note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the end of this article (no email required).
I started meditating 20 years ago, after reading an article claiming it could reduce stress. At the time I had a lot of stress, and I needed all the help I could get.
I didn't know much about meditating. I sat on the floor with my back against the wall and legs crossed (I couldn't do the fancy “lotus position,” — I still can’t, actually). I started a timer for 20 minutes, and focused on my breath as it entered and exited my nostrils.
It turned out to be a not-so-magical experience that didn't last 20 minutes.
It seemed to last that long, to be sure. But, when I opened my eyes to see how much time had passed, it was only four minutes. I immediately got frustrated — I decided to be diligent, though, and closed my eyes again. This time I only made it two minutes.
At that point, I decided to end my first foray into meditating altogether!
So, what happened? Well, I discovered that my mind was absolutely crazy. In six minutes of meditating, it bounced around to subjects spanning from grade school to what happened at work the day before. I got sidetracked thinking about somebody that pissed me off several years earlier, and I thought about how I inadvertently upset a friend last week with a [thoughtless] remark.
My mind jumped to bills I needed to pay, and I wondered if I put a stamp on the envelope I dropped in the mailbox that morning (I mean, I really couldn't remember — did I?). I went over my to-do list for the next day, and I thought about what I needed to do for a meeting that was coming up Friday afternoon.
And, I thought about “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Why? I hadn't seen that movie in almost a decade, so I have no idea why it popped into my head.
My mind was like a puppy, awkwardly hopping from object to object, and unable to settle on any one thing for more than a few seconds. And the really bad part was, I couldn't stop it. I tried to — I “willed” myself to stop it, I commanded myself to stop it…all to no avail.
It wasn't until some time later that I began to study about our minds, and I came to understand how they actually work. Our minds are compulsive —they never stop. Have you ever said “My mind is racing?” Or, “I can’t stop thinking?” Your mind (just like my mind) is always going — those moments of realization you have about your mind racing are just the few times you actually notice it.
Your mind keeps you up at night, it pulls you into the past to make you regret things you did or didn't do, it creates worries about the future, and it forces you to dwell on (and stress about) so many things: that person who wronged you at work or school, your money problems, whether your kids will turn out to be degenerates or valued members of society, an imagined confrontation where you tell off your boss or exact revenge on that jerk that cut you off on the way home.
Maybe it creates an alternate reality where you fantasize that you are a secret agent, or an actor/actress accepting an Academy Award.
The list of possibilities is endless!
The scary thing is, most of us don’t realize any of this is going on. We simply get swept away by all of it; we spend most of our days “lost in thought” without realizing we’re lost in thought!
And, those thoughts lead to emotions and urges, which lead to actions and reactions…this process unfolds moment after moment after moment, with little or no conscious intervention from us.
We get moody, we get depressed, we get anxious, we question ourselves and our abilities, and we say or do things that we regret later. We spend most of our life on “autopilot,” following our minds wherever they lead. Then we talk about our stress, our anxiety, the pressure of our job, our spouse, our kids, and on and on; all of these things become the struggles of life.
The good news is, meditation can help. It teaches you to strengthen awareness of your mind and its activity. You learn to observe it all — to watch your thoughts and emotions without getting swept away by them. And, as a result, you are able to break free of the conditioned behavior and habitual actions and reactions that dominate much of life.
With consistent practice, you are able to take your life off autopilot.
Meditating also shows you the true nature of your mind-made activity: none of it is permanent. Your mind tries to make you believe it is — it wants you to believe your problems will never go away. It wants you to believe they are more serious than anyone else’s problems. It makes everything seem urgent, critical, and (a lot of times) like a “life or death” situation.
The scientifically-proven benefits of mindfulness and meditation are compelling, and it’s easy to find a list of them. But, it’s hard to explain what meditating does for you because it’s something you have to experience. What I will say is this: once you learn to separate what’s real from the stories playing in your head, life improves dramatically.
Most people go through life without realizing the difference, and they carry around the stress, anxiety, and endless worry that come as a result.
Or, they suffer the depression that results from replaying negative, despair-filled stories on a continuous loop.
Or, they develop a lack of self-confidence because that inner voice keeps comparing them to everyone else, and tells them they will never be good enough.
I meditate every day, and I like to think I’m a bit more skilled than I was 20 years ago. Sometimes I’m not, though — and that’s fine. It’s not an exercise you try to “perfect,” it’s a way of being you consistently are and do.
Like everyone, I have ups and downs. But, looking at the big picture, I've come to realize I don’t have to let my mind steer the ship. And I certainly don’t have to follow it wherever it leads.
Maybe that’s the secret to life? I don’t know, but I do know this: it certainly makes life a better place to be.
I’ll give you another update after the next 20 years passes — in the meantime, why don’t you give meditating a shot? You don’t have to wear robes or chant. You don’t have to study Eastern philosophy or new-age mysticism (meditation will not conflict with your philosophical/religious beliefs). And, you don’t have to sit in the lotus position…unless you want to!
Most important, you can’t do any worse than I did my first time.
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You spend most of your time lost in thought.
You go through your days held hostage by an inner narrative that comments on and judges everything — including you.
The rest of us are the same way, so don’t take it personally. The bigger problem is, we usually go our entire lives without realizing it.
But, if you’re reading this, you probably do realize it. And, you’re probably wondering what you can do about it.
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