Before I began my practice, I had a very poor understanding of meditation. To me it was an archaic religious practice. It was some hippy promise of an ethereal spiritual awakening. Skepticism was warranted of course; meditation is often coupled with new age nonsense. Delusional gurus and crackpot charlatans are in no short supply. But how could someone so clearly off the mark as Deepak Chopra at times seems so insightful? Is there any actual value to meditation? Is it just sitting with your eyes closed? Or is there more to it?
My entry into meditation did not come from any religious or spiritual inclination, but rather as a tool for dealing with anxiety. Anxiety was impacting my life but I could not make sense of it. I could feel that there was a problem but I could not put my finger on what it was or what needed to be changed. My incredible partner with her background in psychology and behavioural therapy recommended a program titled, “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.” This book, authored by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, sent me on a course of rediscovery that has been difficult to describe but worthy of an attempt. I was right about Deepak Chopra, the man is a quack. But it turns out I was not only wrong about meditation, I really had no clue what it was.
It’s helpful to first explain what meditation isn’t.
Meditation is not supernatural.
As an atheist I was skeptical to try anything that came with religious baggage. I am not a Buddhist so what use would a Buddhist practice like meditation be to me? This is an extremely common misconception. Meditation, while traditionally structured around religion, has nothing to do with it. Meditation is done without any claim to the supernatural and without any requirement for the suspension of reason. There is nothing traditionally “spiritual” about meditation. Religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism popularized the practice but they do not own it. Meditation is a practice of insight and self-awareness, not a religious or supernatural ritual.
Meditation will not fix everything.
Meditation will not cure your sickness. It will not make you have special powers. It will not alleviate every mental illness. Concentration, or wishful thinking, will not alter the physical universe around you. Crackpots and charlatans have distorted and over-sold meditation. It is often presented alongside pseudo-scientific nonsense that has stained its name. Meditation is not some mystical solution to all of life’s problems. It is simply a tool to know oneself better and to respond to one’s own mind more skillfully.
Meditation is not about stopping thoughts.
People frequently assume that the goal of meditation is to end all thoughts or to create some sort of “empty mind.” The goal of meditation is not to stop thinking but rather to change the framework in how you notice and respond to your own thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It’s about becoming more conscious of your experience, not less. Once you become more aware of your mind you then can learn from it. Anagarika Sri Munindra put it succinctly “If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.”
The book on mindfulness by Williams and Penman fundamentally changed my life. The text is filled with numerous scientific studies analyzing the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness, or “Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy” is a more refined form of meditation that develops the skill of awareness in the present moment. This awareness extends to thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and anything else that can be consciously experienced.
The value of mindfulness is hard to over state. Studies have proven it to be at least as effective as drugs for treating depression. (1) The practice treats an assortment of mental health problems such as anxiety, self-doubt, PTSD, aggression, ADHD, and more. It also helps with cultivating attention, focus, and discipline. If you want to dive into the clinical research I recommend reading this incredible text by Williams and Penman. They cite multiple studies and will point you in the direction of real research and evidence.
If you’re a skeptic like myself alarm bells might be ringing in your head. If you are unfamiliar with meditation this list of benefits can seem implausible. How does mindfulness actually lead to better mental health, emotional regulation, attention control, and improved well-being? And what is meditation, is it just sitting with your eyes closed?
Meditation is usually not what people imagine it to be. Here are instructions for a typical session:
- Find somewhere to sit comfortably.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to become settled.
- Focus your attention on the body, feel the contact with your surroundings, notice any sensations, or tensions, or lack thereof.
- Move your attention to the breath.
- Follow your breath for the complete inhalation, then complete exhalation.
- Repeat this process of paying attention to the breath.
- In, out. In, out.
- At some point you will notice you have become lost in thought.
- Return to the breath.
- In, out. In, out.
- At some point you will notice you have become lost in thought.
- Return to the breath.
- In, out. In, out.
- Throughout the process notice any other sensations, emotions, thoughts, or discomforts that may arise.
- In, out. In, out.
- Repeat until your session is over.
That’s it. That is mindfulness meditation. You simply try to pay attention to the contents of your consciousness in the present moment. The breath is often used because it is ongoing and repetitive allowing you to more easily ground yourself. During this you feel your body and notice sensations. You without fail, often within seconds, will have thoughts arise and get lost in them. You will daydream. You will plan your week. You will notice an itch. You will regret something in your past. You will worry about something in the future. At some point you will remember you are suppose to be paying attention to the breath. Then you will repeat the process. As simple as this sounds it is among the most useful and insightful things that I have ever discovered.
