You wake up, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?
Depending on where you live your answer might be as varied as your ethnicity or your language. For some of you the answer may be as simple and terrifying as “how am I going to pay rent this month?” or “what am I going to eat?” (hopefully not), while for some others the answer is a million other questions. For the sake of my point let’s broadly generalize that answer to be, “a bazillion things!” And if you’re one of the few who wake up with not a care in the world, then you must live a kick-ass life and I envy you for it. As for the rest of us, well, we have minds full of worries that won’t give us any breaks any time soon.
The thing is, I don’t know about your individual daily routines, but if you’re like any of the other seven billion humans alive today then it’s safe to assume that as soon as you wake up you are bombarded with thoughts before you even get a chance to get up. Admittedly, the first thing I do before I even get out of bed- and I’m pretty sure a lot of you do this as well- is check my phone. We can’t help it but reach out and see what the world was up to in the hours that we were offline, literally. Some of us tune in to the news, or pick up the newspaper, or if you live in 2015 you check online news to see what’s going on. And then there are other people in other corners of the world who wake up with only a few urgent thoughts in mind that in some cases are, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
No matter where you live or who you are, we all have thoughts and ideas and worries that drive us to perceive the world in a certain light and act upon those perceptions. They reel on inside our heads at all times of the day and when we’re asleep it seems our brain works extra hard to either produce them or file them away in neat little mental cabinets. Our brain does this so well that at times it might even seem that we’re not in control of what we think or even how we think, we just take it for granted that we do.
We’ve allowed our brains to do this without barriers or speed limits partly because, again, we’ve assumed that it is a normal process to just let our thoughts run wild and unchecked. We’ve learned we can’t help it, and over time we’ve rushed to cram more and more things in there for our benefit- or detriment- often without even noticing which is which. It’s with this same helter-skelter enthusiasm that we go through our short days with a laundry-list of things to do, trying so hard to cross every item on the agenda, hoping that one day we’ll reach the end. Many of us are eager to busy ourselves with these daily tasks, while others burn out at the first sign of distress. And in the wake of all this mental waxing and waning, we’ve easily come to accept that there’s nothing that can be done about the collateral damage we’ve created for ourselves in the form of information overloads, and we allow this incredible burden on our minds and bodies to pass as just a byproduct of our daily life.
While we may have come to accept this crazy rhythm as normal, it is by no means healthy.
If you’ve ever wondered just how much sensory data our brains receive, accumulate, and dispose of from all of our senses on a daily basis you will probably won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a massive amount, more than most regular computers could handle. But unlike even the most powerful computer systems in the world, our relatively small brains are capable of decoding all this information in real-time and also to decide what information is worth keeping and what is just clutter. This natural filtration system hidden in our neurons and synapses work precisely to prevent our brains from crashing. Sometimes though that’s not enough.
Just like physical pain, mental stress is a warning from our bodies telling us that there’s something wrong. The problem it seems is that the way in which we handle stress is not only unnecessary at times but counterproductive, and thus more often than not, the cure is often worse than the disease.
Think of all of the ways in which you unburden yourself after a stressful day- or life. Some of us turn to beer and pizza while others lose themselves in the brawn of pumping iron. Some people are riskier and gravitate towards the drug of their choice and some others embrace the boredom of thought and create something out of it, or we drown time in hobbies (concerts, friends, gun-range, etc.), while others turn to god and prayer. Most of us do a combination of these, or all- but we all try to find ways to relax our minds and find some comfort.
And it works, doesn’t it. As soon as you step foot in your house after a stressful day at work, don’t you just feel the stress melt away? And that’s good. That’s exactly what we want after all. However, there are other things we do to unwind that don’t really take care of the issues in our heads so much as they delay them.
What we often fail to realize is that the way in which we “relax” the mind is a method akin to throwing a trash-bag on top of a pile of trash hoping it bags itself. Whatever method we use to unburden the mind is basically just one more thing to pile onto it and what we end up doing instead of giving our minds a break is basically self-medicating with a temporary fix to a permanent problem.
By this I’m in no way suggesting that what you’re doing is wrong, and if it works for you then keep doing it. But have you ever wondered if it’s enough? Are you doing enough to take care of your mental health? If you sometimes feel like what you’re doing only works for a while- or doesn’t work at all- then I’m here to offer a simple solution that just might work for you, and as bonkers as it might sound what I offer is to simply forget about the problem. Yup, forget about it.
White Noise and How To Deal
What?! Forget about the problem, are you going bananas?
I realize that the reasoning might not sound as the most constructive- or instructive for that matter- after all this is definitely not the way we would approach a lot of other issues in our lives, but be aware that I’m in no way saying that you should forego all reason and live in a nudist colony in the junge for the rest of your life as if you had no care in the world. There’s actually a method to my madness.
Cue in meditation.
