Part one of this series was about How I Discovered Meditation. This is part two, the things I’ve learned from meditation over the course of 3,630 minutes of actually doing it. The third and final post will explore How to Meditate.
I should say right at the top that writing out these lessons feels like the opposite of what meditation is teaching me. Taking pride in “finding a new path” or “living life more fully” feels like balancing on the razor’s edge of being a pretentious ass-hat and simply trying to be a better person.
But I also think discussing meditation is helpful to paint a complete picture of why I even have this website in the first place. It’s to help people (including myself) to be better at using money but also attention.
At the end of the day, those are really the only two things that affect the quality of our brief time here on earth.
Because about a year ago I started tracking a few different habits using an app.
I tried to do the following every single day:
- 20 minutes of yoga
- read for 20 minutes
- write one page of anything
- avoid social media
- meditate for 10 minutes
Over the year, these habits changed as my life changed:
- I stopped doing yoga altogether (much to my aging body’s chagrin).
- I read about an hour most days but some days I skip it completely.
- I only write on the weekends.
- I started an Instagram for my blog so avoiding social media is trickier.
- But I kept meditating every single day.
Except for two days when I completely forgot about it and went to bed. The streak was broken. I had over 200 days of consecutive practice and had to mark it as incomplete for a day. Back to zero. Twice.
So by the end of my first year, I had logged 3,630 minutes of meditation. Two sessions short of meditating every single day.
But in reality, missing my sessions and the disappointment in breaking my streak was exactly the type of feeling that meditation had been helping to ease all along.
As Sam Harris says, “The goal of meditation is not to become a meditator.”
Other goals meditation is not for:
- The goal is not to practice every day (although it helps).
- The goal is not to relax (although you might).
- The goal is not to solve problems (although you may).
- The goal is not to become more “woke” or “precious” (although some do).
So what is the goal of meditation?
The journey is somewhat different for everyone but I believe the end result is the same.
For example, I initially thought the goal for me was to live more in line with my values through introspection and to self-soothe my anxiety. And while I’m getting that benefit, I’ve learned the purpose goes much deeper:
- The goal is to drop back and observe the world (and your mind) as it already is.
- The goal is to be aware of energy in your body, including the tone of thoughts, and moods. Not to push them away, but to experience them.
- The goal is to connect with the present moment and give up the desire to control it.
- The goal is to live a more examined life and give less importance to the ego.
- The goal is improved mindfulness throughout the day.
I’ll admit these goals sound imprecise and esoteric.
But the best, (and simplest) part about the practice is no matter how grand or subtle the reasons for doing it are, even a complete novice can experiment in this realm for free, at anytime, and anywhere.
Only once have I had a “eureka” moment while meditating. Most of the time, the changes are happening below the surface of my awareness so the lessons are not readily apparent.
Just like working out at the gym, I didn’t see results after the first day. Even after the first week of exercising, the most you might be is more sore in the morning. But after a month or three, you could start to see and feel changes in your body.
The mind is just like a muscle and benefits from deliberate and recurring practice of directing attention.
I’m far from an expert, but I’ve read enough to know that synapses are constantly firing, connections are always being made and broken, and chemicals are swimming around the brain at microscopic levels. Literally everything you do changes your mind for good or ill, so this “training” felt like a worthy endeavor.
Here are some specific lessons I’ve learned and attribute to my practice:
Lesson 1: My mind rarely stops chatting, evaluating, criticizing, comparing, hoping and regretting… and accepting it is the key to turning down the volume.
I’d say most of what we do naturally as humans is plan, imagine, and remember. And the tone of that dialogue is often more negative than positive.
This is due to how humans evolved. You don’t avoid death by remembering all the good times around the campfire. You avoid death by remembering and reinforcing that terrifying incident where you escaped a lion trying to eat you.
However, there are many more moments these days where I can stop a train of thought in its tracks and reorient my mind to something more productive and in the present moment.
In deep moments of meditation, I have come to the realization that is best posed as a question: “What about this isn’t good enough?”
I never realized just how often I was lost in thoughts about how something is currently and what it could be if only. But catching myself when I become lost in thought is the practice. So that gives me proof that I’m on the right track.
Happiness is found in contentment, and contentment can be had instantly.
Check out my previous article and the video to learn why humans mostly have negative thoughts:
Lesson 2: There’s very few situations where it is helpful to react.
When someone cuts me off in traffic, or I get into an argument with my significant other, it is much easier to let it go before the event ever has a chance to hijack my nervous system, thoughts, and speech.
I mean, I still use my car horn once in awhile. Meditation is definitely not a guarantee that you will always react with your best behavior. But it does cut down on the frequency of poor and meaningless reactions.
Lesson 3: Bad things are about the same as good things.
Once you accept everything as it is, not as you wish it to be, a huge weight can be lifted from any negative experience. Similarly, you don’t need to hold onto good experiences for any longer than they naturally occur.
I’ve slowly developed a sense of equanimity that is hard to attribute to anything but my practice.
This usually helps after the fact. It is still very difficult for me to hear bad news and remain neutral. But the amount of time I ruminate on it has been cut in half.
If you fall back and become aware of the specific energy arising in your body, negative emotions can be equalized with any other earthly sensation, such as a sound hitting your ear drum, pressure on your foot, or light and shadows in the room.
This is liberating when I remember to do it.
Lesson 4: There is no ideal environment to meditate.
When I started meditating, I would get irritated at people driving by my house with their music up or hearing the neighbor’s dog barking.
Somewhere around 2,000 minutes of practice I realized these annoyances were as good an object of meditation as any other.
There’s no version of the world where I’ll ever be able to control everything, so why did I expect meditation sessions to magically be any different.
And once you stop trying to control your environment, literally any situation is a opportune moment to apply the benefits of mindfulness. Waiting in line, listening to a child cry on an airplane, or being unable to fall asleep due to loud neighbors.
Lesson 5: Consciousness is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries.
Where did it come from? Where is it? What is it?
The brightest scientific and spiritual minds have not been able to solve any of these questions, and yet, the entire human race walks around wrapped up in consciousness and its contents at all times and very few people ever pause long enough to consider that reality.
Everything you’ve ever cared about, hoped for, regretted, thought about, felt, seen or heard with your body has been a manufactured experience that appears in consciousness. Consciousness is not comprised of those things; they are its contents. Consciousness is prior to those things.
You can prove this very easily to yourself by noticing that if you start to strip away all of those things, you are left with something, but you have no idea what that something is (unless of course you subscribe to the unjustified religious narrative that says it’s your soul). Whatever you want to call it, it’s fascinating.
We know many things about our awareness, but we don’t know what it is.
Try It for Yourself
In the third and final part of this series, I will pass along the instructions I’ve been given for How to Meditate. (Link to come next week).