I shifted my weight in my chair. I moved my feet slightly, which were placed together. I could feel cold air blowing on my neck, and I found it distracting. I’d set myself a timer on my mobile phone when I’d begun a short time ago. Now I began to wonder how many more minutes were left. Probably no more than three. Definitely not more than the length of a song. I realised with annoyance a song I heard last night was still playing in my head. Can’t I make that stop, I thought to myself?
And just like that, I realised I’d become distracted.
I immediately tried to set aside any and all thoughts about the music playing in my head, and returned to focusing on the single thing I was meant to be aware of — my own breath, moving in and out. Perhaps I should write an article about how difficult I found this process, I thought. I could begin by describing the sensations I felt at that moment. With irritation, I immediately realised — yet again, I was thinking a thought. I set it aside and returned to my breath.
There was an image on the wall in front of me — a diagram, no doubt left in this meeting room by a previous team. I noticed that it was only blu-tacked to the wall on three corners. The fourth casually hung in the air. I caught myself again — this wasn’t relevant. I cursed my own lack of ability. I was getting nowhere. What’s more, I was getting more and more frustrated with my own lack of success.
In dismay, I realised there was less and less chance of me successfully completing the allocated time. I opened my eyes. I looked at the timer on the table in front of me. The display said I had seven minutes left. I stared in disbelief.
I wrote this article to explore my own attitudes towards meditation. The above account of a meditation session took place earlier this week, but meditation was something I first came across roughly a decade ago, and I’ve been experimenting with it ever since. In 2007 I read a book — Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert Pirsig — that profoundly challenged my conception of quality. One of the themes of this book is that anything at all can be done with quality. As Pirsig himself says, the feeling of quality “…has no direct relationship to external circumstances. It can occur to a monk in meditation, to a soldier in heavy combat or to a machinist taking off that last ten-thousandth of an inch… The mountains of achievement are Quality discovered in one direction only, and are relatively meaningless and often unobtainable unless taken together with the ocean trenches of self-awareness… which result from inner peace of mind.” I then read another book: The zen of juggling by Dave Finnegan, which described in detail the author’s time at a buddhist retreat, and specifically the practice there of sitting in meditation. I fell in love with the notion of doing everything I did with quality, and I immediately resolved to do this through sitting meditation, but my initial results were disastrous. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t keep my body on the chair. The minute I closed my eyes, the minute I tried to remain still, a thousand tasks immediately crowded into my brain. It was as if there was an actual magnetic pull between my meditating form and my work desk. Try as I might, I just couldn’t break free. On many an occasion I abandoned these sessions in pure frustration.
Given this experience, it’s no wonder for a long time I struggled to ‘get’ meditation. Part of my problem was the activity was not something that one had to ‘get’. Meditation isn’t a problem to be solved; a challenge to be overcome or a set of boxes to be checked. Instead, it’s the opposite: it’s the passive acceptance of things as they simply are. In his book The subtle art of not giving a f!ck, Mark Manson makes the point that to seek happiness is fundamentally a negative act. When we strive for something, it is because we know we don’t already have it. But consider the opposite: we know we do not have something, and we accept this. Immediately we cease striving for something we don’t yet have, and we become satisfied with everything that we do have.
Meditation is profoundly the act of sitting in satisfaction with everything we do have, and letting our bodies and minds simply exist. Indeed, as one of the people interviewed in The zen of juggling states: “Meditation is not the goal. It is the path to the goal. The goal is direct intuition of ultimate reality.” There is no goal. There is no metric. No scorecard. No good, or bad, meditation. There is simply just the activity itself.
This is all well and good, but like many you’re probably asking, why should I meditate? The answer is simple, and for many, easy to see. Many of us exist in a state of permanent distraction. We’re continually bombarded with both external stimuli and internal distracting thoughts. In fact, according to research by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, people spend 47 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert wrote. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
If you don’t agree with this, I challenge you to do the following. Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit in a chair so you are comfortable but not so relaxed you are likely to fall asleep. Close your eyes, try to empty your mind of thoughts. What happens next?
I’m convinced that after several minutes, a thought popped into your mind. Maybe it was about your dinner that night. Maybe it was about an unfinished task. Maybe it was about you sitting there trying to meditate. In any case, the thought appeared in your mind. Then what happened? The chances are, you followed it. More accurately — you were led by it. You temporarily lost control of your thoughts and were swept away by them, like being swept down a river. Only moments later do you realise what has happened, and regain control of your attention.
This inability we all seem to share, to simply sit quietly with no thoughts, is part of a broader trend. This trend is why I believe meditation is so important.
I believe our society has largely become preoccupied with outcomes and outputs. Hyper-focused on individuals’ successes and achievements, we focus on the ends and ignore the means. As Harvard professor T. Ben-Shahar puts it: “We are not rewarded for enjoying the journey itself, but for the successful completion of a journey. Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys.” The main reason that many people try meditation but abandon it, is because they see it as a challenge to be achieved. But meditation is not something that is done ‘well’, or ‘badly’. It is simply done. It has no concern for whether you feel afterwards that the session was successful or not; if you met your objectives.
Increasingly though, this is an attitude at odds with our lives. Every single one of us, it seems, is measured more and more by our achievements. How many friends we have. How much money we make. The size of our houses; our cars; our trips abroad. Technology and social media, rather than ameliorating this problem are making it worse by bombarding us with a constant barrage of updates from friends and acquaintances that inform us of just how well they’re doing in comparison to us. It doesn’t matter to us that these updates are extremely well-curated half-truths; we internalise this aching desire to do, have and be more.