This is what I learned in my first year of practice.
Thoughts never end.
The first thing everyone says when they start meditating is that they are bad at it. They can’t stop thinking and so they assume that they are failing or doing it wrong. This is a common misconception. The goal of meditation is not to stop thoughts from arising but rather to notice them when they do. Thoughts will always come. Good thoughts, bad thoughts, encouraging thoughts, irrational thoughts; you have no control over which thoughts will come.
Imagine you are applying to jobs. You’ve handed out some resumes, had some interviews, and now you are waiting for a call. Suddenly in your mind a thought appears, “I will never get a job.” There are two paths to take, either a reaction or a response. A reaction is not skilful. A reaction to a negative thought is to get lost inside of it. You may think of other times you have failed, you may think of regrets in your past, or you may worry about your financial future.
Maybe you’ll be a failure? Maybe you’ll never find a job in your field? Maybe you’ll disappoint your parents, or your partner? Before you know it you’ve spent the last 30 minutes thinking about failing and worrying about the future. A thought appeared which you did not ask for; it caught your attention and you followed its thread. You became lost in thought and this lead to unnecessary suffering.
A second and more skilful approach is to change the reaction to a response. When that same thought appears this time you notice it. You realize that a negative thought has come into your head. You notice how it makes you feel. You acknowledge that this thought has appeared and then you dismiss it. What could have been 30 minutes of unproductive, upsetting, and often irrational over thinking, is instead just a passing moment. You regain time, but more importantly, control over your own well-being.
Meditation helps to cultivate this skill. Responding, rather than reacting to thoughts, creates a small space for you to better analyse each moment. It is a tool that can alleviate much of your daily suffering. Most of us are constantly lost in thoughts. Sometimes they are good but often they are negative. Meditation helps to draw back. It allows us to look from above. To realize when our thoughts are pulling us around. Meditation reveals how our minds work and allows us to regain control. It teaches us to be skilful, and shows us how to let go, and let be.
We are awful to ourselves.
Dan Harris’ book “10% Happier” is a fantastic introduction to meditation. When he began to meditate he noticed something enlightening – the voice inside of his head is an asshole. Many of us can probably relate. We often bully ourselves, tell ourselves we will not succeed, over think pointless interactions, experience social anxiety over nothing, create mental fictions and delusions, and release a barrage of self-doubt and critique.
The way we think about ourselves is often cruel and unfair. We would never hold a loved one to the same standards. We would be moral monsters to do so. But in our minds we get lost in thoughts berating and attacking every insecurity and worry. Meditation allows us to notice this negativity in our minds and shorten its half-life. Our minds suck sometimes and that is okay. If we notice these thoughts arise, and skilfully respond to them, we can stop their impact and increase our well-being.
You are not your thoughts. You are merely observing your thoughts and it is ultimately up to you which thoughts you will accept and which you will dismiss. Rarely will you find someone who has perfected, or claims to have perfected, this skill. The point is not necessarily to become some fearless monk, but rather to become more skilful with your conscious experience. Through meditation you take power back from that asshole in your head.
The present moment is always here.
Meditation is the skill of focusing on the present moment. This is paradoxically both the hardest and easiest thing in the world. There is only the present moment. This is all you will ever have. You will never be in the past or in the future. You will only have this. Reading this sentence, feeling your body, noticing your breath. From birth to death this is all you will ever have. Many people realize, rather intuitively, that they love the present moment. Perhaps they notice it during an athletic achievement, while dancing to music, or during sex. People feel great when they accept the present moment. No worrying about the future, no regretting the past, simply engaging each experience as it comes and goes.
When we are lost in thought we are robbed of the present moment. When people travel they strive to taste different cultures, settings, and experiences. But it is not uncommon for people to spend entire trips worrying about missing moments, or thinking about the responsibilities waiting for them when they return, or feeling upset that their trip will end soon. Meditation can teach us to savour the present, to feel the air on our skin, to smell the scent in the air, and to immerse ourselves in any experience. Life in every moment can be rich and colourful. Meditation teaches you to appreciate the little details and allows you to become more present in the biggest moments. It’s about eating a meal and actually remembering to taste the food.
Everything is temporary.
