Beginning Again: Mindfulness, Meditation, and the Illusion of Self

By Liam Satre-Meloy

You’re probably familiar with the practice of “meditation” and the concept of “mindfulness.” You might work at one of those companies that has added meditation classes to employee benefits packages. Or maybe you’re a burned-out Silicon Valley techie who’s decamped to Spirit Rock or Ojai for a weekend retreat. Or perhaps you’ve caught one of the many recent headlines touting the science-backed benefits of meditation.

Meditation has no doubt pierced the cultural zeitgeist. But despite your exposure to the practice, you might still be like me: intrigued, open-minded, but also overwhelmed and a little bit confused. With the modern renaissance in spirituality — God is no longer dead or passe! — there’s been an unbelievable proliferation of practices, from secular mindfulness all the way through the esoteric art of Reiki energy healing. So how are we supposed to know what’s what? What’s worth your time and money? What’s legitimate?

There’s a refrain most experienced meditators know well — to “begin again”. It means to approach each moment in meditation — and in life — as though it’s the very first, dropping our preconceived notions, beliefs, judgments, frustrations, etc.

So in this piece, we’re going to do just that — “begin again” with the practice of meditation: what is it? How does one “do it”? And what’s….the point? We’ll focus on a specific meditation practice called vipassana, which comes from the oldest tradition in Buddhism, because it’s simple and approachable and requires no prior religious or spiritual knowledge.

Then we’ll explore some of the ways in which meditation might benefit us — from the physiological to the psychological to the emotional. And then finally, we’ll look a bit deeper, into the more fundamental — and some may say spiritual — purpose of a vipassana practice, which can yield profound insights into the nature of our minds and the world we inhabit.

If you’re an experienced meditator, you might be thinking — this isn’t really for me. I already know all this stuff. But I’d ask to stick it out — to begin again — and allow for the possibility that you might just learn something new. Indeed what meditation can make vividly clear for you is the reality that the things we think we understand the best are often the things we understand the least. That may sound like a banal platitude. But the fact is that banal platitudes often express the deepest truths.

In vipassana meditation, you attempt to cultivate a quality of mind called “mindfulness”, which can be thought of as a state of “open”, “non-judgemental”, and “non-discursive” attention to the contents of our consciousness. Because that word — “consciousness” — can have multiple interpretations, I’m using it here to mean the totality of what we experience — thoughts, feelings, intuitions, physical sensations, etc — everything. All of this might sound a little abstract, so let’s jump right in and give it a try.

I’ll just note, briefly, that describing the “how to” of meditation is extraordinary simple. But as you will see, it is much more difficult to put into practice.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or the floor. Notice feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration throughout your body.

Now pay attention to your breath — wherever you feel it most clearly, like at the edge of your nostrils or in your chest or abdomen. Focus on the sensation of breathing — from the very beginning of your inhale through the bottom of your exhale. As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: thoughts, sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these as they appear in consciousness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that at some point during that short exercise, every one of you became lost in thought — distracted from what I was saying. Distraction is the normal condition of our minds, and the most experienced, veteran meditators know this fact better than anyone. In fact, researchers at Harvard have shown that we’re distracted 47% percent of the time — nearly half of our waking lives. And most of us agree that the array of tech devices demanding our attention shows things are only getting worse.

The mind is in fact a time-machine, launching us into the future — “what am I going to have for dinner? Am I ready for that presentation tomorrow?” — and dragging us into the past: “that annoying thing my spouse said this morning! That stupid mistake I made in the meeting with my boss!” Despite the simple exercise of “following our breath”, we repeatedly find ourselves lost in happy or escapist flights of fancy or we find ourselves plunging into fear, anger, self-blame and other negative states of mind.

Meditation is a practice that gives us the ability to break this pattern, if only for a few moments. And more importantly, meditation allows us to see that these patterns of thinking — of being continually lost in thought — are there in the first place.

If all of this sounds a little abstract and difficult to understand, here’s a short visual exercise that can make it more vivid:

Close your eyes, and imagine you’re sitting atop a horse. If you’ve never actually had this experience before, you can probably conjure up a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Now imagine that this particular horse hasn’t been trained very well, which means that, as the rider, you’re pretty much at the mercy of its instincts — it may buck or whirl or break into gallop at a moment’s notice. But like any good equestrian, you want to be able to have some control over your horse, especially if you want to get anywhere. If you’re an inexperienced rider, you might try using force — yanking on the reins, shouting commands, digging in your heels — to get your horse to do what you want. But every good trainer knows that horses do not respond well to these forceful tactics. Rather, the rider must listen and respond to a horse’s needs and offer a kind of mutually-beneficial partnership. And in this way, rider and horse can travel in harmony, each taking charge according to its strengths.

Many traditions use the horse-riding metaphor to explain meditation. The sensations, impulses, and reactions in our bodies are like the untamed instincts of an animal. When we meditate, we learn how to respond more skillfully to our thoughts, emotions, and impulses — just like a skilled rider training a horse. By noticing what’s going on in our bodies and minds, we stop trying to grapple our way to steadiness. Instead, we settle into our seat or saddle, bumpy though the ride may be. And the result is that life becomes a bit more like showjumping than riding a bucking bronco. There’s still plenty of hurdles, but we go at them with a lot more poise.

