I have referred to my meditation practice a few times now, but I realize that I never actually explained what I even mean by that. So, what is it that I do when I say I meditate? Why do I do it in the first place? And is it really worth the hassle?
First, let me clarify what meditation, to me, is certainly not: It’s not “sitting around and thinking hard about a problem”—even though the term is frequently used in that sense in everyday language. But it’s also not “emptying one’s mind” or “trying not to think”. It’s also distinct from formal prayer in the Christian, Muslim, or Judaic sense. And it’s quite definitely not mind-wandering or daydreaming. Don’t get me wrong, all of these activities have their merits, and there’s a time and place for them—they’re just not what’y meant with meditation. Meditation instead is actually a very broad term that includes countless different techniques aimed at training, at better understanding, or even at changing the human mind.
Personally, I follow the popular Vipassana method of mindfulness meditation, using the breath as my meditation object. I typically do two sessions per day, each lasting 15 minutes. The first one I try to squeeze in in the early morning, some time between my run and the start of the workday, and the second in the evening, quite close to going to bed. Before getting started I like to do a few stretches in order to loosen up, then I settle into a lotus pose on a cushion on the floor with my back against the wall. I take one or two deep breaths, put my phone on do-not-disturb mode, set a 15 minute timer, and close my eyes.
For the next few moments, I simply try to get a hold of the sensation of the breath. The stream of air coming in and going out of the body is sometimes most salient in the tip of the nose for example, or inside the nostrils, sometimes a bit further inward, and sometimes not at all, which is when I use the feeling of the chest heaving and falling instead. Once I find a suitable sensation to hone in on, I try to establish a feeling for the subtle differences from one breath to the next. As it turns out, it’s really interesting how much variation there is in something as natural, repetitive, and seemingly dull as the breath.
“What we discover when we begin practicing meditation is that there is no such thing as a boring object of attention. Boredom is simply a lack of attention.”
But, inevitably, what will happen is that thoughts begin to enter the mind, pushing aside the sensation I tried to concentrate on. Instead, I suddenly find myself pondering random stuff, such as “What will I have for lunch later?”, “That meeting yesterday? What a bummer!”, “Where do birds go when it rains?", “I really shouldn’t have said that to her…”, or any other of an infinite number of topics. Quite frequently, memories, images, sensations, or fragments of sentences emerge from nowhere; often these are the beginnings of half-baked arguments I’d like to make (or think I should have made), of emails I’ll probably never send, or of outrageous stuff I’d never dare to say in public.
Once any of those “proto-thoughts” has begun to even loosely take shape, my mind will of course pick up on it. If I don’t catch myself right then—which I rarely do—I’ll inevitably end up riding that thought into sunset: My mind will continue expand on it, to color it, to add explanations, reasons, deliberations, … for just as long until the next thought—maybe a branch of the first one, maybe something entirely unrelated—takes precedence.
Eventually though—either immediately, within seconds, or even only after a few minutes—I will realize that “Oh, actually, I’m supposed to be meditating here!” I’ll then be embarrassed with myself for a moment, and try to casually let the thought go and pull my attention back to the sensation of the breath. Where it’ll linger for a few seconds at a time before, inevitably, a new thought pops up and pulls it into yet another direction. Repeat ad infinitum, or until my 15 minutes are up and I emerge back into the real world.
So, you might ask, what’s the point of this?
I’ll leave aside the overwhelming scientific evidence for the mental health benefits of meditation for now. Suffice to say, many smart people have been studying this thoroughly for decades and the conclusions are overwhelmingly positive. Instead, I want to point out some beneficial changes I noticed in myself since I established meditation as a regular practice in 2018.
Attention. In various real-world situations, I now find it easier to detect whenever my attention is drifting, and to reorient it towards what I actually want it to be focused on. For example, I sometimes notice when, during a conversation with someone, my mind slowly begins to wander away from what the other person is saying. Maybe it’s drifting towards what I’m going to say next, maybe to lunch (one of my favorite topics as it turns out!), or to something completely unrelated. However, I now—sometimes, at least—manage to catch myself before I’m fully gone over the horizon, and to return my attention to what my counterpart is trying to tell me. Needless to say, that makes conversations not only a lot more valuable, but also a lot more enjoyable for everyone involved.
Concentration. My phone vibrates with a new text message. The neighbor’s dog starts to bark. People around me in the office are kicking off an intense discussion. In all of these cases, it comes a bit more natural for me now to stay focused on whatever it is I’m working on, and not be quite so easily pulled away by external distractions.
Patience. Regardless if the queue at the supermarket cash register is endless, if I’m stuck in traffic, or just waiting for my colleagues to show up for a meeting, I find that I’m a lot less annoyed by the fact that the world apparently never runs exactly on my schedule. I also manage to use these intervals of “wasted” time for a quick on-the-go meditation session sometimes, thus turning them into something that feels “productive”.
Consideredness. Somebody says something to me that I could read as offensive. But instead of reacting immediately, lashing out with a counter-offensive or a blunt insult, I manage to stop myself for a split second. Did they really mean it in the worst possible way? Is there a different perspective that I’m missing? Can I somehow interpret their statement differently, and in good faith? Are they maybe annoyed or angry or distracted for some other reason? And if any of that is true, what would be an appropriate response—rather than an impulsive reaction?
Compassion. Surveying what’s going on in my head, I notice that I have more positive, kind, compassionate, lenient, and friendly thoughts about people in general. And, interestingly, not just for those that I genuinely care about. That anonymous guy who cut me off on the motorway, nearly killing both of us? I’m not cursing him for the next half hour of my drive (at least not as harshly as I would have when I was younger). Instead, I notice that (a) there’s nothing whatsoever I can accomplish by being mad at him at this point, and (b) maybe, just maybe, he had a good reason. Sure, the idea that he’s rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital is maybe taking it a bit too far, but who knows.
Insight. Over time, I learned to become a bit more familiar with this strange thing that we call “mind”. Just by observing which thoughts come up during meditation on a given day, how intense they are, how repetitive, how insistent, I notice whether I’m worked up about something that I was maybe not even aware of to begin with. This quality allows me to take better care of myself—understanding whether I need to take a walk, to listen to some good music, or to find another way to relax, for example. It is also a handy skill to be able to detect, and to try to intervene with, negative thought spirals in time before they become overwhelming.
Generally (and, of course, subjectively), I’m under the impression that I’m a more amicable person now than I was before I began to meditate. Of course, I’m still a narcissistic, depressive, self-centered prick much of the time. But I find that I enjoy being around myself a tiny bit more than I did when I was younger. And I hope that, by extension, that means that I’m also a bit easier to be around with for others. To me, that would be a benefit surely worth investing 30 minutes per day. And finally, I find that I do agree with Dan Harris, author of “10% Happier”, who concludes that those 10% that he’s talking about? They do compound annually.