability to prevent them from arising, you can start making a choice of which thoughts to weave into your ball of yarn, and which thoughts are better left out of it.
The more I’ve practiced, the more I understood that I should first of all forgive my mind for interrupting my meditation sessions rather than be angry at myself for not being able to “stop thinking”.
If you find yourself lost in thought during a meditation practice, non judgingly just point your attention back to the breath.
This non-judgemental approach has helped me persist in meditation, mainly because there’s no “bad” way of doing it.
What’s more, this quote helps me navigate the day to day even when I’m not meditating, because if I manage to not judge my own inability to react to thoughts that arise, how can I judge others for their thoughts and reactions?
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t proclaim that I’ve become a saint, a person without anger, who doesn’t pass judgement on others.
I still feel these things, I still react a lot, and get angry. I’m a father of a 2mo old kid after all.
However, I am significantly better equipped of letting go, during the time I start to feel anger, and after the fact.
By distancing myself from the thoughts and judgements, it has become easier to forgive myself for making the wrong choice, saying the wrong thing or reacting in the wrong way.
Everything arises and falls in consciousness
The most profound understanding that has hit me, is that everything we feel, arises and falls in consciousness. This may be a “DUH” statement to you, dear reader, but for me it was a revelation.
From the moment I close my eyes when I sit down to meditate, a virtual bombardment of sensations, feelings, thoughts, distractions, memories, doubts, judgements and noises start to present themself.
Now, scientists are not sure what consciousness is, where it arises, wether it’s an emergent property of the brain or something else entirely (If I’m wrong here, please let me know in comments) so I don’t presume that I could explain to you what consciousness is and how it comes to be.
Whatever it is though, there’s no doubt that it’s at the basis of everything we perceive. Everything rises and falls in consciousness. And it is exactly that part, the rise of sensation, memory, thoughts etc’ that one gets to experience more directly while meditating.
While introspecting on thoughts and feelings in consciousness, one can start looking also for that feeling we call “I” and see if there is a thinker of thoughts, or feeler of feelings. Since if one accepts that everything that arises, arises in consciousness, then by that rationale, the feeling of self (the ball-of-yarn) also resides there.
How to meditate
There really isn’t a good guideline on how to meditate properly.
I would say a good start is committing to a course and paying just a tiny amount of money to it. This could trigger a loss/reward area in your brain and make you actually do the thing, until you see a benefit.
Tons of good apps exist, I got a recommendation for Aware and have been using this for a while until Sam Harris has released his own app Waking Up (the namesake book is incredible, I strongly recommend this to anyone who’s reading this blogpost)
After that it doesn’t really matter how you do it, as long as you persist. Finish a weekly course, then a 3 weekly one. I found that I can meditate during my commute on the bus (if I can get a place to sit that is) and in the beginning the sounds, frequent stops, smells used to bother, but I found that it doesn’t really take away from meditation, if anything, it helps, since the external distractions mute the internal ones.
To make a long story short, the above (plus some concepts that I didn’t want to put in this already long blogpost such as non dualism, space of awareness, visual fields and mirrors and some even more esoteric stuff) are the reasons I meditate daily.
If this text helps to convince even 1 more person to meditate, I would have spent the last 2 hours of my life writing this very productively.
Alex — if you read this and you’ve stopped meditating, I don’t judge you, life can get annoying and hard. Resume meditating and it’ll become more bearable.
I will leave you with an amazing lesson by Sam Harris on the nature of thoughts, pain and suffering, which I try to remember every day myself.