This is by no means a new phenomenon, but many feel that it is intensifying. Epictetus, the ancient Greek stoic philosopher, fought his own battle to remain mindful and live unencumbered by the demands of society. He remarked about stray thoughts in the following way: “If a person gave away your body to some passer-by, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled — have you no shame in that?” What he was saying, in essence, is that there is something to be admired in exerting control over one’s thoughts and emotions. If that was the case several thousand years ago, one may argue, it is an even greater problem today.
Joshua Waitzkin, world-class learner and author of The art of learning, likens the mind to a wild horse: constantly bucking and moving, it will react and fight against any attempt to subdue it. There are two ways to control the horse. The first is through domination: the horse is tied up; subjected to loud noises; mounted and finally forced into submission. This is just like us, when we try to meditate and “do it right” from the get-go: we are trying to achieve something, namely a mind with no thoughts, and we force ourselves to stay clear-headed because we believe it’s a matter of effort and sheer will. But the ultimate effect on us is like that on the horse: we emerge exhausted, straining, frustrated at our lack of success, and will probably abandon the whole process soon after.
There is, of course, another way: the way of horse whisperers, who will talk to their animals; engage with them; let them move and run without trying to exert control. Ultimately their desire becomes the horses desire, and they eventually find that they can lead the horse whichever direction they choose. This is what we should aim to emulate when we meditate. If our minds wander, we should allow them to momentarily, before calmly leading them back to the present moment. There need be no frustration and anger, when the process fails; what is certain is that momentarily these emotions will have subsided.
Ten years in, my own meditation practice is neither consistent or impressive. I don’t sit in the lotus position; I don’t chant or recite a mantra; I’ve never hiked through the temple foothills of Kathmandu. At times I’ve gone for several months and even several years at a time without meditating at all. But, in the last couple of years I’ve managed to meditate for ten minutes in the morning fairly often. In the last month, I’ve managed to do this on the majority of weekdays.
Meditation, like many things, is made more effective through frequency than it is through intensity. For example, if someone meditates continuously for a hundred minutes, and another person meditates for ten minutes but then repeats this on ten consecutive days, who do you think will enjoy the biggest benefit? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the ‘little and often’ approach will prevail.
So firstly, I find a private place that is unlikely to be disturbed during the meditation. Nothing disturbs the mind like being interrupted, but I’ve also found that the mere idea of being interrupted is enough to provide irrevocable distraction. In this place, I find a comfortable chair with back support. I sit with the base of my spine pressed against the back of the chair, and my back straight. My legs are close together. My hands rest together in my lap, and my head stares straight ahead.
As I only do ten minutes a time, I use the stopwatch on my phone. Again, nothing distracts you like worrying about how long you have left, or whether you’re going to be late for something else. I set the stopwatch for ten minutes and thirty seconds, so I have some extra time built in for getting comfortable. I set the phone down within reach. My eyes close and stay closed for the entire session. I place my tongue against the roof of my mouth and swallow to reduce the amount of saliva building up during the session and therefore alleviates the desire to swallow again. I breath in through my nose, whilst counting to ten. I then breath out through my nose, taking the same amount of time. I focus on the sound and sensation of this breath, and try to avoid all other thoughts. This really is all that meditation is.
Reading the passage above, you could easily be forgiven for thinking this practice sounds anything but easy. And you’d be right, at least at first. But, consider also just how rewarding it could be to exercise control of one’s passions and impulses. For many of us, our desire to achieve, to win, to succeed above all others, is slowly driving us to despair. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Meditation, when done regularly, is a way to see things more clearly. It allows us to be truly present when we do stuff we enjoy, like spending time with loved ones or performing tasks that we are highly skilled at. It also centers us, giving us inner confidence and happiness. Take Diogenes, like Epictetus another philosopher from ancient Europe. There is one specific anecdote of when Diogenes supposedly came face to face with Alexander the Great, arguably the most famous and feared man on the planet. When Diogenes all but ignored Alexander, the emperor’s valet exclaimed, “Who are you? This man has conquered the entire world!” Diogenes immediately replied, “I have conquered my desire to conquer the world”.
In summary, meditation is a practice that has gained a recent following through becoming more fashionable, especially in the worlds of technology and Silicon Valley start-ups. Despite the cloud of hype and hyperbole that surrounds it though, for anyone really keen to use it, meditation does provide relief from stress and tension. As well as alleviating negative symptoms, it also emphasises many positive traits including creativity, empathy and confidence. The practice is really easy to start and conversely really hard to master. There are very few rules or requirements for how to do it, because by its nature, the practice is non-judgmental. My advice to you, is simply to try it for ten consecutive days. If you feel as though you need more structure or support to do so, there are apps such as HeadSpace or Calm that will help you specifically to stick to this practice every day until it becomes a fully-fledged habit.
The last time that I meditated was this morning. After unpacking my bag at my desk, I entered the small room that I had tried to meditate in a few days ago. I sat down in the same chair. I kept my back straight and placed my feet flat on the floor. I looked at my mobile phone, and set the timer for ten minutes and thirty seconds. The key is repetition, I reminded myself; the best practice is internal. All that matters is how frequently I manage to keep up the practice. I closed my eyes; I took a deep breath in. I have begun.