Everything comes to pass. In your day-to-day experience with meditation you will quickly notice how impermanent your life is. You will feel great, then hungry, then sad, then aroused, then bored, then happy, then mad. Emotions, thoughts, and experiences come and go. Your best and worst moments will arrive and then pass. Sharon Salzberg once described our minds like the sky. The weather always changes; sometimes it is clear, sometimes it is grey, sometimes the sun shines bright, and sometimes a storm comes that feels like it will last life time. The contents may change, but the sky remains.
You, just like the sky, are a canvas for passing moments. The weather has less of an impact on your life when you know that it will eventually change. Rather than ruining great moments by clinging on you will instead learn to let go when the time has come. When life is crashing down you learn to be patient, to avoid getting lost in thought, and to more skilfully respond to negative experiences. Meditation shows you that all of life is impermanent, it then teaches you how to enjoy the good and manage the bad.
It should be made clear that this is not about making yourself passive. It is not about letting others take advantage of you. It is also not about becoming a pacifist. The purpose of meditation is to understand and better manage the contents of your own mind so that you can be more clear, confident, disciplined, and rational in your decision making. It is not about accepting whatever comes your way. Instead it’s about learning to better handle whatever life throws at you, both the good and the bad.
Results may vary, but they come.
The results of meditation, depending on the person, as well as the length and intensity of practice, can vary greatly. Some people meditate for 5 minutes a day; some go on silent retreats for months or years. Some claim to experience enlightenment similar to the Buddha, and some claim that it just makes them a little bit more calm. I am agnostic as to what can be accomplished with meditation. I remain highly skeptical of the claims made by some practitioners, especially the religious, but there are without doubt gradations of insight and control that can be attained.
Maybe the Buddha achieved some state of experience that we can scarcely imagine, or maybe he was just a glorified monk with healthy emotional control. What can be accomplished through intensive meditation and what can be proven scientifically is beyond the scope of this article. What we do know is that a daily meditation practice is highly beneficial. There are hundreds of scientific studies confirming a multitude of positive results. Just a short regular practice can be helpful and a more intensive adherence can be life changing.
If you choose to meditate, follow the science. Religions may still offer some wisdom but they are not necessary. Everything that can be discovered with meditation can be done through introspection, secular texts, and with scientific research.
I should mention that meditation is not for everyone. People suffering from mental illnesses such as psychosis, or that are manic-depressive, may actually do more harm than good by meditating. You should consult your psychiatrist or doctor before meditating if you suffer from any serious mental illness. Not everyone is ready to sit alone with the contents of their own mind.
You can’t fake it.
Some compare meditation to body building. You can read books on bodybuilding, you can understand it conceptually, but to grow your muscles you need to actually lift weights. Meditation is similar. You can’t skip the work. Learning from articles like this one is helpful but to truly see a change in yourself you must actually do it. Many of the insights learned through meditation are difficult to articulate and can sound almost trivial. “You are not your thoughts” may look nice on a poster but to catch the nuance and profundity requires an engagement with the practice.
In meditation you often learn the same insights over and over again. You rationally and carefully examine the contents of your own mind and then reframe your own inner experience. To feel the benefits of meditation, to learn what it has to offer, to gain its wisdom, and to deeply improve your own well being, you must do it yourself.
In my first year of meditation I have come to realize that this is the most important skill that I have learned in my adult life. It has made me more calm. When I feel anxious the half-life is shortened. I have stronger emotional control. I find myself noticing and stopping negative thought patterns more often. I find myself more engaged at work. I find it easier to focus and stay on task. I find that I am generally happier and that I am more relaxed. I would still consider myself new to meditation but even in my first year of 10-60 minute daily practice the results have been life changing. Meditation offers us something that we appear to be lacking in our world. Many adults never take the time to reflect on their own conscious experience and to investigate the contents of their own mind. Meditation is a tool to fundamentally restructure and improve your own well being. It is simple, useful, and easy to do.
I wrote this article because it is relevant to all of us. Most of us can benefit from what meditation offers. Meditation is backed by science and has research to support it. Meditation has the potential to transform our world. I earnestly recommend giving this practice an honest try in your own life and I hope that it brings you happiness, stability, and ease to your being. I have linked some resources below to get you started.
– Daniel Govedar
Resources I Recommend:
- Mindfulness By Mark Williams and Danny Penman
- 10% Happier By Dan Harris
- Waking Up By Sam Harris
- Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation By Sharon Salzberg
- Waking Up Podcast: Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson
- Insight Timer Meditation App (Android)
- Insight Timer Meditation App (IOS)