At this point, some of you might be thinking — I understand the concepts, but I want some hard evidence that shows the benefits! So for the skeptics, here’s a brief detour through some of the existing science:

New studies on the benefits of meditation come out every day, and new technologies — like fMRI — are allowing us to understand what happens in real-time to our neurochemistry when we meditate. While there’s still a tremendous amount to learn, there’s broad consensus within the scientific community that cultivating mindfulness helps control pain, reduce anxiety and depression, enhance cognitive abilities — like working memory and verbal fluency — and even lead to changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain that govern learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness. Programs like “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) bring the practice of meditation into hospitals and other clinic settings. And if that’s not enough, even the Department of Defense has begun experimenting with mindfulness training for elite members of the military.

Using mediation to find greater equanimity or to reduce our emotional or mental stress is undeniably a good thing. But meditation can also have a deeper purpose: it can give practitioners access to the most fundamental realities of our mind, including the fact that our conventional sense of “self” is an illusion.

There many ways we use the term “self,” some of which are ontologically appropriate. You might talk about yourself in terms of your personal history, your location in physical space, or in various social roles you inhabit — like being a mother or sister or wife. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about ourselves in these terms.

But there is one sense of self that is false and produces a tremendous amount of suffering: it’s the feeling of being the “thinker of thoughts” inside our head or the feeling of “me” or “I”. It’s what people typically mean when they talk about “the ego”.

While the egoic sense of self is the most fundamental to our personal identity — of who we think we are — you can still understand it to be an illusion through meditation. How? Go looking for it. And if you are patient enough, and stick with it long enough, you will discover that this self is nowhere to be found. Which leaves you only with its absence — and when this absence is detected, the feeling of being a self disappears.

You might be thinking — “Maybe you’re right, but this, too, is just abstract philosophy that doesn’t relate to the nitty-gritty of life!” So let’s try another brief exercise to make the value of this realization a bit more concrete:

Close your eyes, and imagine that you are in a grocery store, after a long day of work, buying some groceries to make yourself dinner. The store is very crowded, because it’s the time of day when everyone else is trying to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and it’s taken twice or three times as long as it normally would for you to find your supplies and make your way to the checkout aisle. And as you’re standing in your slow-moving checkout line, you notice a woman in front of you with a grocery cart heaped with stuff — most of it crap — who has two loud young children with her who are presently in a screaming match over some toy-thing they picked out.

While practically everyone in line keeps side-glancing at the kids and the disturbance they’re making, mom stands there reading a People magazine seemingly unaware. While you are normally a fairly level-headed person, everything about this moment is pretty much the epitome of irritating — the loudness of the kids screaming, the poor model of parenting in front of you, the endless checkout line, the horrible overhead fluorescent lighting, and the hunger gnawing at your innards. And you are suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of irritation, anger, frustration — and probably a half-dozen other shades of distress — and you do something you wouldn’t normally do: you jab the mom on the shoulder and you give her a piece of your mind.

Think about what your annoyed self might say to her — really imagine it — and feel the thoughts or emotions running through you in that exact moment. Now open your eyes.

Think about this: everything you are feeling right now is the product of a thought — thoughts about your tiredness, your hunger, your desire to get home and out of your work clothes. And while we know from our brief encounter with meditation today that thoughts tend to dissolve almost as soon as they appear, these thoughts — about this woman, her kids, the whole maddening scenario — completely overcome you. They, in fact, seem to be what you are.

But how could that be? How could a string of thoughts — a couple mere moments in a supermarket — define who and what you are? It’s this state of being identified with thought — the experience of full capture by the contents of consciousness — that is the ego at work. It’s like dreaming when you’re asleep and you don’t even know you’re dreaming.

You might be thinking — I’d never say something rude to that poor woman. You might be one of those saintly people who keep their cool even in the most trying moments. If that’s the case, I’d ask you to imagine an inverse scenario: you’ve just done something really well at work, and you’re being praised for it by your boss — someone who’s typically a tough critic. Think about feeling proud of yourself — how good does that feel? But now imagine it’s later in the day, and you’re wrapping up the week with a team meeting, and in this meeting your boss criticizes something you’ve different that you’ve done — in front of all of your colleagues — and heaps praise on the totally mediocre guy who sits behind you. What are you feeling in this moment? Who is feeling it? It can come as a brutal epiphany to realize that the same part of you that relishes praise is also the same part of you that is devastated by criticism. It’s the same part of you that can be so easily bucked off that horse — just by a struggling single mom and her bored kids. The rewards of the ego are never good enough.

The spectrum of emotion — from the greatest happiness to the most extreme suffering — is the product of thoughts. The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This brute fact gives you the extraordinary power to make the best of bad situations — no matter how horrible. But the double edge of the sword is that this power — the decision to consciously choose how you feel — also gives you the capacity to be miserable regardless of how good things might be. To quote the estimable Alan Watts: “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”

One of the central paradoxes of meditation — indeed of all spiritual practices — is that we would never sit down on a cushion if we didn’t think that something about our experience in life needed to be improved. But it’s this very feeling of dissatisfaction that causes us to overlook the intrinsically free nature of consciousness.

As we have explored, there are good reasons to believe that meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest purpose is to show us that it’s possible to live free from bondage to the self.