What comes to your mind when you hear meditation? For some of you meditation runs along the lines of the laughable: mall gurus, palm-readers, astrology, witches, Eastern medicine, etc. While Western medicine has its ways to fix many ailments, physical and mental, until meditation entered the picture- what I call the “sideline mainstream”- there was not really anything substantial and widespread to help the individual mind ease the stress of daily life. Part of the reason is because society as a whole has gotten it into its big, stubborn head that the mind exists outside the realm of the body, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ll wait until you realize it. No seriously I’ll wait…
Okay, so now that you’ve realized that the mind is just as part of the body as your arm, or your hair, or even the billions of tiny organism that live in your gut, you can also see that the mind is unlike any of these mentioned things. It is complex, abstract, destined to be contained in a physical element but unbound by its limitations, and seemingly pertaining to a different reality that we don’t yet fully understand. Yet we live with it, and like it or not we are affected by it, not just mentally but also physically. But more importantly, it requires a different maintenance manual than other parts of you.
I’ll speak for a moment about me.
Whether it’s due to a conscious personal history, or an unconscious genetic one, I’ve always been a sort of angsty person. Although my mood did improve after the dreadful stretch of puberty, for some reason or another I’ve always felt that my more introverted nature has somehow prevented me from being genuinely happy, even if things in my life are going well (I’m sure there’s a psychological disorder with a name for that). I often mistakenly attributed all this angst to things that, in retrospect, were perhaps out of my control, or due to my own failings. But no matter what I did, I just wasn’t happy.
To get rid of this subtle anxiety I tried many different things including, exercise, pot, going out, and even prayer during my more religious years. Some of these things worked better than others. Excercise for example made me feel more energized which in turn improved my mood. Drugs opened my mind in other ways, they made me more creative but when I returned to reality I returned to the same reality I was in before. And prayer- for its very nature- did the opposite of what I wanted, which was mental isolation and calm.
It was through much frustration and research that I eventually arrived at meditation. And when I started practicing it I started to feel differently about the world, and for the first time in my life I found an answer that wasn’t so much an answer as it was the comforting lack of one.
Of course, this is hardly good- or even comptetent- evidence to start a radical change in your life, so I don’t expect you to take me at my word. But if you do a quick Google search about meditation, you’re sure to find thousands of hits ranging from the specific to the mundane. Anything from its history to its benefits (which there are many). But take it from me, none of this matters as much as what it does for you. That’s because meditation doesn’t require you to know any of these things for it to work. And to the disapproval of some yogis and experts on the subject, what I have found from practicing it, is that the technique can be as specific or as broad as you want it to be- the important thing is that you do it.
Calm Your Mind- What Is It and How Does It Work?
You will forgive me for not being overtly specific about certain aspects of it, opting instead to make this post a bit more about my subjective experience rather than as objective one.
Meditation is simply a way to calm the mind by training it for some specific purpose. And before we get into what it does let me first say that there are different meditative techniques to achieve different goals. I will not presume to know what all of these techniques are or what they do because I honestly don’t know. But for all intents and purposes I will focus on the type of meditation I practice which is Vipassana, or insightful meditation.
Instructions are fairly simple.
First you find a quiet, comfortable place and you sit in a chair, or a couch, or you cross your legs yogi-style (what’s called the Lotus position). Then, close your eyes and make sure to keep your back as straight as you can to prevent falling asleep. Let your breath flow normally, do not try to control it. And finally, try to focus your attention on some part of the meditation, whether it’s your breath, or the rising and falling of your chest or abdomen, or the feeling of your body against the chair. Now this is the hard part, try to not think about it. Focus without focusing. Basically, let your mind feel it. Now here’s the really hard part, try to focus on it for as long as you can without getting carried away by thought.
While meditation is supposed to bring you in contact with the now, for something that sounds so simple, it sure as hell is one of the hardest things to do. Ironically, that’s what makes it so effective.
Because your mind is so used to being so free-spirited, if you will, it doesn’t matter if at first you can’t tame the wild horse inside it. In fact, I recommend that you don’t even try it because that will only leave you more frustrated than when you first started, trust me on this. At first your mind will be unruly and quite ironically it will try to prove that it can’t control itself because it does what it wants. But don’t let this deter you, it is perfectly normal to be carried away one thought at a time. The point of the exercise is not to control your thoughts, but to accept that they are there. Once you do this without frustration or prejudice you will have achieved what many people spend their entire lives trying to do.
Whether it is the act of repetition in the breath or the stillness in the environment we perceive when we’re quiet and at peace, meditation has been proven to alter brain waves in roughly the same way that sleeping does (for the most experienced meditators) and even alter the very physical properties of the brain in the form of gyrification.
The real point of meditation is acceptance. Acceptance that thoughts will exist. Acceptance of the now. Acceptance that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet here. Acceptance of the reality around us. Acceptance is also the first step to take if you want full control of your mind, which is to say full control of your emotions, and thus every aspect of your life.
But meditation also does something else, something crucial. It is an exercise in patience. I have many friends who claim they would never try meditation because they are too impatient or don’t have the discipline to see it through. Some of these people are the same people who claim that to be happy all you gotta do is be it. Both are illogical arguments. The first one is the same thing as saying “I don’t eat because I’ll only end up shitting it out.” The second is illogical because not everyone is cut from the same cloth, so how can you be happy if you aren’t to start out with?
By meditating you are essentially training the body and the mind to be patient. No one is saying that you have to spend a whole day meditating as if you were a yogi. You don’t even have to do it for a whole hour- I do it only fifteen minutes a day. You can start with five minutes and increase your time the more comfortable you get.
Comfortable with what? you may ask. Comfortable with knowing that you can sit for five minutes just “observing” every thought that naturally springs up without trying to analyze it or worry about it. Or better yet, trying to think of absolutely nothing for five minutes.
Let’s try a little experiment right now. Sit in a chair, close your eyes, and try to think of nothing for one whole minute. Chances are you already lost by thinking of not trying to think. Hence the patience. And also here’s why I mentioned earlier that to get rid of the dead-weight you feel in your head you simply have to forget about your problems.
In meditation your best friend is nothingness, because it allows you to experience the reality that your mind perceives in a way you’ve never experienced before, without clutter or bullshit. In a way it passively forces you to be more in contact with reality, with the now, and forget about anything else but the now.
Here’s the possibly discouraging part about meditation. In order to get the full benefits of meditation you will have to practice it for months, even years, before you can experience the type of consciousness that only (relatively) few have achieved. But hopefully that will not matter because- and here’s the upside- if you have stuck it out every day, you will have already felt the short-term benefits of it, which is a huge step in the direction of unburdening your mind and bringing you closer with reality and happiness. Or at least just reality. This is one of those things where the benefit lies in the practice rather than at the end.
So what exactly are these benefits I speak of?
I cannot say what others have felt because I am not others, I am aware only of my own. But ever since I started meditating, my mood has definitely improved, which is to say I have a better grip of my emotions. I feel more mentally balanced than I have ever felt before and even my family and friends have noticed a positive change in the way I carry myself. Also where it used to bother me before, I no longer feel like being alone with my own thoughts is a bad thing, I now enjoy my solitude when I find it and I feel comfortable with myself. But I have also felt other changes. So far, I’ve noticed I’ve had a spike in concentration, creativity, and patience. But most of all I have found that I am more compassionate towards people, and that’s a big deal for me because I usually hate having to deal with people- that’s a story for another day though.
Overall, I feel that for as long as I’ve been doing it, I’ve already drawn as much beneficial content from meditation to merit a longer experimental trial. I can only imagine the kinds of benefits I’ll be enjoying a few years from now as I am able to get better and better at focusing on mindfulness.
But perhaps the best benefit of all, is that I think more positively now. And whether it is just a placebo effect (very unlikely) or it actually causes physical changes that impact my very psychology (very likely) I also cannot say for sure, but from what I’ve read it seems the answer is much more of the latter than it is the former.
In my personal experience though, the main thing that meditation has done is that for about fifteen minutes a day I am able to escape the bullshit in my life, or at least observe it from a distance, from the outside per se. And by the time my session is done I feel lighter, for lack of a better word. Lighter in the mind and in the body, and energized in a way.
Open Your Mind
Meditation, like everything else, is not a one-size-fits-all solution you can wear and take off at will to improve your life, and it shouldn’t be approached as such. It’s neither a vehicle towards happiness, nor happiness itself, but rather one of many roads to wherever you decide your mind should be. If you want to concentrate better, or improve your outlook on life, or simply just shut the world out to oblivion for a few minutes, meditation can definitely help you accomplish that. The mind is like a muscle and it gets stronger or atrophies depending on the use you give it. It takes hard work and dedication for meditation to do what it’s supposed to do, but you are also not obligated to be part of it if you know yourself and your limitations.
There is no shame in admitting that perhaps meditation is not the right way to go for you, there is if you want to improve your life and you choose not to try all sound available options.
But because our histories and backgrounds are different, just as our genetic makeups are, and our experiences, educations, friends and family, problems and issues, interests and curiosities, etc.- it’d be irresponsible to say that this particular thing (or my particular brand) will work for you as it did for me. So I suggest that when you read this, you take it with a grain of salt, but that hopefully it will have sparked enough curiosity in you to at least give it a shot.
If anything I guarantee that you will at least feel good that you tried it. But should you do decide to stick with it, you will notice a definite change in your perception however small and insignificant it might seem at first. Read into the properties of meditation, the different techniques to achieve different things, and figure out what is most important for you and try it.
We all want good things in our lives. We want to live happy and free of worry. Of course life often throws us curve-balls that sometimes we can’t dodge. Happiness, after all, is neither eternal nor guaranteed. But maybe with a little help you can stretch out this elusive happiness a little longer by making sure it’s always at hand. And maybe this little technique that has been practiced for thousands of years can help you get there. But most importantly, hopefully it’ll help you stay there.